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Boubyan Island and Mubarak Al-Kabeer Marine Reserve (MAKMR)

Date of Submission: 17/05/2017
Criteria: (ix)(x)
Category: Natural
Submitted by:
National Council for Culture, Art and Letters
Coordinates: N29 53 E48 07
Ref.: 6257

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Boubyan Island is comprised of pristine marine and terrestrial ecosystems and habitats of international and regional importance. It is the largest island in Kuwait with an area of 863 square kilometers, and is the second largest island in the Arabian Gulf. Boubyan is located in the most north-western point of the Gulf and includes the Mubarak Al-Khabeer Marine Reserve (MAKMR) - recently designated as a RAMSAR Convention Site, neighboring Warba Island and the open waters of its surrounding khors. The island is composed of marine silty-clay with low plasticity and alluvial sediment deposits accumulated from river flows of the adjacent southern Iraq delta system (Shatt-al-Arab). The site is generally low lying with intertidal flows breaching into some interior sabkha areas below mean sea level (the island’s terrestrial high ground areas range from 1 to 4 meters in height above mean sea level). The dynamic processes of high tides and increased current velocity in the far north reaches of the Gulf produced the special environment characteristics of the area. These processes resulted in a variety of terrestrial, intertidal and marine ecosystems populated with rich biodiversity.

This ecologically valuable area accommodates a range of habitats including an intricate network of tidal channels and creeks, shallow salt marshes, and coastal nabkhas, (all lined and populated with halophytic plant communities); as well as expansive intertidal mudflat habitats. These diverse Boubyan habitats are located at a “crossroads” of international bird migratory routes, centered in the intersection of three of the world’s important flyways (Central Asian, West Asian-East African, and Black Sea/Mediterranean) in the West Palearctic biogeographic realm. This key location provides essential breeding sites and abundant feeding grounds for significant populations of internationally important migratory birds and water birds, including some endangered, vulnerable and near-threatened species. The extensive intertidal zones also perform important ecological services and support biogeographically rare oyster reefs found in and around Boubyan’s khors. The marine fauna are diverse and are represented by nationally important commercial fin-fish and shrimp species, apex predator sea snake and dolphin species, as well as some threatened or potentially rare marine species.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

Boubyan Island represents significant, ongoing, and dynamic ecological and biological processes found around the islands’ coastline and especially concentrated westerly of the Shatt-Al-Arab and Shatt-Al-Basrah (i.e. the Third River) fresh water discharge areas at the head of the Gulf. The natural evolution of the island from these ecological processes combined with strong marine forces and geomorphologic influences are most prominent in the island’s northern environs of tidal channel areas and khor waters, defined as Mubarak Al-Khabeer Marine Reserve MAKMR. As a result of the specific/unique ecological processes, the biological processes evolved and developed special natural ecosystems capable of hosting rich and diverse marine, intertidal and terrestrial habitats and wildlife communities, especially avifauna of international importance.

Criterion (ix): The island’s key ecological processes and complexity of natural factor influences continue to shape Boubyan’s ecosystems and include deltaic sedimentation processes, counter-clockwise direction of the extremely strong of currents, strong turbidity, highest tides in the Arabian Gulf (3.5 to 4 meter amplitude), and semi-diurnal intertidal flooding of low coastal areas and interior sabkhas (extending more than 10 km inland). The extensive intertidal flooding regime dramatically changes the “land area” of Boubyan Island by about forty percent on a daily basis (from 863 km2 at low tide to approximately 520km2 at high tide). The inflow of fresh water during spring flooding of the Shatt-Al-Arab, creates an uncommon transition zone in the northern Arabian Gulf and tidal channels, resulting in reduced salinity levels that can be thirty-five percent lower than the surrounding Gulf sea water. Also, the tidal creeks, while narrow, have unusually deep pockets often exceeding 25 meters in depth. Additionally, the adaptation of the flora and fauna species to the harsh climatic conditions of the island representing some of the most severe extremes globally of temperature range, drought and solar radiation (i.e. ranging from summer high temperatures commonly over 50 deg. C. to some freezing conditions in the winter), make the Boubyan wetland environs a remarkable example for survival. The highly unusual combination of these distinctive ongoing ecological processes and natural factor constraints on Boubyan Island provide challenging conditions for its living organisms and their exceptional adaptation to the site.

