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By Chere Di Boscio
He was known as the world’s most important buyer of art and antiquities, having stocked the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha with precious artefacts that have made it the world’s leading Islamic Museum. He purchased treasures for the five galleries known collectively as the National Museum of Qatar, which opened to the public in 2008. For these, he obtained Islamic art and metalwork, Quranic texts, jewellry, decorated weaponry, tiles and gold vases, Mamluk glass, manuscripts, photographs, pottery and much more. He had an excellent eye, and quickly became renowned as something of an expert in Chinese and African objects d’art. But what few people know is that the late Sheikh Saud Bin Mohammed Al Thani, who suddenly passed away at the age of 48, was also a dedicated wildlife conservationist.
This is something of a rarity in the region. While many billionaire Sheikhs keep exotic animals on hobby farms, the animals rarely receive the attention and care they deserve and need. Moreover, they’re kept for private amusement, with little regard for the animals’ well being whatsoever, and worst of all, when the owner of the farm passes away or even merely gets bored, the animals are often–horrifyingly–put down.
When Sheikh Saud inherited his father’s hobby farm–Al Wabra–however, felt it could do much more to help animals, so he reformed the 2.5 km space and dedicated it farm–and, a large part of his life–to species conservation. Today, Al Wabra mainly focused on threatened antelope and parrot species, but also many endangered Arabian animals, such as Sand Gazelles and the Arabian Oryx.
Although Al Wabra has had great success with numerous endangered animals, the reserve is most noted for developing a captive breeding program for the Spix’s Macaw, a species of parrot now extinct in the wild and once considered “the world’s most endangered parrot species.” The Sheikh was completely entranced by these exotic birds, and made it his life’s mission to ensure they weren’t wiped off the face of the Earth.
He hired a crack team of international vets, biologists, zoologists and keepers, and purchased millions of dollars’ worth of veterinary medical and laboratory equipment to ensure Al Wabra became a state-of-the-art breeding and research centre for all of its fragile, endangered wildlife. He built designer enclosures specifically for the needs of each species and ensured the reserve had the best quality animal foods, orphan nurseries, climatisation, and even an artificial rain machine for animals to counter the harsh summers in Qatar.
Arguably, Al Wabra received its greatest stamp of approval was when it was visited by the BBC Natural History Unit. The Unit included Miles Barton, a BAFTA award winning producer who helped create iconic productions like the Life of Birds, Life in Cold Blood, the Natural World, and Frozen Planet, to name but a few; cameraman Gavin Thurston, sound editor Chris Watson, and even Sir David Attenborough himself. Known and admired by millions– if not billions–of people around the world, Sir David is truly an icon, and came to film some of the animals, but left impressed by the Shiekh who shared his passion for conservation.
Although Sheikh Saud has passed away, his conservation work lives on. His children are passionate about continuing to fund the great work he has started, and are even planning to expand it, investing in educating young people about the importance of wildlife and nature, and helping to increase the public’s awareness of environmental issues.
The Sheikh was known to be a quiet, reticent man, who rarely discussed personal issues, but for us, his generous, gentle treatment of animals and his passion for their conservation speak volumes about his true character.