Teaching the Legacy: Sheikh Zayed Desert Learning Center

The Challenge

Concerned with the future of wildlife and nature in the United Arab Emirates, the late His Highness Sheikh Zayed established a unique zoo in 1968 where animals live freely, and endangered species thrive. However, growth was not always adequately funded or planned with a coherent educational theme or collection strategy. In 2005, a new organizational Board of Directors became instrumental in reshaping Al Ain Wildlife Park into a world-class living and learning destination.

Exploring Abu Dhabi’s environmental and cultural connections, extensive financial and intellectual resources were brought to bear on the proposed LEED Platinum and Estidama 5 Pearl certified Sheikh Zayed Desert Learning Center (SZDLC). With no blueprint to follow or like precedents, EDSA placed high priority on sustainability, resource-efficient design and conservation in creating an educational environment that captures the local landscape character and provides the public with a comprehensive and immersive experience.

The collaborative EDSA team identified where LEED and Estidama rating methods overlapped and adopted the more stringent metrics. The overall goal was to create a world-class site that stayed true to the late Sheik’s beliefs and continuation of a 40-year tradition of only taking what you absolutely need from the land.

Impacts at a glance

  • The (SZDLC) is the first building in the United Arab Emirates to earn an Estidama rating of five pearls as well as LEED Platinum certification.
  • With 1,000,000 visitors per year, the Center incorporates interpretive media, stylized sculptures, specimen collections and a large-scale theatre resulting in an educational landmark for sustainability that allows visitors to experience and build relationships with their surroundings.
  • The SZDLC has energy efficient, full cut-off lighting that protects the night sky, minimizes light trespass and uses only 48% of the allowable power output.
  • Overall water demand has been reduced by 59% with the incorporation of native plantings, drip irrigation, rain sensors and the non-irrigation of natural habitats.
  • In addition to construction jobs created and the use of locally sourced materials, the 137% increase in tourism and creation of nearly 500 permanent jobs at the Al Ain Zoo provide positive economic benefits.
  • Incorporation of high-albedo materials and shading strategies reduces the heat island effect by 99%.
  • While conducting valuable research to ensure their future survival, threatened and endangered species are being preserved within a natural context.
  • The planning and landscape design of the Sheikh Zayed Desert Learning Center highlights the zoo’s mission of wildlife conservation, environmental preservation and habitat restoration.


Unique Solutions

  • The topography and landscape design creates key habitat conditions and microclimates to support the varied needs of the plants and animals.
  • In addition to the complex spatial structure, extreme but justified future-oriented demands were made of building services, particularly in the areas of cooling, ventilation, energy supply and water efficiency.
  • A kinetic architectural promenade gives the building its ultimate form that responds to the imposing mass of Jebel Hafeet, a theatrical backdrop to the wildlife park.
  • The idea of geographic strata has been expressed through the building’s system of ramps and multiple levels. Nestled into the land and plantings, the building further emulates the natural world.
  • The SZDLC garden incorporates indigenous xeriscape areas where 60% of the landscape area uses only native species and the remain 40% are drought tolerant, locally adapted species.
  • While the planted areas showcase rolling earthworks and undulation, the hardscape surfaces and the guest circulation experience has been designed for ease of mobility and accessibility along with shade and covered seating at viewing nodes and overlooks.


With a total investment of around 60 million euros, The Sheikh Zayed Desert Learning Centre is the largest attraction of its type in the Gulf – showcasing the conservation efforts of the UAE and serves as a key destination for the Emirates and GCC nationals.