Explainer: Red Sea’s most endangered species in Egypt

Zeinab El-Gundy , Tuesday 18 Oct 2022

On the occasion of the 27th session of the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP27) scheduled to be held in the city of Sharm El-Sheikh on the Red Sea in Egypt in November, Ahram Online shares a list of the most endangered species in the Red Sea and the related conservation initiatives.

Red Sea
A file photo of coral reef in Egypt s Red Sea. Photo : AFP


The group of species at risk listed below are based on the internationally recognised Red List for endangered marine species worldwide issued by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a 1948 global nature conservation heavyweight that is composed of both governments and NGOs.

Sea turtles (green sea and hawksbill sea turtles)

For decades, there has been a myth in Egyptian coastal cities, on both the Red and Mediterranean seas that the blood of a turtle (tersa) gives health and immunity against diseases, though such folk tales never came into play in dealing with threats besting the sea turtles.

Despite the fact that sea turtles have been living on earth for 200 million years, witnessed the extinction of many animals, and seemed tolerant and adaptable to extreme climate changes, only recently a huge decline in their numbers and gatherings has been noticed around the globe due to one main weak point they have: nesting on sandy beaches.

According to professor of Marine Biology at the University of Suez Canal Mahmoud Hanafy, there are five types of marine turtles in the Red Sea, of which two are among the top endangered species: the green sea turtle and the hawksbill Sea turtle.

“They both nest on the beaches of the Red Sea governorate, specifically at the Red Sea isles and that is why those isles should be under protection,” Hanafy told Ahram Online.

The Red Sea governorate officially has 39 sea isles and most of them are already nature reserves.

The green sea turtles, for example, dig a hole and nest their eggs and then they head back to the sea while the eggs stay in the nest for 50-55 days before hatching. The hatchlings head east to the seawater where they grow and live in the sea for over 25 years till they become adults and they repeat the cycle.

“The mother turtle returns to the same beach where it was hatched as an egg to lay its own eggs like its mother, and this is how those turtles are connected to those sandy beaches,” the professor of marine biology elaborated, adding that the nesting place of those turtles became their own challenge.

It has been a challenge since “beaches now have their economic importance for tourism as well as industrial and coastal development,” he said.

Hanafy explained that more people now live by the coastline near to the beaches, and more hotels and resorts arebuilt on the beaches while other beaches are turned into ports, leaving a smaller place for female turtles to nest.

If the turtle returns to its nesting and hatching beach and finds that it was urbanised, it has only two options; it either nests the eggs in the water or it re-absorbs the eggs back into its body.

“When we destroy a place for turtle nests, we destroy the ability of turtles to reproduce for survival,” he added.

“The nesting beaches represent places with huge values and when human activities increased on their beaches, the nesting beaches deteriorated.”

Egypt prohibits the sale and hunting of sea turtles according to local laws as well as in accordance with international treaties.

In 1978, Egypt was one of the first countries to sign the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to protect endangered plants and animals from the threats of international trade.

Egypt’s Nature Reserves Law 102/1983 prohibits the activities that destroy, damage, or degrade the natural environment, wildlife, marine life, plant life, or affect their ecosystem.

It also prohibits the hunting, transporting, killing, or disturbing wildlife or marine life organisms in those reserves.

Environment Law 4/1994 prohibits hunting, killing, or catching wild birds and animals or species threatened with extinction.

Penalties for breaking the law range from financial fines --between EGP 500 and EGP 50,000 -- to prison sentences not exceeding one year.

The country's Dar El-Ifta, the highest institution for religious edicts based on Islamic Sharia, prohibits the hunting of sea turtles.

Recently the Egyptian Ministry of Environment in cooperation with local animal rights activists managed to save several sea turtles and return them to the sea before they were sold in the market.

The Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association (HEPCA), Egypt’s prominent marine environment NGO, launched in the past decade several projects and initiatives including Turtle Watch, Turtles of the Red Sea, and Beach Nesting awareness campaign.

In cooperation with several beaches and hotels, HEPCA launched a campaign to preserve the nesting places of turtles on urbanised beaches by creating a safe zone for turtles and their hatchlings.


