Golfers and Gazelles: Nature and Development on Saadiyat

Picturesque rolling hills and vast expanses of neatly trimmed grass bordered by sand dunes covered with overgrown wheat and shrubs lie on the northern ...

Nov 29, 2014

Picturesque rolling hills and vast expanses of neatly trimmed grass bordered by sand dunes covered with overgrown wheat and shrubs lie on the northern end of Saadiyat Island. It’s an unnatural and unexpected sight on a desert island that, for the most part, is a barren, sandy landscape peppered with construction projects.
The Saadiyat Beach Golf Club, frequented mainly by European expatriates, is a respite for flocks of herons, larks and terns and, in particular, a herd of approximately 30 gazelles who roam the golf course. The course, which spans from the west side of the St. Regis Saadiyat Island Resort to east of the Park Hyatt Hotel, is surrounded by vast construction sites for residential complexes destined to join the empty suburban villas next door.
The gazelles seem to have become an ordinary aspect of life at the golf club. The gazelles often graze at the far end of the driving range, surrounded by golf balls, oblivious to the fact they are in the direct range of golfers. Although fearful of humans, they have become desensitized to the humming sound of the golf carts.
In 2012, the Saadiyat Golf Club published an article on its website acknowledging the presence of gazelles on the course. They have actually taken steps to co-inhabit the space with them and were praised by the Audubon Society for their efforts to accommodate the local wildlife.
“Gazelles frequent the golf course in our native areas, which are strictly no-play zones. Although these animals are very timid, they now appear to realize which areas are the no-play zones and enjoy feeding on native forage,” said Director of Agronomy Marcus Hartup.
Security Guard Ram Mahey said that gazelles have lived on the island long before any significant development projects took place. They used to frequent the sandy expanses near the NYU Abu Dhabi campus before major construction projects on the island began. Gazelle hoofprints can be seen across the island.
The Gazelles are progressively being marginalized by the encroachment of urban development. Yet, gazelles have great historical and cultural significance in the Arab world and, in particular, Abu Dhabi, where they not only act as a symbol for the city but have played a significant role in its discovery.
In Abu Dhabi, legend has it that a group of Bedu hunters from Liwa followed the tracks of a gazelle to the coast in search for water. They found that the animal had crossed a shallow creek to a nearby island and tracked the gazelle to a small spring.
“While the fate of the gazelle disappears from history books, the hunters are said to have reported back to their chief, Sheikh Dhiyab bin Isa,” wrote Silvia Radan for The Khaleej Times. “Recognising the importance of the discovery of fresh water on the island, he instructed that a settlement should be founded there and declared that the name of the island should be Abu Dhabi — father of, or possession of, the gazelle.”
There are two words that mean gazelle in Arabic. The first is dhabi which refers to antelope, gazelle, deer, fallow-deer, stag or elk. The second is ghazal which means gazelle, but also refers to a type of romantic poem about forbidden or unobtainable love.
There are several Arab constellations that refer to gazelles. The most famous being the Three Leaps of the Gazelle. It is a set of three pairs of stars, which represent the tracks of a gazelle, symmetrically positioned in a diagonal path between Ursa Major and Leo. These hoofprints are also considered the feet of Ursa Major. One myth about this constellation in Arabic folklore explains that the tracks belonged to a gazelle that was once startled by the lion as it drank from a pond near the lion’s lair. It sprang up and leapt across the sky from east to west leaving impressions in the mud. Seeing these stellar tracks is a reminder that soon the ground will be softening as February slowly gives way to March.
With the onset of rapid development on Saadiyat Island, it the future of its gazelles is unclear. The gazelles are drawn to the Club’s course because of its ample foliage and lush landscape. Yet, as timid and anxious creatures, they are threatened by the presence of golfers, maintenance men and vehicles.
Miraflor Santos is a staff writer. E-mail her at
gazelle logo