Many significant environmental events take place in May, as exemplified by the International Day of Migratory Birds on the second Saturday of the month and the International Day of Biological Diversity on the 22nd.
This year, the international community is celebrating the occasions by directing attention towards the pivotal significance of water for migratory birds. The events focus on the crucial measures needed to safeguard water resources and aquatic ecosystems.
As part of its Migratory Soaring Birds Project, the Ministry of Environment has orchestrated multiple festivities across several governorates, featuring natural reserves such as the Oxidation Lakes in South Sinai and the Ashtoum Al-Gamil Nature Reserve in Port Said.
The project aiming to protect migratory birds is funded by the Global Environment Facility and implemented in partnership with the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency, the UN Development Programme (UNDP), and Bird Life International and in collaboration with the Environment and Development Writers Society.
The inaugural festivities were initiated from the picturesque Oxidation Lakes located in Sharm El-Sheikh. This year’s celebrations were held in collaboration with the South Sinai reserves on the theme of “Water: Sustaining the Life of Birds”, emphasising the pivotal role played by water in preserving the well-being of avian species.
The Oxidation Lakes are a prime ecological attraction for tourists, thanks to their remarkable development and their serving as a testament to Egypt’s unwavering commitment to safeguarding migratory birds during their annual migration, said Yasmine Fouad, the minister of environment.
She said that Egypt’s geographical location endows it with exceptional significance for the birds, as it is the second most crucial path for migratory birds worldwide and serves as an aerial corridor that connects the three continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa.
During the inaugural event, Fouad reviewed prominent projects in the area including the renovation of the Oxidation Lakes, achieved through the enhancement of their water quality and coupled with the construction of seven additional lakes and a visitor observatory station specially designed to facilitate the observation of migratory birds.
Additional efforts have encompassed the development of the site’s infrastructure, such as the installation of identification boards, directional signs, and various visitor amenities, including recreational services and a pedestrian pathway, all aimed at providing an appealing and unique eco-tourism experience.
The minister said that these development projects had been executed in partnership with the Holding Company for Drinking Water and Wastewater under the auspices of the Ministry of Environment.
Fouad emphasised that the development of the Oxidation Lakes area was driven by the need to safeguard migratory birds from the hazards they encounter during their annual journeys in the spring and autumn seasons, including the impacts of climate change, and to ensure the availability of water, a fundamental component for sustaining life, to support their migration.
She added that the site’s development has emerged as a resounding success story and one showcased during last year’s UN COP27 Climate Conference in Sharm El-Sheikh. It has become a prominent attraction for visitors, particularly due to its inclusion as a tourist destination for observing and monitoring migratory birds, raising awareness of their global significance and advocating for their conservation efforts.
In collaboration with the Environment and Development Writers Society, the Ministry of the Environment also organised another event at the Ashtoum Al-Gamil Nature Reserve in Port Said to mark the International Day of Migratory Birds.
Osama El-Gebaly, Director of the Migratory Soaring Birds Project at the Ministry of Environment, stressed the pivotal role played by the Ashtoum Al-Gamil Reserve, which is renowned as a repository of biodiversity and has a crucial role in maintaining environmental equilibrium.
The reserve harbours an extensive array of living organisms, representing a biological treasure that contributes to the preservation of biodiversity. It spans 28 per cent of the area of Lake Manzala and is situated towards the western side of Port Said on the ring road between Damietta and the city.
El-Gebaly said the reserve has a crucial contribution to make to the fish production industry, estimated at approximately 25,000 tons and including both freshwater and saltwater fish. The reserve also boasts a diverse array of fish species, with 17 identified thus far comprising saltwater fish like mullet and spotted seabass, as well as freshwater fish such as green and white tilapia.
In addition to serving as a source of sustenance for humans, the reserve represents a vital component of the food chain, upon which numerous organisms depend for their survival. Moreover, it plays a crucial role in promoting public and animal health and serves as a way of assessing environmental impacts. It is home to 35 species of organisms, making it an essential component of the ecosystem.
El-Gebaly added that the reserve is home to 174 bird species, out of the 255 recorded in Lake Manzala. These include the black-winged Abu Yusr, the spotted fisherman, the plover, the spindle, and the Khudairi. The reserve annually hosts an estimated 224,000 birds, and monitoring efforts have identified five species nearing endangerment, with one already classified as endangered.
He said that the reserve encompasses a diverse range of habitats that support the lake and wetlands environment, such as local mudflats, sand formations, islands, water surfaces, and lake shores. The reserve boasts 77 recorded plant species, comprising 54 perennials and 23 annuals belonging to 30 families.
In terms of insect and spider populations, the reserve harbours both harmful and beneficial species, all vital indicators for environmental impact assessments.
Director of the reserve Hussein Mohamed Rashad said that it is a remarkable success story and is being run by the efforts of only nine researchers. It has also become a new source of national income under the banner of “Tourism for Observing and Photographing Migratory Birds”.
The reserve’s development has enabled it to emerge as a prominent tourist destination, attracting visitors from around the world to observe the diverse array of migratory bird species that inhabit it.