The dugong

The dugong, which is commonly known in Egypt as “mermaid” and sometimes “sea cow”, is one of the most endangered marine species worldwide due to the loss of seagrass habitat because of coastal development and sea pollution.

“This marine mammal is an endangered species, but studies on the Red Sea concluded recently that dugong numbers began to increase when it was widely believed it began to disappear worldwide,” Hanafy said.

The professor believes that the numbers of dugongs began to increase again in Egyptian waters due to protection when people began to release how it can be an important source of income for the Egyptian economy. 

“One dugong in the Red Sea governorate’s Abu Dabbab Bay can generate alone $1.8 million from divers and snorkellers who come from all over the world to see it,” Hanafy said, adding that those mammals presented a huge economic opportunity for Egypt.

“The dugong must be protected,” he said, adding that Red Sea fishermen do not eat it and believe that fishing it was a bad omen, unlike in other parts of the world.

In 2007, HEPCA, Egypt’s Ministry of Environment, and the Red Sea governorate came up with a management strategy to protect Abu Dabbab Bay and its inhabitants, including sea turtles and dugongs.

Whale shark

Whale sharks, commonly known as “Bahloul” by local fishermen, are the largest known extant fish species. The largest confirmed whale shark had a length of 12.65m (41.5 ft) and a weight of about 21.5 tons (47,000 lb), while its height commonly ranges between five to 10 metres.

They are a top endangered species. The whale shark's appearance in the Red Sea is an annual phenomenon, especially during the start of the spring season in the Red Sea and during the summer in the southern parts of the country.

Several whale sharks have been spotted in the Red Sea since July 2016. Sightings have occurred at Port Ghalib, the Fanous area, and between the Geftoun islands, according to the management of Red Sea wildlife reserves.

“The whale shark is not a predator type, on the contrary, it is a filter feed creature, which means it feeds by straining suspended matter and food particles from water, typically by passing the water over a specialised filtering structure,” Hanafy explained.

Hunting and fishing are the main challenges facing whale sharks.

Hunting the whale shark is prohibited in Egypt, as the animal is considered an important part of the Red Sea ecosystem.

The Napoleon fish

According to Hanafy, Egypt used to have huge numbers of Napoleon fish in the Red Sea, but their numbers dwindled thanks to illegal fishing.

“Sometimes it gets tangled in fishermen’s nets,” he told Ahram Online, adding that it must be protected in accordance with the law and international treaties.

Since 2004, the Napoleon fish has been listed as endangered on the IUCN's Red List of Endangered Species.

Egyptian divers have repeatedly warned of the disappearance of the giant fish, which is also an attraction for foreign divers.

In 2017, the colourful fish made national headlines when it was found that a Red Sea hotel presented it on its menu. The Ministry of Environment opened an investigation into the matter reminding, the public that it was prohibited to fish a Napoleon.

Not endangered, but still on the concerned list


Despite not being an endangered species, dolphins are currently facing huge pressure, according to Hanafy, as they represent economic opportunities as a tourist product.

“Most people are protecting them in the Red Sea,” he said.

One single dolphin can generate $91,000 annually as a tourist product, providing many jobs starting from trainers, divers and drivers, he explained, citing studies conducted in Egypt about the dolphin house area in Samadai natural reserve.

Coral reefs

The Coral Reef of the Red Sea is probably the last surviving coral reef in the world, with almost all the other reefs dying due to climate change.

“The tolerance of the Red Sea’s reef to climate change and its rising temperature is remarkable, unlike in Australia, which lost over 50 percent of its great barrier reef,” Hanafy explained.

He has been demanding the protection of Egypt’s coral reefs.

Currently, HEPCA in cooperation with IUCN launched “Bleach Watch Egypt” as part of the Climate Change and Coral Reef. Coral bleaching is the result of rising water temperatures and herein comes the importance of coral monitoring and care.

Bleach Watch Egypt launched a series of workshops and training for a coral monitoring programme along the Red Sea coast and other activities to educate divers and trainers.

For the time being, the Red Sea seems to be the last fortress against climate change, but no one knows if it will remain standing while Earth’s temperature keeps rising.

Short link: