Animals come first in an Arabian desert sanctuary

Conservationist Ronel Smuts cares for exotic and endangered animals rescued from the black market.

The parrot met an unfortunate end. "It's a bit embarrassing," said Ronel Smuts, manager of the Abu Dhabi Wildlife Center here, suppressing a smile at the curious ways of fate. "Someone left [the parrot's] cage door open, and he got out and flew toward Zulu, the lion.... The parrot became a midmorning snack, and Zulu had a blue feather sticking out of his mouth."

Life can be tough on the edge of a desert emirate where Mr. Smuts oversees a menagerie of exotic and endangered animals rescued from smugglers, airports, bazaars, and palaces. Two African baboons were found in a car in Dubai; a jaguar was shipped in from Kazakhstan.

When they get here, the animals meet a South African divorcee with a tin feeding bowl and an ornery side who jokes – one assumes it's a joke – that she'll throw her crew, eight Arab men in khaki shirts and matching caps, into the crocodile pond if floors aren't swept and cages aren't repaired. Smuts has a soft heart for animals and a tart tongue for most everyone else. "The animals come first here, so I guess I'm not the easiest boss," she said.

Smuts has a royal benefactor, Sheikh Mansoor bin Zayed al Nahyan, a banker and equestrian with a place in line for the Abu Dhabi throne. His title makes swapping business cards intimidating, but His Highness is a conservationist with connections. When Smut asks for money, she receives it, and the two of them have planted grass, built pens, imported rocks to simulate African terrain, and pushed back the ever-encroaching desert sands.

"People keep asking me, 'Why are you doing this? You can't save the world. You can't protect all the animals,'" Smuts said. "But the one I can save, that's what it's about. Protecting that one animal. It's my path, and I have to walk it."

Smuts moved to the UAE 11 years ago with her husband, a South African pilot who trained Abu Dhabi police to fly helicopters. The couple split, but Smuts decided to stay.

In 2001, Sheikh Mansoor appointed her to run what became the Abu Dhabi Wildlife Center on the grounds of an old plant nursery. Many animals here were prizes on a black market fueled by war, corruption, and political unrest that can lead a poor Somali family or a Yemeni smuggler to sell a cheetah that will end up caged in a souk or a prince's courtyard.

"Why are we letting the number of animals go down?" she said. "Humans are just breeding and taking over the Earth. There aren't many habitats left. Why aren't we doing anything? It stresses me out." Hopping into her SUV, Smuts drives to the center's office, spotting more things that needed to be done but that would have to wait. Patience is the way of the desert, but Smuts is a woman who wants what she wants – now.

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