Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1393, (10 - 16 May 2018)
Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Issue 1393, (10 - 16 May 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Preserving Egypt’s nature reserves

As preparations continue for the UN Biodiversity Conference in Sharm El-Sheikh in November, major efforts are being made to protect Egypt’s nature reserves, reports Mahmoud Bakr from the Red Sea

Qalaan nature reserve

More travellers to tourist destinations rich in cultural or natural attractions can put pressure on such areas, paradoxically threatening the very things the visitors come to see.

Conscious of this and other problems, an Egyptian network to protect the country’s nature reserves called Oases of Hope has been established, and it is now developing in order to counter the challenges such reserves face and to protect their rich resources of indigenous species and rare plants and animals. 

Oases of Hope helps to protect Egypt’s natural heritage, which comprises 30 nature reserves making up 15 per cent of the country. The environment in Egypt is more volatile than in some other countries, which is all the more reason for the Ministry of the Environment to boost environmental tourism as a way of building the sustainable use of such fragile locations. 

A step in this direction took the form of a workshop and field trip to the Valley of the Camels Nature Reserve organised by the ministry recently. The four-day visit to the Red Sea city of Marsa Alam north of the reserve comprised a delegation of journalists in the fields of the environment, economics and tourism sponsored by Khaled Fahmi, the minister of environment, and supervised by Mohamed Shehab, head of the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Authority, in cooperation with the Regional Organisation for the Conservation of the Environment of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden (PERSGA). 

In a video call, Fahmi told the attendees at the workshop that the ministry had started coordinating with other bodies under the sponsorship and with the participation of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi for Egypt to host the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP 14), part of the UN Biodiversity Conference, to be held from 1 to 22 November in Sharm El-Sheikh. 

Egypt is the first Arab and African country to host a biodiversity summit of this size, and Fahmi said that “a new law for the protection of nature reserves has been sent to parliament for ratification that aims to establish an Authority for Nature Reserves with important roles and responsibilities.” 

COP 14 coordinator Hamadallah Hafez said that between “6,000 and 10,000 representatives from 196 countries will attend COP 14, together with UN and international organisations concerned with biosafety and international civil society bodies. Preceding the UN meeting will be an African ministerial meeting for biodiversity on 6 November, and a high-level ministerial meeting for preparations for the COP 14 on 7-8 November,” he said.

Egypt’s success in organising the event would translate into “more investment in the field of biodiversity and a chance at finding more creative solutions to safeguard the country’s nature reserves,” Hafez added. A major exhibition will be held on the sidelines of the conference to display Egypt’s efforts to protect the environment and shield its diverse ecology.

“As head of the convention for the coming two years, Egypt will have a major opportunity to protect its rights and those of emerging nations in biological wealth,” Hafez said. Egypt will also head talks to discuss the UN biodiversity strategy for 2021-2030. Hafez also said that Egypt should quickly sign the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit-Sharing before the commencement of the UN conference. 

“The conference will discuss the importance of integrating biodiversity with economic plans and development sectors such as agriculture, farming, forests, tourism, healthcare, industry, energy and housing. All these will benefit local communities, and losses of diversity will lead to the loss of natural resources and the emergence of environmental problems. The meeting will also discuss long-term strategic biodiversity plans and the hazards of climate change,” Hafez said.

The Valley of the Camels

NEEDS AND DANGERS: Mustafa Fouda, a counsellor to the minister of the environment, warned of the dangers of putting aside discussions on biosafety and access and benefit-sharing after 2007.

“Egypt’s delay in issuing these laws compromises its economic rights to its natural wealth and biological heritage. On an international level, this natural capital is estimated at $140 trillion annually, with international GDP standing at $100 trillion,” he said.

Investment in biodiversity and nature reserves in Egypt could add LE30 billion annually to the country’s income, Fouda said, helping to generate 10,000 job opportunities in nature reserves, improve the living standards of at least a million people inside and outside the reserves, and help establish an effective model of sustainable development.

