Nature Stories of Egypt
by Dominique Krayenbühl
When Sherif Baha El Din says “there’s an interesting story here”, he may have in mind a community of a couple of hundred geckos living and breeding on an isolated outcrop in open desert that never venture more than a few hundred meters from their rock. The story speaks of a time when there was higher rainfall, and this place in the Egyptian desert was connected by trees to the broader world. The trees died but the gecko microcosm kept life going here for thousands of years. And then uninformed people come who see in the boulder a mere construction material, they quarry it and there goes that story.
Beginning from his youthful interest in wildlife, Baha El Din has become a major figure of nature conservation in Egypt. He participated in designing and assessing Egypt’s protected areas to help nature communities in the desert and in other biomes survive in a world under intense human pressure. He is also the author of a number of books on wildlife, including A Guide to Reptiles & Amphibians of Egypt.
Baha El Din’s own story starts in Ras Ghareb, a small town on the Red Sea where he was born and spent his childhood. With nothing much happening there, he had the leisure to discover wildlife. “For some reason”, he says, “I became obsessed with tortoises and snakes.” He found very few reptiles but started to notice birds. In his father’s library was a book describing 50 English birds, but many were not present in Egypt. When the family moved to Cairo, he acquired a guide of Egyptian birds in Arabic. He would carry this heavy sparsely illustrated volume with him together with a pair of old binoculars to look at birds. He would try to identify them by piecing together his observations: “It’s less than 5cm, it has a thin beak, it’s grey here, it’s green here. I think it’s probably that bird.” He comments, “I often say that I invented bird-watching on my own”.
On one of his visits to the Cairo book fair in search of nature books, he discovered a comprehensive English bird guide. At the end of it were useful addresses including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in the United Kingdom. He wrote to them and one day received a letter asking if he could accompany a couple of English ornithologists on a visit to Egypt. He led them to his favorite bird-watching spots around Cairo. They went to El-Shams Club, but also to an area where canals carrying Cairo’s sewage to the desert had created a vast and lush jungle of casuarina and eucalyptus trees hosting lots of birds. This outing was a breakthrough in Baha El Din’s budding career as a naturalist as he discovered the existence of fellow bird-watchers.
In his early twenties, he co-authored Common Birds of Egypt with Bertel Bruun, a Danish-American ornithologist. He produced the Arabic text and the illustrations. He remembers with amazement, “I sat drawing and drawing quickly full time for a couple of months”. First published in 1982, the book is still in print today in a revised version. In 1983, Baha El Din founded the Ornithological Society of Egypt with a group of Egyptian naturalists. By then he had linked up with the International Council for Bird Protection, now BirdLife International, and had also started getting involved in national and international monitoring activities.
Then came the really big event in his life when he met Mindy Rosenzweig, an American-born ornithologist, in Egypt to set up an educational center at Cairo’s Giza Zoo. “Mindy and I got together to write a book about where to watch birds in Egypt,” he recounts. They married and teamed up as Egyptian wildlife researchers and activists, carrying out extensive field work, then published in scientific journals. However, they never finished the bird site guide. As Baha El Din explains ,”Every time you find a site and you describe it, in a year or two it’s gone, it’s destroyed, the map has changed.” And so Baha El Din shifted his focus from species to habitats, which have their stories too.
One of them is about the oolitic ridge that formed a very special landscape between Alexandria and Marsa Matrouh. It was made of sand and seashells geologically compressed into a permanent dune where rare plants and lizards lived, and migratory birds could rest. Then developers cut it to make white bricks, and built holiday villages over it. Although books list it among Egypt’s ecosystems, it is gone along with its fauna and flora. Unlike wetlands that can regenerate fairly quickly given the right conditions, this special formation which evolved over hundreds of thousands of years is not going to come back.
Some fascinating stories survive like the lichen forests that grow along an extensive band north of the Qattara Depression. Baha El Din narrates how these lichens are very well developed thanks to plentiful dew from the Mediterranean, sun, and a good limestone substrate. Billions of white desert snails graze them, coloring the whole desert in white. It’s an interesting ecosystem because the lichens grow on dead snail shells whose calcium they ingest and then living snails eat them. The snails act like little sources of water, which they supply to lizards, rodents, foxes and birds that eat them. Baha El Din warns, “Something like this can disappear very easily through quarrying, off-track driving and land development”.
If you know the stories, he says, you feel the pain when they are destroyed. There are still not enough people who accept that we are part of the ecology of Earth, he continues, but Nature is very powerful and can reclaim things. The price of doing things badly will be paid by this generation or the next. Hopefully we will learn and take responsibility.
Baha El Din is currently president of the non-governmental organization Nature Conservation Egypt that he co-founded in 2005. He is also involved with training Egyptian bird monitoring teams in connection with energy infrastructures. This provides work to local people who may also join the conservation movement. On a personal note, Baha El Din says that he was very lucky to have this enthusiasm for wildlife because it structured his own life and helped him get out of his shell to meet people with similar interests. “You want to just go, do things, find this bird”. He wishes every child, indeed everyone, to have this passion for something which “drives you to just focus on what you want to do”.