Jebel Ali School makes waves in the UAE with remarkable wildlife record collection

Jebel Ali School (JAS), a historic British-curriculum institution in Dubai, has taken its growing love of the natural world to the next level by coming together to collect over 3,600 local wildlife records during a recent week-long ‘bioblitz battle’.

This remarkable achievement accounts for an astonishing 10 percent of all citizen science observations previously recorded on the global iNaturalist platform in the country, making it one of the largest ‘citizen science’ events ever witnessed in the region.

A bioblitz – a collaborative citizen science endeavour – is a race against time. Participants strive to identify and record as many different species of living organisms as possible within a set timeframe and specific location. A bioblitz battle transforms the concept into a game, offering an exciting opportunity for students and parents to forge deeper connections with the natural world.

Alan Smith, Sustainability Lead and STEAM Teacher at JAS explains the importance of providing opportunities such as bioblitzes: “True sustainability starts with a love of the natural world. As Sir David Attenborough says, ‘No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced’. I passionately agree and believe that without opportunities and encouragement to notice, understand and enjoy the natural world, why would people want to reduce, reuse, recycle or go out of their way to live sustainably? It’s all about inspiring our students and parents to understand that nature is incredible, and we are part of it”.

In October 2023, Jebel Ali School began their quest to deepen their engagement with local wildlife in their very first bioblitz, coinciding with the commencement of COP28. Across five days, school families ventured into gardens, parks, beaches and wadis in pursuit of species to document with the iNaturalist app. More than 30 families joined in and actively contributed to the initiative, generating almost 400 observations. This promising start not only marked a significant milestone, but also addressed a worrying trend that Alan had observed in his classes.

“In a Year 4 lesson I planned early in Term 1, I was astonished to find that not a single student in three consecutive classes knew that the seashells I had brought in to school actually came from animals. Every single one of the 75 children had just assumed that these beautiful, diverse mollusc shells from our local beaches were simply ‘part of the sand’, or created through some form of wave pressure. It was immediately clear there was important, and urgent, work to be done”.

Subsequent worldwide bioblitzes followed during the school holidays, allowing participants to share captivating sights such as dolphins in New Zealand, elephants in Sri Lanka, blue rollers in the UAE and puffball fungi in Austria. Interest surged and word spread. By March 2024, bioblitzes had firmly established themselves as part of the Jebel Ali School culture, with nearly 2,000 observations amassed and around 800 species documented.

The school then recognised an opportunity to elevate these bioblitz events and approached its Parent Teacher Association (PTA) with a proposal to fund a custom-built web app to infuse a fun, competitive element – introducing points for species depending on how common or rare they are, as well as bioblitz teams and a live league table. Research underscores the mental and physical wellbeing benefits of spending time outdoors and fostering a connection with nature. These innovative, fun, communal events – aimed at boosting the wellbeing of all involved – also benefit the future wellbeing of nature itself. Moreover, scientists around the world use iNaturalist data for research and conservation work, so individuals participating in bioblitzes transform into real ‘citizen scientists’ and make valuable contributions. Recognising the significance of this initiative, the PTA agreed to support the project, with the results proving to be nothing short of remarkable.

On March 15th, JAS embarked on its inaugural  ‘House Bioblitz Battle’. In this competitive exploration event, dubbed ‘Nature Wave’, the school’s four house teams – Air, Earth, Fire and Water – set off from the starting blocks. With school families, teachers and support staff now snapping quick photos of insects and birds between lessons, and parents racing out the school gates to drive to places like Al Qudra Lakes, bioblitz fever took hold of the school. Parent and PTA member, Aysin Ulug Pekince, comments: “The House Bioblitz Battle helped us realise that even a dry, hot desert has a vibrant ecosystem. It has positively impacted our mental health by piquing curiosity and encouraging outdoor ventures. Taking action with our children – in the name of science and our environment – has been incredibly enjoyable”.

A highlight of the weekend included a couple of families stumbling upon a sighting of a very rare mammal on the outskirts of Dubai. Surrey, a student in Year 5, recounted the experience: “I spotted it near Al Qudra Lakes. It was drinking water and my dad mistook it for a deer but then we realised it was actually a Patagonian Mara, a cross between a rabbit and a capybara. It was really cool because it’s very rare. “

As the week drew to a close, families rallied together, taking their children to wildlife hotspots around Dubai. With a dramatically close finish – Water House winning by a mere few points – the week concluded on an exhilarating note. Together, in the name of sustainability, fun, wellbeing and community, Jebel Ali School had amassed an impressive tally of over three and a half thousand iNaturalist wildlife records. More than 160 families participated, forging a wonderful bond with local nature. It had been one of, if not the biggest wildlife event of its kind, ever, in the UAE.

Principal, Mr. Simon Jodrell, emphasised the rationale behind such events: “Building a sustainable future and cultivating sustainable habits have been at the heart of student initiatives at Jebel Ali School this year. The bioblitzes have supported our students’ understanding of the importance of preserving our planet, its natural resources and protecting the habitats of plants and animals in the United Arab Emirates and beyond”.

An exciting Nature Wave ‘Bioblitz Blast’ against SAFA Community School is scheduled before the summer break, supported by the Desert Vipers cricket franchise, pioneers in sport sustainability. Looking ahead, there are plans to extend similar Nature Wave opportunities to other schools, with local bioblitz leagues and competitions in the pipeline.

From a school once largely disconnected from nature, unaware of the origins of seashells, Jebel Ali School has undergone a remarkable transformation and is now fully emersed and impassioned in the natural world.

Image Credit: Jebel Ali School

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