Working Wonders: The data ecology analyst on a mission to protect the UAE’s mangroves

    24 Jan 2024

    As a data ecology analyst, Amna Alhemeiri, 24, is among those helping to protect the UAE’s treasured mangroves and ensure that they prosper.

    The plants, championed by the UAE Founding Father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, are an iconic part of the country’s ecosystem and are viewed as crucial to the planet’s sustainability.

    Ms Alhemeiri works with Dendra Systems, a start-up that seeks to restore the balance of the natural world, including monitoring and restoring mangroves that grow along the coastline of the Emirates.

    She graduated from Zayed University with a degree in environmental sciences and sustainability.

    She is also currently pursuing a master’s in environmental sciences from United Arab Emirates University, specialising in microbial ecology, including those found in the Arctic.

    Here, Ms Alhemeiri describes some of her roles and responsibilities with Dendra – which has partnered with The Environment Agency Abu Dhabi and investment company ADQ to restore the ecosystem of Abu Dhabi’s mangroves and deserts – and her passion for the environment.

    What is it you do?

    Ecology lies at the heart of Dendra. We’re a team working in different fields, supporting the development of digitised biodiversity assessments for large-scale ecosystem restoration with the use of artificial intelligence and ecological techniques.

    This includes the identification and verification of aerial and ground imagery. Our eyes, which are the flight operations teams, capture drone data for us to assess.

    My role involves field visits for monitoring and ground “truthing” [assessing the accuracy of remote data], and research and development into the best practices for ecosystem restoration, utilising tools like machine learning and artificial intelligence.

    You will find me analysing maps, doing work on research and development and trying out new modelling systems.

    The most fun bit for me is the species identification of birds that reside in mangrove areas.

    How do you health check a mangrove?

    Once we have data to analyse, we look through maps and try to find target “gap” areas. We don’t just go out and spread seeds.

    We first do assessments, we go to the field to confirm what we’re seeing through the data. After seeding, dropped by drones, the most important part, in my opinion, is post-monitoring and fieldwork, to ensure that everything’s going the way it should.

    I go on pre-seeding field visits. We usually do a reconnaissance survey so we get a general idea of the area and we take samples if something interesting is happening.

    We’re writing notes, checking the tidal line, the health of the leaves and the mangrove roots. We check the soil sometimes. We always find a lot of crabs.

    Sounds like a team effort with technology help?

    We all work together to offer a unique approach to restoration with mangroves, currently just in Abu Dhabi, and arid ecosystems.

    If we attempted to do what we’re doing without drones and artificial intelligence, it would take a very long time to achieve about a quarter of what we’ve done so far.

    It’s also good to stay connected and go to the field. They’re very special [mangroves] and I am happy to work at a company like Dendra that is pledged to the Abu Dhabi mangrove initiative.

    Everyone comes together and puts all their ideas forward to try to make these mangrove forests thrive.

    Dendra, by doing large-scale ecosystem restoration, is fulfilling the country’s goals. My hope is we will restore healthy ecosystems.

    What sparked your interest in ecology?

    It started rather unconventionally. In 2016, I met the astronaut Charles Bolden at Khalifa University. I had asked him if he believed in aliens as a joke.

    He highlighted that any life form originating from outside of Earth is extraterrestrial and how scientists are interested in unravelling potential microbial life in extraterrestrial environments.

    I’ve always loved the concept of the stars and what’s beyond. But getting my degree in environmental science and sustainability shifted my focus back to Earth … I was marvelling at the life around us.

    When did you first come into contact with a mangrove?

    About 10 years ago on Sir Bani Yas Island, during a holiday. We had a little kayaking trip there. That’s when we saw them, with the sunset.

    I grew up in the desert and near the beach, but not near mangroves. They were always part of the landscape, however. Now, every time I learn more about them, I’m unravelling a new layer.

    The way the world works, is literally that micro-organisms are in every vital process there is in the environment.

    Throughout all the research that’s been done in the past few decades, we only know about 1 per cent of all microbes that exist on Earth. There’s so much to discover.

    In my dissertation in my undergrad [degree], I did my research on microbes that are in mangrove roots and mangrove leaves.

    I officially started my career in ecology at Dendra in March 2023. We have two offices and I’m also commuting between Abu Dhabi and Al Ain for my master’s studies.

    I also moderated POPCOPs, an actionist workshop at the UAE House of Sustainability in the Green Zone [during Cop28 at Expo City Dubai], which was managed by the Salama bint Hamdan Foundation.

    Is public appreciation for mangroves growing?

    The health of the mangroves is deteriorating because of natural factors and anthropogenic [the effect of humans on nature] factors.

    There are a lot of factors that can affect mangroves. Dredging, from what I know, affects their health because it’s happening right at the coast.

    Because of the efforts that are being put in to restore and plant more mangroves in the upcoming decade, I think people are starting to realise how important they are.

    Worldwide, mangrove populations are declining, but there’s a direct and invaluable effort being put in here to protect them.

    Everyone is always very impressed with what we’re doing and that we’re restoring an important ecosystem like mangroves. I hope no one underestimates them.

    We’re working along the entire coast of Abu Dhabi. It’s amazing to be part of it, for the country I grew up in. One of the main pillars is the environment, protecting it and being sustainable.


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