Though the Coronavirus pandemic has, by and large, exposed the fragility of human life, there’s been one unanticipated side effect seen the world over: animals are reclaiming their space on earth. Whether it’s underwater or high in the sky, the slowdown in human movement and reduction in pollution-causing activities has seen animals thrive.

“We have seen animals exploring areas they normally wouldn’t due to human activity, noise and pollution, allowing us to appreciate their wonder and beauty. We have also seen air pollution improve due to less travel. But there appears to also be an increase in single use items again such as disposable masks, gloves, cutlery and takeaway containers,” says Nathalie Banks, founder of UAE-based marine conservation organisation, Azraq. “[However], I refute the statement that humans are the earth’s virus. While human activity has negatively impacted the earth’s resources, humans have consistently shown that they can come together for good.”

Part of Azraq's work is raising awareness on the UAE's rich marine life, including the humpback dolphins endemic to the region.

Azraq – the word for blue in Arabic – was founded in 2018 with a focus on marine conservation after Banks moved to the UAE from Australia where she worked in the conservation sector and had started an organisation dedicated to protecting sharks. Since then, Banks and her team of volunteers have been working hard to educate and mobilise civil society and public organisations alike to focus on preserving and cleaning up bodies of water so their natural ecosystems can thrive.

“We do a lot around education; if you’re educated, you’re more likely to understand where the problem lies in order to create change. So I guess we’re in the game of change really, because we’re asking for people in some ways to make a change of behaviour or be educated on an issue that they may not already be educated on,” explains Banks on how Azraq operates.

I refute the statement that humans are the earth’s virus. While human activity has negatively impacted the earth’s resources, humans have consistently shown that they can come together for good.

We’ve all seen shocking photos of garbage ending up in the world’s seas and oceans, entangled with helpless marine creatures who are seeing more and more of their natural habitats spoiled by man-made waste. Marine debris is perhaps the most visible way we can see the harm modern life is inflicting on sea creatures, and for that reason, it is the lynchpin of Azraq’s activities. It is estimated that 44% of all marine mammals have plastic in their digestive system – and that number shoots up to 86% in turtle species. In fact, 8 million metric tonnes of plastic get tipped into the world’s seas and oceans every year. Organising awareness campaigns and, most critically, clean up events is one of the ways Azraq tries to tackle this on a local level.

“People have started to see [marine debris] as more of an issue, and have started to discuss it more, whether in the media or around the kitchen table,” says Banks. “Awareness doesn’t always mean change, though. And that’s where we’ve had our hardest battle. Convenience comes into it, priorities comes into it. If a person is below the poverty line, they probably don’t care about single-use plastics.”

Mangroves, the so-called 'roots of the sea', were once dismissed as swampy wastelands, but the 4,000 hectares growing along the coast have come to be recognised as one of the UAE's richest natural resources, and guardians of marine ecosystems.

Though affecting behaviours might be tough, especially as the entire world has a lot more pressing concerns to think about right now, the Azraq team continues to press on with their mission. Among their most successful activations was the ‘Stop Sucking’ campaign, in which they teamed up with the popular Freedom Pizza restaurant chain to discourage the use of straws and other single-use plastics. It wasn’t long before this campaign took off, and several other restaurants and hotels in the UAE followed suit.

The team at Azraq always pay special attention to the unique ecology of the UAE, launching campaigns that aim to educate the public on some of the country’s native species. “Arabian humpback dolphins are endemic to the region. So we wanted to raise awareness of these amazing creatures that are unique to the Gulf, ensuring that there’s education about the importance of their role, and protecting these amazing animals,” explains Banks, adding that the novelty cuteness of dolphins has been a useful entry point when discussing the importance of marine conservation with the many school children they work with. Similarly, Azraq has turned its focus on the native mangrove trees, leading mangrove planting expedition where volunteers can see firsthand the huge amount of wildlife these beachy forests support.

Awareness doesn’t always mean change, though. And that’s where we’ve had our hardest battle. Convenience comes into it, priorities comes into it.

There’s no slowing down for Banks and the Azraq team, and their efforts are quickly being recognised around the world. In fact, Banks has been invited to speak among the most prominent names in conservation, including the iconic Jane Goodall, with whom she shared a panel with twice. “Jane has a wonderful ability to speak with passion and experience on tough environmental topics without judgment or fear and hold the room completely still, while she shares her knowledge and life experiences. It was a true honour and a privilege to share the panel discussion on climate change with Jane Goodall and to realise we also share the same views,” says Banks.

Azraq's latest campaign, #MyBagAintPlastic, takes on the persistent problem of plastic bags. The UAE alone uses around 13 billion plastic bags a year – many of which are used once and then disposed of. “Less than 1% of all bags sent to recycling plants worldwide end up being considered suitable for recycling. Most bags end up in landfills and waterways for hundreds of years, leaching toxins into water supplies and blocking local drainage systems,” says Banks.

In order to mobilise more Emirates residents to ditch plastic for environmentally-friendly materials, the campaign asks people to submit their designs for a reusable tote bag in a competition that will be judged by representatives of Azraq, conscious beauty brand Lush, and the editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan Middle East, Mili Midwood. The campaign also includes a downloadable letter format so that anyone can send a written plea to their favourite retailers to encourage them to ditch plastic bags.

“All events and activities have been cancelled to prevent the rapid spread of COVID-19. This means the services element of Azraq, such as school presentations, beach cleans and mangrove tree plantings have been put on hold. This gives Azraq an opportunity to pursue opportunities that we hadn’t considered before, such as utilising online tools,” says Banks.

You can keep up with Azraq's latest campaigns and cleanups here.