Scientific Name: Prosopis cineraria
Arabic Name(s): Ghaf, Harb, Awd, Hadheeb, Shibhan, غاف
“There is a popular saying that death will not visit a man, even at the time of a famine, if he has a Ghaf, a goat and a camel, since the three together will sustain a man even under the most trying conditions.” – unknown
The beautiful, valuable Ghaf is the evergreen tree of the desert! In 2008, it was declared as the national tree of the UAE because of its great cultural and traditional significance. The Ghaf is a drought-tolerant tree, able to withstand the harsh desert environment and still remain green. It can be found on low sand dunes and its presence is an indicator there is water underground. The Ghaf can live up to 120 years!
Why are they important in the environment, natural heritage, to humans?
The Ghaf plant is a keystone species having multiple beneficial uses from combating desertification and improving soil fertility in arid environments to being an essential food source, as well as a source of fuel, shelter and medicine for both humans and animal species. Many birds build nests on the Ghaf - Desert eagle owl, Brown-necked raven, Yellow-throated sparrow and Long-legged buzzard are examples.
It was sought by the Bedouins for its seeds and its leaves were once used instead of rice, its extended pods provide food for animals which in turn supply milk, butter, cheese and meat. The Ghaf woodlands also support large populations of insects, which in turn provide food for reptiles, birds and small mammals. This sturdy, evergreen tree can withstand prolonged drought and high salinity, tapping water deep in the sands. The seedpods of the Ghaf contain a sweet pulp, locally known as “khoka”, which are also eaten by nearly all livestock and humans, and salads can be made from the leaves – this is actually considered a delicacy here in the UAE! Other important uses include providing wood for construction and medicinal properties, as it is recommended for the treatment of chest congestion, toothaches and even snakebites!
Threats and solutions
The tree is under threat due to:
- Urbanization and infrastructure development resulting in habitat loss,
- Overgrazing by camels and goats,
- Climate change,
- Excessive groundwater extraction around the trees,
- Overuse of its resources (i.e. wood and leaves),
- Invasive species, such as the Mesquite tree from Central America that was intentionally introduced to help forestation efforts in Abu Dhabi but ended up contributing to the threat of the Ghaf by suffocating it
However, this doesn’t end on a sad note! In response to all of these threats, measures are being taken by government, non-government and private entities to protect the future of the tree! It has been made illegal to cut down a Ghaf tree and organizations such as Goumbook, a UAE-based social enterprise, are also supporting the cause since 2010 by launching the ‘Give a Ghaf’ Tree Planting Program as a not-for-profit initiative to raise awareness about the problem.
Back in 2007, Emirates Nature, formerly known as Emirates Wildlife Society, and the World-Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) launched a campaign called “Save the Ghaf Tree”, which aimed to make the endangered tree a national symbol and to raise awareness about it among UAE residents. The campaign was well-received and a big success, as almost 1,000 trees were planted and the Ghaf was declared the national tree the following year!
Efforts were and still are under way to look after this precious tree and YOU can do your part to help the Ghaf!
Two nature sites where the Ghaf can be found are: