Creature comforts

By 2015, the Al Ain Wildlife Park and Resort will be 20 times larger than its original size. What does it take to operate such a beast of a project, and how will the 4000 animals waiting to be exhibited to the public adapt to their new Arabian environment?
Creature comforts
AWPR director of facilities and asset management, Charles Donald joined the project in 2007.
By Staff Writer
Mon 04 Oct 2010 04:00 AM

By 2015, the Al Ain Wildlife Park and Resort will be 20 times larger than its original size. What does it take to operate such a beast of a project, and how will the 4000 animals waiting to be exhibited to the public adapt to their new Arabian environment?

The management and maintenance team of a residential building don't, generally, have to worry about occupiers running wild in the corridors, or eating people as they exit their homes. They will also be safe in the knowledge that the population of that building will be controlled by its inhabitants and that those inhabitants will, in all likelihood, clean up after themselves.

Managing a facility full of animals, however, is rather different, as FM experts at the Al Ain Wildlife Park and Resort (AWPR) have come to learn since the facility first opened its doors in 1968.

Established by Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, AWPR ran under the Abu Dhabi Municipality until 2005, when it was decided that the emirate's executive council would take control over operations. It was at that time that plans to turn the park into a sustainable leisure and learning destination began to take shape.

The wildlife centre currently exhibits between 600 and 800 animals but, in three years time, the 40,000m² site will be expanded to 20 times its original size, with over 4000 animals on display.

The current site will become off-limits to the public, and contain facilities management offices, a centre for waste management, warehouses for storage and animal holding and breeding centres.

"We intend to construct our FM hub in the back-of-house area. It will house our FM call centre, which will receive calls from every part of the business," says AWPR director of facilities and asset management, Charles Donald.

"One of our biggest stakeholders is the public of the UAE. We see the park operations people, together with the animal and horticultural people, as being in the front line of guest services. As an FM department, we see ourselves as being the first line of support to these clients and help them deliver those guest experiences."

Donald joined AWPR in 2007 and now operates four business units, including the control division, which is responsible for setting up strategies, contracts, policies, procedures and document control for the project; FM operations; logistics, including fleet management, storage and security; and conservation.

"The first thing for me was to look at the facilities management team that we had and make an assessment of where we were in terms of our facilities and resources, in order to prepare the strategy for FM moving forward," he says.

The director and his team began to engage senior engineers of various disciplines and appointed Mace Macro International as an FM consultant. Mace has a resident representative on-site, which helps support the development team in delivering the project.

In addition, AWPR signed a 20-year agreement with San Diego Zoo in 2008. "They provide a resource for us and we can consult them on any aspect of FM - in particular, the management of facilities that are designed to house and breed everything from smaller animals to large cats," says Donald.

"Part of what we do is different to what most other FM clients do; we deal with animals, and it's a tricky business."
Animal transportation

Before construction of the new development could begin, animals populating the site needed to be moved from their pens and into the back-of-house area. The same process will be carried out when it comes to moving new animals into the completed areas of the project.

"We use runways for the movement of animals. These runways could start from one enclosure and connect to another enclosure 3km away," explains Donald.

"We slowly acclimatise animals to start to eat inside the runway and, once they are inside, we close it off. The animal management team would then move them along by making load noises so the animals would run to the distant enclosure. We try not to dart any of them unless it is absolutely necessary."

Most of the wildlife park's new inhabitants have already arrived in Al Ain and are currently sitting in paddocks on-site. According to Donald, these paddocks, which were historically used to display the creatures, are not suitable for the holding, breeding and management of animals. "We can't catch them and trim them," he says. "So we are transforming this area so that that the paddocks are smaller. A modern facility will not just have giant paddocks like we have now. Instead, the FM team, in collaboration with the San Diego Zoo, is starting to design an up-to-date animal and breeding centre."

The design of the new centres will also make it easier for AWPR managers to separate the animals in order to control species population.

Phased introduction

The project, which is themed around the deserts of the world, is set to be completed in three phases. The first phase will include the Sheikh Zayed Desert Learning Centre, which will provide a historic context of life in the region. This 100,000m² museum is being built by Zublin.

A 210-room hotel, an African Safari, restaurants, retail outlets, an amphitheatre for bird and mammal shows and two World Deserts filled with botanical and wildlife from Africa and the UAE will also be built in the first phase, which is set to be completed in 13 months time.

Future phases of the project will include 1000 residences, which will be built around the perimeter of the park; Arabian and Asian Safaris; plus Arabian, Asian and Sonoran World Deserts.

Before animals are exhibited to the public in their new environments, they must go through an acclimatisation period.

