Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
23 - 29 December 1999
Issue No. 461
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

rare plants

Careful attention is being given to nuturing rare plants in the protected area

A novice samples nature

By Zeinab Abul Gheit
Front Page

One usually associates the Mediterranean coastal region with resorts, summer holidays, endless beaches and a turquoise sea. However, slightly inland and a mere 200 kilometres east of Marsa Matrouh, a totally different world is found at the nature preserve of Al-Omayed.

Here there are no men, women and children reclining or cavorting on sandy beaches, but rather an array of lizards, snakes and other reptiles basking on sun-baked rocks or escaping to the speckled shadows of wild plants. There are no boisterous ball games between youngsters, nor are there any noisy beach-buggies.

The only belligerency here comes in another form: wild birds attacking desert snails on a clump of plants, or two lizards quietly facing each other in threatened combat. In place of energetic bathers diving into the surf, a tortoise heavily weighed down by its shell drags its weary way across the scorched earth.

Al-Omayed's plant and animal thrived during the 1970s, but with the development of the northern coast, much of this natural wealth was depleted. By the 1980s its plant life, mammals, birds and reptiles were sufficiently threatened, due in part to the establishment of resorts along the Mediterranean and the intensive use of the area by the Bedouin -- precluding action on the national and international levels. Law 102 of 1983 provided for the administration of the area as a nature preserve and a field for research on its contents. Only three years later, in 1986, UNESCO added the area to its list of bio-sphere reserves.

My visit to the area was for the simple purpose of enjoying its unique natural beauty. Having climbed to the top of a rocky mound over 100 metres above sea level -- in an area where wind-blown sand filled depressions -- I was afforded a magnificent view of the protectorate. My eye fell on Bedouin houses, fig plantations, sand dunes, and the odd rodent, but alas, I was not rewarded with the sight of a single gazelle. The area is famous for these graceful animals but I had perhaps made my visit at the wrong time of the year.

The area possesses an impressive array of flora -- up to 130 perennials and over 75 annuals -- which are important to the traditional way of life of the area's inhabitants. Mohamed Abdel-Razek, professor of plant ecology at the Faculty of Science at Alexandria University and a scientific adviser for the nature preserve, explained that the plant life is used for pasture, fuel, construction material and medicine.

As for fauna, apart from gazelle, the protectorate provides a home for rabbits, desert foxes, and the peculiar mole-rat. Many of these animals are indigenous to the area, while others have migrated to the safety of the area as urban development encroached on their habitats. Birds, of course, are both resident and migratory.

I was struck by the wondrous combination of desert and coastal region features that make this preserve so unique when a fresh sea breeze churned up a sandy spray and my eye was drawn to the uniquely faded red colour of some wild plants against the sable coloured sand. These beautiful plants are also a reminder that parts of the desert environment undergo clear seasonal changes as they are bright red in mid-summer and rosy in winter.

Having passed an enjoyable day at Al-Omayed, I resolved revisit the area in the future, in order to explore the local village (inhabited by some 5,000 people, mostly farmers and shepherds), see the people's crafts and review the measures being taken to enhance their environmental awareness.

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