Criterion (x):

Boubyan Island, with its khors, myriad of narrow inlets and nutrient-rich mudflats, provides highly significant habitats for in-situ conservation of biological biodiversity and the island’s threatened species. The island and surrounding estuarine habitats host and supporting 142 breeding and migratory bird species, 13 mammal species, more than 117 marine fish and invertebrate species, more than 500 combined species total of polycheates, crustacea, molluscs and sponges, and over 50 plant species. It has the largest known breeding colony of Crab Plover (Dromas ardeola) in the world, accounting ed for five (5) percent of the world’s population. It is the only known breeding area in the biogeographic region for the Slender-billed Gull (Larus genei), Swift Tern (Thalasseus bergii), and Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea), along with additionally regionally significant breeding numbers of Western Reef Egret (Egretta gularis), European Spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia), and Curlew (Numenius arquata). A small area of Boubyan’s extreme southern vegetated coastal terrain, rich in biodiversity, also provides significant foraging and roosting habitats for over forty waterfowl species including the Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus) and a rare large flock of Purple Heron (Ardea purpurea). Internationally “endangered” bird species observed on Boubyan include: Egyptian Vulture (Necphron percnoterus), Steppe Eagle (Aquila nipalensis), and the Great Knot (Calidris tenuirostris) as well as eight other “near-threatened” bird species. Examples of other marine mammals characteristic of the site include Indo-pacific humpback dolphins (Sousa chinensis), bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), common dolphins (Delphinus delphis) and the “vulnerable” finless porpoises (Neophocaena phocaenoides); and marine reptiles such as the blue-banded sea snake (Hydrophis cyanocinctus), an important “ecosystem health” indicator species. Prominent The intertidal species include the regionally threatened, small crustacean copepodes (Acratia), as well as an abundance of mudskippers (Boleophthalmus dussumieri), crabs (Uca lacteal, Diogenes and Macrophthalmus spp.), and mudsnails (Cerithidea cingulata). The surrounding island waters and khors represent a critical nursery area (due to the high numbers of juvenile species associated with these areas) for many commercial and other fish species such as the Silver Pomfret (Pampus argenteus), Saboor (Tenualosa ilisha), Nagroor (Pomadasys kaakan), Yellow-fin Seabream (Acanthopagrus spp.), Orange-spotted Grouper (Epinephelus coioides), Croakers (Otolithes ruber), Silvery-black Porgy (Sparidentix hasta), and the Indo-Pacific King Mackerel (Scomberomorus guttatus). The tidal channels and open water khors around Boubyan Island are also extremely important nursery grounds for commercial shrimps (Penaeus semisulcatus, Metapenaeus affinis, and Parapenaeopsis stylifera). Endangered fish species include the “vulnerable” Smoothtooth Blacktip Shark (Carcharhinus leiodon), and “near-threatened” Bull Shark (Carcharhinus leucas) as well as potential study of the data-deficient Pita Skate (Raja pita).

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

The Boubyan Island/MAKMR has an ecosystem that combines relatively undisturbed marine, brackish water, intertidal and terrestrial habitats supporting extensive and comprehensive biodiversity of international importance. This sensitive area is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Defense. It is protected under the Kuwait Council of Ministers, Minister Decision issued (23/2010) and modified in Decision number (1195/2010) to legally establish the northern region of Boubyan Island, Warba Island and the surrounding waters as the largest marine protected area in Kuwait (Mubarak Al Khabeer Marine Reserve) and is further designated as a marine reserve according to the decision of Environment Supreme Council No. 7/2016. The same MAKMR biologically sensitive wetlands area was also declared as a Ramsar Site in 2015.

The integrity of the island and its largely pristine ecosystem components have remained intact due to its isolation and inhospitable terrain (i.e. inundated coastline and flooded interior muddy sabkas) along with its continued military controlled access from the mainland and coastguard patrol of the surrounding marine waters, greatly reducing, if not preventing, any potential threat of human disturbance or intervention.

Additionally, to further maintain the islands’ integrity and special natural resource areas, any future land use or human influences on Boubyan are well defined in the island’s comprehensive, environmentally-driven Master Plan (2005) with accompanying environmental assessment and impact documents. Besides the State of Kuwait action to create MAKMP, protecting the most sensitive marine and terrestrial habitats in the north half of Boubyan, the master plan clearly designates that all restricted planned development on the southern part of the island be confined to designated minor area land use zones with a combined total of less than 12% of the total island land area, and be further constrained to small narrow footprints within those zones, positioned to allow for the continuance of all geomorphological processes and preservation of designated ecologically sensitive areas. Also, a new high security fencing separation barrier is to be installed with the implementation of the port transport corridor across the mid-southern part of the island, providing added protection for the sensitive northern MAKMR area along with increased military/security access controls prohibiting public access. The strategic environmental assessment document also recommends strict mitigation and protection measures that include: enforcement of an established “no fishing” zone around the island, requirements for protection and buffering of two smaller hotspot biodiversity areas identified in Boubyan; constructed wetlands as buffers to offset urban or port related infrastructure projects as well as increase and enhance available bird foraging and breeding habitat areas utilizing Boubyan native halophytic plants for restoration; and the preservation of mudflats along urban waterfront edges. The integrity and biodiversity of Boubyan is further enhanced by surrounding marine open water buffer zones of the Khor Abdullah, the Khor Al-Subiyah, and the Arabian Gulf as well as the property’s biogeographic linkage to the inland Ahwar (Iraqi marshes) through the Shatt-Al-Arab.

