Conserving the tree of the dunes

Posted on February, 19 2006

The ghaf is a native plant species of UAE, Oman and Saudi Arabia. This sturdy tree of the harsh desert environment is threatened by overgrazing, intensive lopping, and infrastructure development. WWF – UAE will promote public awareness on protecting ghaf and giving it National Monument status.

During long, dry periods, when much of the ground vegetation is dormant, the ghaf (Prosopis cineraria) spreads out its lush canopy…often laden with flower and fruit. The tree is one great survivor! Fierce temperatures, searing winds, high rates of water loss…the ghaf tolerates them all. A multipurpose tree of arid lands that is considered a solution to desertification, the ghaf stabilizes dunes while it improves soil. What is more, it propagates itself by providing new shoots from parent root systems. Identified with Arab tradition, it is not surprising that ghaf finds a place in folklore.

Today, however, the ghaf is being over-lopped and over-grazed to destruction. Ghaf groves are succumbing to urbanization and rapid infrastructure development.

“Scientists have long believed that ghaf trees in the UAE be declared National Monuments and be protected in light of their cultural, aesthetical and ecological significance to the UAE. Without such measures, the specie’s continued survival in the wild is questionable,” says Razan Al Mubarak, managing director of the Emirates Wildlife Society, an associate of the WWF – UAE.

Wild ghaf

An indigenous species, specifically, of the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Saudi Arabia, ghaf is a drought – tolerant, evergreen tree which is, possibly, the sturdiest plant of the harsh desert environment In the UAE, it can be seen growing on low sand dunes, undulating sand sheets and along margins of gravel plains mostly in the emirates of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah.

The presence of ghaf in an area indicates that there is water underground. The tree taps water stored deep in the sand, its roots penetrating as deep as 30 metres to access it. Thus, ghaf is able to withstand very low rainfall and still stay green. How long it can survive if groundwater itself gets exhausted, is yet to be determined.


Flowers, fruits, leaves, bark, branches and roots of ghaf – all provide resources and habitat for a variety of native fauna and flora, making the tree a keystone species; one that plays such an integral part of the food chain in an ecosystem, that if it disappeared, it would cause the ultimate extinction of other species in that system.

Many birds build nests on the ghaf - desert eagle owl, brown-necked raven, yellow-throated sparrow and long-legged buzzard are examples. Still others nest in holes along trunk and branches; and many more use the trees as roosts.

An added economic value of ghaf is as an ornamental in cities and towns, where it is being extensively planted.


The greatest danger to ghaf is from browsing by camels and goats; and intensive lopping to provide forage especially during summer. In some places degradation is so intense that ghaf regeneration has been totally eliminated. Moreover, as urban spread and infrastructure develops rapidly, ghaf trees often bear the brunt.

Excessive groundwater extraction is another threat. The effect of groundwater withdrawal on trees, in the long term, is uncertain; but could be harmful if extraction is from the soil layers that are tapped by tree roots.


For the UAE, an accelerating decline in ghaf trees and woodlands implies a loss in cultural and biological heritage. WWF - UAE believes that assigning ghaf the status of National Monument would underscore its aesthetical, cultural and ecological significance and lead to its protection. The conservation organisation will, with local partners, undertake a public awareness drive aimed at protecting wild ghaf.


• The EWS-WWF project on Ghaf Tree Conservation is being sponsored by the Al Fahim Group of UAE 
• Human inhabitants of the desert traditionally benefited from the ghaf and some of these uses still persist. Young branches, being highly nutritious, provided fodder for livestock. Goats and camels grazed on the ghaf and, even in present times, camel camps tend to locate in ghaf groves. Earlier, ghaf leaves were eaten by local people in salads, while its wood provided timber and fuel.
• Ghaf also grows naturally in the desert belts of India, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran.

For further information:
Rashmi De Roy, Communications, EWS –WWF
Tel: +971 4 3537761
Fax: +971 4 3537752

Ghaf trees growing on undulating sand sheets and dunes, Al Ain, UAE
© Christophe Tourenq

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