Khaled Allam, head of Egypt’s Central Administration for Biodiversity, said that “tourism is a main pillar of the economy. Tourism based on natural attractions depends on preserving biodiversity and ecological systems to attract travellers. Revenues from tourism can help maintain fragile locations and guarantee long-term sustainability. To achieve this, biodiversity should be integrated in social and economic development policies, along with working to maintain sustainable production and consumption, and preserving natural locations and ecological systems.”

PERSGA coordinator of the biodiversity and nature reserves programme Maher Abdel-Aziz talked of the importance of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden as water resources that house high-value ecological components. “This is why PERSGA’s member countries situated on the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden put into action programmes to protect and develop these locations, raising awareness about over-fishing, and drawing attention to the value of these ecological components,” he said.

As examples, Abdel-Aziz said that “catching a shark may provide the fisherman with $120, but travellers watching a shark, which lives for between 20 and 40 years, can generate $200,000 annually, while scuba-diving to watch a shark can generate LE200,000 annually. Watching a dugong, whose lifespan reaches 70 years, can generate $189,000 annually. Watching a dolphin can raise $91,000 annually and provide 15 job opportunities.”

Mahmoud Sarhan, head of financial sustainability for the nature reserves project, spoke of plans to develop the reserves. “The plans started at Wadi Degla and the Petrified Woods site nearby, where 45 tons of garbage were removed. They are ongoing in South Sinai and the Red Sea, aiming at developing infrastructure, roads, lamp posts and road signs for the reserves. In less than a year, the first phase was completed successfully, attracting foreign and local tourists and events such as the 2018 Africa Mountain Bikes Championship at Wadi Degla in which 16 countries participated. The second phase has now started at a cost of LE70 million,” Sarhan said.

Ahmed Ghallab, head of the Red Sea Protectorates Sector at the ministry, explained the sector’s programmes to protect the natural wealth of the Red Sea reserves and programmes for breeding animals and birds threatened with extinction. There are also other programmes to increase the production of the rare medicinal plants for which the Red Sea protectorates are known. The sector has managed to eliminate the problem of the bleaching of coral reefs and control animal and bird hunting, he added. Fees have been imposed at nature reserves of LE5 for Egyptians and LE50 for foreigners.

Hossam Helmi, head of the Investors Association in Marsa Alam, explained that “27,000 employees work in 52 touristic resorts in Marsa Alam. The city houses 13,000 inhabitants, but 532,000 travellers arrive in Marsa Alam annually.” He said there should be less industrial activity in the city, which is known throughout the world for its natural beauty. 

Ababda tribesmen baking

VALLEY OF THE CAMELS: The journalists delegation headed to the nature reserves of the Valley of the Camels, Mahata Mountain, Qalaan and Honkorab. These areas on the Red Sea constitute a harmonious picture of mangrove trees, migrating birds, and vibrantly coloured coral reefs. 

“The Valley of the Camels National Park is located on an area of 7,450 square km. Its coast extends for 60km and its depth stretches to 60km into the desert and mountain valleys. Wild and marine creatures are highly active in the reserve, making the Valley of the Camels an enchanting amalgam of environmental, scientific and cultural elements, all intertwined to produce some wonderfully picturesque scenery,” said Mustafa Ali, head of the reserve.

“Close to the beaches live Bedouin communities that belong to the Ababda tribe. The area is also home to the Alpine Ibex, a species of wild goat, and the small Dorcas gazelle. Marine creatures include four species of crabs, whale sharks, the dugong and dolphins. There are more than 13 species of fish. Plants include more than 141 types, such as mangrove trees, swamp herbs and gingerbread trees,” Ali added.

“Sixty km into the desert lies the Roman temple of Skit. The park also houses the Hamata Mountain, one of the highest summits in the Eastern Desert. With its beaches and diverse coral reefs, the reserve is a favourite destination for scuba-divers and aficionados of marine activities.”