Comparison with other similar properties

A number of coastal wetlands and mudflat properties inscribed as World Heritage Sites were compared to the setting, scale, natural resources and ecological values provided by Boubyan Island. The Ahwar of Southern Iraq, a neighboring mixed use property, relied primarily on its cultural aspects of the Marsh Arabs for importance and inscription, as its natural site condition (which would be the comparison element for Boubyan) is currently degraded (and undergoing rehabilitation), resulting from the destructive draining of its marshes by the previous Iraq regime. In fact, wetlands and mudflat habitats of Kuwait, and especially in the Boubyan Island/MAKMR area, have fortunately provided critically important alternative staging, stop-over and breeding coastal areas in recent years for millions of internationally significant migratory birds of the western portion of the Central Asian Flyway that were unable to utilize the inland Iraqi marshlands.

Additionally, inscription of Boubyan with its pristine ecosystem and globally important avifauna habitats and staging areas, would provide increased environmental benefits/enhancements and ecological interactions supporting recovery of the riverine marshes of the Northern Arabian Gulf/Mesopotamian Delta biogeographic region. The same potential threats of reduced Tigris-Euphrates freshwater from upstream dam construction could affect Boubyan, but to a much lesser degree as it is still a predominately marine coastal water wetland ecosystem. The one comparative coastal wetlands property in the same biogeographical province, the Arabian Gulf, is Harra National Park, Iran (Tentative List). Harra is 823 km2 in size compared to the 509 km2 MAKMR Ramsar site area but is less than 3/4 the size when compared to the total Boubyan Island site terrestrial and marine combined area limits (close to 1100 km2). However, the Gulf waters around Harra have lower tidal amplitude than Boubyan and Harra is set in the more temperate, subtropical southern Arabian Gulf climatic location, while the Boubyan/MAKMR ecosystems have adapted to the much harsher desert conditions and climate of temperature extremes and drought found in Kuwait. The “harsh climate” rationale also applies to the other comparison properties that were selected globally, outside of Boubyan’s biogeographic zone/Arabian Gulf region. Banc d’Arguin National Park, Mauritania, is an inscribed coastal wetlands property location in a Saharan, subtropical zone of equatorial Africa, and sets precedent for inscription of a globally important avifauna property even with major, near-by infrastructure developments. Lake Ichkeul (Tunisia) is an inscribed North African inland freshwater lake property but with a substantial lesser number of annual international bird passages and important breeding populations than Boubyan/MAKMR. While not as large in area as the Wadden Sea, a serial transboundary property with northern temperate coastal wetlands and one of the largest intertidal mudflat areas in the world (over 11,000 km2), Boubyan Island is a single property of substantial size and included within the boundaries of one small country, not distributed across three countries. Boubyan is also comparable with the inscribed Wadden Sea property’s global standing in diverse range of transitional habitats, world importance of migratory avifauna and richness of fish and invertebrate marine life and nursery grounds. Similarly, Boubyan has prominent and biogeographically distinctive oyster reefs (Sarccostrea cucullata) associated with its intertidal mudflats. The outstanding value and uniqueness of Boubyan is that its comparable ecosystem and biodiversity occur in one of the world’s most inhospitable arid climates as opposed to the temperate, cooler climate zone in northern Europe. Also, to protect key ecological processes, features and values, the inscribed Wadden Sea has to control a much more complex and intrusive set of impacts from human use such as multiple harbor developments, marine traffic, oil and gas rigs, wind farms, fishing, residential and tourism development than the limited, isolated and restricted (by comparison) future land and marine uses allowed on Boubyan Island. Sunderbans National Park (Bangladesh), a large deltaic wetlands and mangrove inscribed property, is only half the land area size of Boubyan and represents a biodiversity value primarily associated with, and focused on, a large mangrove community and habitat. Boubyan has a comparable formation history from a large delta, a competing labyrinth network of tidal creeks and water channels, equally important on-going ecological processes and range of similar-type habitats of estuarine saltmarshes and mudflat areas that support rich biodiversity and internationally significant migratory and breeding birds (accounting for approximately 75% of Kuwait’s total), all without the risk or threat of cyclones or tsunami/tidal waves.

In summary, Boubyan Island with its special combination of marine, intertidal and terrestrial components that evolved in one of the world’s most extreme arid climates, under highly dynamic tidal flooding conditions and location specific ecological processes, has resulted in an exceptional ecosystem that provides a critical variety of essential habitats sustaining globally significant avifauna and distinct marine life, including threatened species, in a part of the world with a relatively low percentage of World Heritage inscribed natural sites.