Al-Ahram Weekly Online   7 - 13 June 2012
Issue No. 1101
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Sinai's natural treasures

Mahmoud Bakr maps out the natural wealth of the peninsula

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A camel ride in the Sinai desert, a natural habitat for wild life

By virtue of Presidential Law 102 the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA) has the right to declare protected areas since the early 1980s as well as introduce resource management and conservation measures and enforce regulations to safeguard them. Ever since, experts in the Environment field has been striving to study means of how to best preserve Egypt's rich heritage.

Experts in the Ministry of Environment, (MOE) have long noticed that corals thrive only when at a safe distance from human activities. According to Mustafa Fouda, consultant to the Nature Preservation Sector at the MOE, the natural growth of corals in remote areas, such as Abu Ramada in Hurghada, is five times as much as in areas adjacent to human habitations.

It is a dilemma because you want the tourists to keep coming, but also the corals to thrive. Where exactly is the golden mean? This is the question that is always on the mind of MOE scientists. Assessment of the ecological capacity of diving areas near Hurghada and Sharm El-Sheikh suggest that with proper management, Egypt can offer tourists what they want without incurring lasting damage to its wealth of natural resources.

Examining the environmental impact on corals in 40 spots close to Ras Mohamed, MOE experts counted the number of divers and snorkelers who show up every year. In some spots, up to 70,000 dives were recorded annually, much higher than the recommended rate. To minimise the impact of nature tourism on sites, experts have divided diving areas into various categories and set standards for use in each category. Their findings suggest that only six spots were used at a rate exceeding that of the international average of 15,000 dives annually. In other areas, there is much room for expansion of the diving business without any lasting damage to nature.

Of the diving areas already examined, 60 per cent are in accessible areas and 40 per cent in protected zones. According to Fouda, visitors to protected areas pay up to $5 in entry fees, which translates into $4 million or so every year in revenue ê" most of which goes to maintaining the protectorate.

Egyptian nature protectorates are popular among tourists, says Mohamed Ibrahim, another adviser to the Nature Protection Sector. The areas of these protectorates are considerable, with Ras Mohamed and nearby islands covering an expanse of 850 square kilometres.

The mangrove forests teeming with life between Ras Mohamed and Al-Boweira offer a rich natural habitat for wildlife. In Ras Mohamed alone, many endangered species take refuge on the shores, including green turtles, echinoderms, and invertebrates. Rare birds including the Egretta Gularis and the Falco Concolor also inhabit the area.

According to Ibrahim, Ras Mohamed is popular because of its spectacular diving spots and also because of the fossils dating back thousands, and sometimes millions, of years. Because of the immense importance of the protectorate, the MOE has put together a comprehensive programme to guard the balance between touristic needs and ecological sense.

In North Sinai, Zaraniq and the Bardawil marshes offer habitat for thousands of migrating birds heading south in autumn. The sandbar between Lake Bardawil and the Mediterranean is also a natural habitat for green turtles. Sinai is transit or permanent home for 244 types of birds, including swans, ducks, quails, seagulls, as well as Syrian woodpeckers, spotted flycatcher, and corncrakes.

Forestation in Northeast Sinai covers nearly six square kilometres of sand dunes at 60 metres above sea level, with the most common trees being acacia, camphor, and cypress. The forestation is useful, says Ibrahim, because it stabilises the soil and offers habitat to many wild animals, including fox, sand cats, porcupines, wild hares, and various types of lizards.

Mohamed Salem is chief of the Nature Protection Sector in South Sinai. He says that South Sinai has many areas of interest to nature tourism, such as the plateaus of Sebayia, Arbiyin, and Shoreij near St Catherine, some of which are 1,500 metres above sea level. St Catherine itself is popular among tourists due to its spiritual history and proximity to Gabal Moussa, 2,285 meters above sea level.

According to Salem, the mountains of St Catherine were formed nearly 25 million years ago at around the same time the Red Sea came into being. The rocks in St Catherine are also exceptional, especially the grey granite which is almost 850 million years old, and the rose granite which is 530 million years old.

Tourists come to South Sinai because of its nature and unique history. The area is home to the St Catherine Monastery, the Moses Well, and ê" according to tradition ê" the burial sites of prophets Haroun and Saleh. In the St Catherine region, there are 25 indigenous species of mammals, 27 types of reptiles, 50 species of birds, and 40 strains of insects. Medicinal plants in this area have been used by locals for centuries, and the protectorate's administration is now in the process of documenting their types and uses.

The mangrove areas in Nabq are famous for being the highest in terms of altitude in the world, and the area is home to rare species of wildlife, including deer, hyenas, and many types of reptiles. The area is also a transit home for migratory birds.

On the coastal area of Abu Jallum, tourists enjoy safari trips, diving, and bird watching. The mountain areas near Abu Jallum are particularly rich with animal and bird life, according to Salem.

Meanwhile, residential areas such as Sharm El-Sheikh and Dahab are situated in the midst of nature protectorates on the Gulf of Aqaba, but the MOE is monitoring human activities in these areas to ensure ecological sustainability.

The Taba protectorate boasts extraordinary geological formations as well as 5,000-year-old archaeological sites. Wildlife is one attraction for visitors, but many also relish contact with the local culture of the Bedouin. Among the allures of Taba is a rock bearing ancient inscriptions, the mysterious dwellings known as nawamis, and the coloured canyon.

According to Salem, the Taba region is rich with sandstone and natural springs. It is home to 25 types of mammals, including deer, Nubian ibex, and red fox. There are also five types of birds, including eagles, hawks, and owls.

Visitors to Sinai have many choices. While some opt for relaxing at the beach, others take to the waves with relish, and another group ventures into the desert to explore the amazing rock formations and rich history. We need more of them to come and enjoy the scenery, but ministry officials are keeping their eye on the thin line between touristic development and ecological preservation.

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