"We have a quarantine area where new animals stay," explains Donald. "We have 4000 animals, and we need to keep them as disease-free as possible. When new animals arrive, they are likely to transfer diseases to other animals if they haven't been quarantined."

Landscaping and horticulture

As with the animal-management team, the FM department also works closely with the horticultural team to control the introduction of plants, from various parts of the world, into the project.
"What happens is our plant-procurement team will go on to these sites, purchase the plants and then ship them to us, usually in an open container. They try to do that during a rainy season so that plants are kept irrigated. The plants are then housed in a shaded area so they get used to the temperature before being moved into sunnier locations," explains Donald.

"Just like a human's skin, a tree or cactus will burn and, if it burns, it is likely to die, so they need around six months to go through a hardening-off process, before the growing begins," he adds.

Hardening-off gradually exposes tender plants to wind, sun and rain and toughens them up by thickening the cuticle on the leaves so that the leaves lose less water.

At present, the project's construction site is quite barren, but shrubs, shoots, flowers and trees are waiting and acclimatising in nurseries for future planting in the completed project.

Some of the specimens, however, are so large that they must be planted before their surroundings are constructed.


Another fundamental issue that the AWPR has to contend with is security. This is not unusual, of course, but then most operation managers don't have to worry about protecting humans from animals and vice versa.

"We have had incidents before where there was a suspected animal escape, and we then faced the difficulty of communicating between the animal keepers, the veterinarians, the operations people, security and the public," says Donald. "This has to be very well planned, especially if the animal that has escaped is a dangerous one."

In an attempt to provide a more natural habitat for animals, whilst providing security to the project, visitors at the new zoo will be able to view animals over high moats and trenches rather than through glass and metal bars.

Residences are also connected to main roads on the edge of the resort so occupiers aren't in danger of coming face to face with animals when exiting the park.

A further challenge faced by the team is cleaning enclosures without maintenance staff being affected by the animals.

"Contractors are seldom expected to work within the animal enclosures while there are animals present. This is only possible for certain species and limited tasks. In all such cases, members of the animal management team are present. More commonly, we exercise our standard operational procedure of having animals relocated or kept within bedroom areas while construction or maintenance works are going on," says Donald.

All contractors must also go through an induction programme that ensures that they are aware of the type of things that could potentially distress animals, such as noise and movement.

As the AWPR is owned by the government of Abu Dhabi, the FM team is encouraged to outsource services wherever possible.

"We operate a wildlife facility with many requirements for highly-specialised work. In many cases, the private sector can provide a high quality of service through qualified and experienced partners from the private sector," says Donald.

"The intent of the government is to take commercial advantage of competitive bidding for services, and identify qualified, experienced partners from the private sector," he details.

Contracts for the completed project are currently under negotiations with service providers for cleaning, security and integrated pest management.


There are a number of demolition sites where the project is being expanded. In one area there used to be a dog-race track and a Houbara Bustard cage, which was built in the 1970s under HH Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan's orders.

"The Houbara Bustard is a migrating bird, most of which have been hunted to extinction. So a cage made out of concrete and wire was built for breeding the creature. It was massive - 500m long, 50m wide and 10m to 15m tall. This has been demolished, along with the older animal enclosures made out of chain-link fence," explains Donald.

These building materials didn't go to waste. On the contrary, debris is currently being pulverised by rock crushers and, in the future, the mounds of sand will be used to build roads or to make cement, etc.

"We work very closely with the Centre for Waste Management, which is responsible for waste management throughout the emirate. We have also established an on-site waste-transfer station," says Donald.

Five hundred trees have also been salvaged and will be replanted as the project progresses. "The shapers have come in and scaped it all and left as many trees as they can. What happens is that they're boxed - dug out of the ground, put in a crate, lifted by crane and transported by a truck to a temporary nursery."

Sustainable initiatives being implemented elsewhere in the project include the Sheikh Zayed Desert Learning Centre, which is set to achieve LEED Platinum status, and the ultimate rating from Estidama, 5 Pearls. The centre incorporates a range of energy-efficient measures, including solar panel arrays, grey-water recycling systems, low-flow water fixtures, special climate control systems, and a host of other energy-saving systems.


Once the project is completed, visitors at the wildlife centre will be able to find refuge from the sun in cafes, kiosks and nocturnal houses. The zoo will also incorporate misting systems to cool both humans and animals down.

"Some people come to our park unprepared. We are thinking about only opening in the evening next year because people don't understand the intensity of the heat," says Donald.

"A lot of it is about controlling the hours we are open, both for the animals and the people," he concludes.

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