Ghallab said that rare plants such as mountain tea grew in the Valley of the Camels. “Italian and German travellers top the list of tourists who visit all year round. In the vicinity are five hotels that are almost fully booked during every season.” He added that “the Nature Reserves Administration is seeking to register the Valley of the Camels as a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its biodiversity and the existence of the Roman temple of Skit in the area.”

Ahmed Abdel-Razek, in charge of animals in the nature park, said that “the best time to visit is at sunset or sunrise in spring in order to enjoy the plants, animals and reptiles that can be seen at these times and to watch migrating and other birds. European travellers interested in environmental tourism visit the area to enjoy nature at its best and to have close encounters with rare species.”

Sea turtle

QALAAN NATURE RESERVE: Visitors sometimes say that this beach must have fallen from heaven. Shades of blue blend with the sky across the horizon, intercepted by mangrove trees in the water. 

The sea is breathtaking, with the water changing in colour from that of the sky to darker blue. The area is also full of mangroves, which provide energy for their respective ecosystems. Besides their crucial importance to the environmental system, mangroves add structural complexity and biological diversity to the shore-line. Juvenile fish seek the mangroves’ high biomass of food and find refuge from larger predators in their nooks and crannies.

“The Qalaan reserve is one of the oldest fishing villages on the Red Sea. It has been inhabited by Ababda tribesmen for hundreds of years who now live off fishing and tourism. Women in the area make handicrafts that express the culture of the Ababda tribe, and tourists flock to this area to mingle with the locals, enjoy the scenery, and swim in the turquoise waters of the Red Sea,” explained Abdel-Razek.

Ghallab said the ministry had allocated LE3 million to revive Qalaan to make it more tourist-friendly and service-oriented. “While preserving its unique Bedouin style, 18 new wooden houses will be built along with a solar-energy plant, electricity and sewage networks, and a water desalinisation plant. The residents will be provided with new boats.” 

Hamadallah Saad, a local resident, said he had been living in Qalaan before it was designated as a nature reserve. “At that time, we were only four houses living on fishing,” he said.

Head of the Nature Parks Division at the ministry Mohamed Salem explained that the older houses were made of materials from the sea. He added that at the moment “the Red Sea doesn’t produce enough fish because we don’t have ways to help feed the marine creatures. Fishing is currently banned during the months of July, August and September, while the fish reproduction season falls in April, May and June.” 

Mansour Said, another local resident, said that the inhabitants consumed eight tons of drinking water every four days. Fees should be imposed in return for amenities such as the camp site, baths and hosting services, he added.

The Valley of the Camels houses five islands, the biggest of them located five miles into the sea. It is off-limit to travellers because its ecological system is highly sensitive and has rare biodiversity. The island is inhabited mainly by sea crabs that have transformed its surface with small pyramids because of their habit of digging holes. 

Mohamed Obada, an environmental researcher, said that around the islands were rare coral reefs that were almost unbelievable in their beauty and vibrant colours. “The islands, named the Valley of the Camels, Um Al-Sheikh, Sial, Mahabes and Shwareit, have plenty of rare marine creatures including the dugong, sharks and sea turtles, in the surrounding waters. Satayeh, internationally famed for the presence of glass-nosed dolphins, is one of the main areas for such dolphins anywhere in the world.”

The Honkorab beach, also located in the Valley of the Camels reserve, is suitable, besides swimming, for a stroll along the white sands of the Red Sea. It won the world’s third-most beautiful beach award some years ago.

Obada said that the Valley of the Camels island, which the delegation visited by speed boat, “is the biggest assembly place for sooty falcons and green sea turtles anywhere in the world. The turtles nest on the island from May to October on nights with a full moon. Migrating birds lay their eggs on the island and wait for two to three months until the eggs hatch before they re-embark on their journey. There are also abundant mangrove trees,” he concluded.

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