Hunting across Egypt: No quail in autumn?

Alyaa Abo Shahba and Mohamed Abo Leila, Tuesday 8 Nov 2022

Alyaa Abo Shahba and Mohamed Abo Leila travel to hunting areas across Egypt and find that flawed inspections and other problems may be putting some migratory birds at risk.



In 1962, Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz warned people about the possibility of the extinction of migratory quail birds coming to Egypt in his famous novel Al-Samman wal-Kharif (Autumn Quail).

In this book, Mahfouz compared the extinction of the idealism of the novel’s hero to flocks of quail going to their doom each year as they pass over Egypt.

Every year in September, quail and another 240 kinds of migratory birds fly from Europe to Africa passing through Egypt looking for warmer areas and hoping to return by the end of the season to their original habitats. However, in Egypt, quail are often eaten for food, and their decreasing numbers are putting them at risk of extinction.

Weak supervision and inspection and being scattered in numerous areas increase the chances of poaching and hunting migratory birds. This is despite Egypt’s commitment to international agreements to preserve the birds, as the country is the second most important route for migratory birds worldwide.

Egypt ranks as the first Arab country in terms of hunting migratory birds, followed by Libya and then Tunisia, according to a BirdLife International report for 2021. Egypt also ranks second in the Mediterranean basin in terms of hunting migratory birds, preceded by Italy and followed by Syria, Lebanon and Cyprus. The report ranks Egypt as the most dangerous place for migratory birds in the Mediterranean Basin.

Birdlife International is a global partnership of NGOs that strives to conserve birds and their habitats.

There are 34 sites for birds coming from Europe and Asia in Egypt, among them 15 important sites for migratory birds, with one of them being the Borollos Reserve. It is over 200 km from Cairo to Lake Borollos or about three hours by car. The present writers were accompanied by an environmental activist who preferred to remain anonymous. This person worked as our guide, providing us with information about the area and the hunting there.

We met our first bird hunter on the Baltim shore overlooking the Mediterranean. There were hunters there with five metre nets that violate hunting regulations.

Thabet Abu Zaid is a man in his sixties who inherited his hunting hobby from his father and owns a 1,000 square metre piece of land overlooking the sea where he puts his nets during the hunting season. He has permission to do so from the Border Guard Department, for which he pays LE100 ($5) for the season and then sets up the nets no more than 200 m from the shore. According to Thabet, most fishermen do not adhere to this distance, which was approved by the Ministry of Environment in the Official Gazette in September 2021.

Thabet explained how he hunts migratory birds, among them quail. “I used to catch around 200 birds a day, but now is the beginning of the season and I catch 50 quail a day. After that either I catch only one or sometimes none. People who use acoustic devices can catch dozens of birds,” he said.  

There is a lack of supervision in the use of these devices, which users put on the hills and not on the shore line. The annual hunting decree issued by the Ministry of Environment at the beginning of the season determines the distance that nets can be from the seashore. It used to be 500 m and then changed to 200 m in 2021.

The ministry justifies the amendment by saying that the distance in some places was within the range of lakes or residential areas. It has also been running a scientific study in cooperation with Nature Conservation Egypt (NCE), a local partner of BirdLife International, to determine the best distance and regulations for hunting.

ACOUSTIC DEVICES: The annual decree to regulate hunting issued by the ministry prohibits using ultrasound devices in hunting quail and other birds, which is why poachers fail to obtain official permits.

One of the hunters and the environmental specialist we interviewed said that hunting using such devices will eventually contribute to the extinction of the birds, among them quail.

The devices mimic the sounds of migratory birds, attracting them to where they are then trapped in gum-covered trees. The birds stay stuck for hours and may die before they are collected. They are then sold for around LE10 each to village traders like the one in the Mastoura village we visited, where there are an estimated 4,000 poachers in this village of 15,000 people. From there, the birds are sold locally or exported to the Gulf countries.

The Chinese-made devices contain 182 different bird sounds, and hundreds more can be downloaded. Although they are forbidden, they can be easily bought on e-marketing Websites like Amazon and Alibaba at prices ranging between LE2,000 and LE6,000.

We headed to the Mastoura village, which lies 48 km from the Baltim seashore, searching the alleys between the small white brick houses for a poacher in his 30s called Shaalan, a pseudonym, who sells and repairs these devices. He said that he catches around 300 different birds a day, including quail, ducks, pintails, garganeys, and greenfinches, and he offered to sell us a falcon, a bird that the Ministry of Environment has banned from hunting.

Shaalan poaches falcons from time to time, the last being in 2019, when he sold them for LE267,000 ($14,800), dividing the money among 10 partners who had stayed in the desert with their families for three months.

You cannot go to Mastoura without visiting the house of “the prince of migratory birds”, a trader in his 60s called Mohamed Al-Fallah. He has been a hunter for 54 years and describes himself as the “most important migratory bird trader in Egypt”.

Birds chirp inside cages hanging on the front of his house, and inside there is a wall of pictures of Al-Fallah with the peregrine falcons he owned earlier. Behind that there is a room with large refrigerators stacked with frozen birds. “There is no such thing as extinction. If God created something, it will never go extinct. God endowed us with the birds,” Al-Fallah said.