Rashad said that the reserve, along with the adjacent wetlands of Lake Manzala, plays a crucial role in mitigating the impacts of climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide and adapting to rising water levels. He added that Egypt is home to 15 lakes that have been overlooked by many, such as the Lake of the Sun in South Sinai, the Red Spring in Wadi Al-Natroun, Toshka (five lakes), Lake Al-Mallaha, the Siwa Lake, Lake Manzala, and the Lakes of Bardawil, Al-Murra, Edfu, and Mariout.
The Port Said governorate is currently gearing up to host the second edition of a festival dedicated to observing migratory birds, he said, following the success of the first, held in December as part of the governorate’s National Day celebrations.
Birdwatching tourism generates significant revenues for countries that invest in this type of tourism, he said, adding that the US generates around $40 million annually from it.
He also highlighted the monitoring and protection programmes implemented within the reserve, including the turtle conservation programme. “Port Said is a stop for sea turtle migration. There are two species of turtles in Port Said, one of which is the endangered green turtle, while the other is the large-headed turtle.”
“We prohibit the trade in turtles and prevent disturbances to their nesting sites. We also collect and number turtles before releasing them back into the Mediterranean Sea. So far, 12 turtles have been numbered, and hundreds have been released during the recent period.”
“Within the next two months, the reserve plans to establish the first sea turtle care centre on the Mediterranean in collaboration with the Ministry of Environment and a Spanish agency. Additionally, we run awareness programmes, especially targeted towards young people, aimed at reducing the cost of protection. We raised the awareness of some 10,000 youngsters and children about the issue last year,” Rashad said.
He recounted the story of the Indian Myna crow, also known as the Common Myna, which is an invasive bird species that has no natural predators. It closely resembles a parrot and emits equivalent sounds. The bird has spread to several areas in Egypt, including the Red Sea, where it has begun to cause problems.
It feeds on young birds, and there is now an initiative to limit its spread. However, some hunters breed the bird due to the beauty of its call, and it is sometimes traded as a parrot species, even though it is a crow.
Mohamed Sharif Taalab, a researcher at the reserve, said that the northern lakes and the River Nile are home to around half a million water birds.
Migration begins from August to December, and some of these birds settle in Egypt until March before starting their return journey. This extended stay provides an opportunity to observe them in their natural habitat, offering a unique advantage that has not yet been fully utilised.
The birds are characterised by their biological diversity, ranging from small birds like quails to larger ones like flamingos and pelicans. The reserve is located on the path of the third line of bird migration, while Lake Manzala is considered an essential site for other birds in Egypt, whether they are immigrant or resident species, Taalab stated.
It is also home to 5,000 of the 50,000 people residing in the Lake Manzala area. Their houses are made of simple materials, such as reeds and bricks. The main occupations of the local population are fishing and livestock rearing.
Another researcher at the reserve explained that Lake Manzala is the largest among the Delta lakes and is characterised by its diverse ecosystem. The Lake Manzala area was once fertile agricultural land, he said, with sand dunes separating the sea from the agricultural land.
However, over time, the area became submerged, except for the famous Tennis Island, which is now home to buildings, spacious markets, and numerous livelihoods, with palm trees, vineyards, trees, and farms dotting the landscape.
Mohamed Mustafa, director of the Planning and Training Department at the Ministry of Environment, said that the ministry would be working towards raising awareness about the International Day for Biological Diversity on 22 May and the World Environment Day on 5 June.
It plans to collaborate with civil society and utilise social media to celebrate these global events and promote environmental awareness, he said. Among the most important awareness programmes currently being undertaken are the Prepare for Green and Nature Back to Normal initiatives.
“The importance of the reserve lies in its role in maintaining the ecosystems of the protected area of Lake Manzala and preserving groups of endangered birds, whether resident or migratory during the migration seasons. The area is rich in birds that build nests to reproduce, making it an essential habitat for various species,” Mustafa said.
“The reserve also plays a vital role in preserving fish stocks within Lake Manzala, especially premium marine species, and protecting the vegetation cover spread across the Lake, including medicinal plants.”
“It also helps to preserve the Islamic monuments in the Tennis region that date back to the Ayoubid era.”
Mustafa said that “environmental awareness programmes are held for all segments of society to promote biodiversity conservation and environmental balance. The management of the reserve is collaborating with scientific institutions, particularly Suez Canal University and Mansoura University, to conduct scientific research and studies on wildlife preservation in the reserve and ways to enhance and develop it.”
“This collaborative effort aims to achieve some of the UN Sustainable Development Goals by balancing the needs of the local community with the conservation of the natural environment,” he said.
Atef Kamel, an expert on wildlife and natural reserves at the UN cultural agency UNESCO and the UNDP, said that Egypt’s unique geographical location has made it a destination for migratory birds, and the Nile Valley is ranked second among the best bird migration paths in the world.
He referred to the migratory birds that leave their breeding areas in autumn in Eastern Europe and Western Asia, travelling south to northern and central Africa in search of warmth and food. In the spring, they undertake reverse migration from Africa to their breeding areas.
During the autumn season, large numbers of migratory birds can be seen in southern Sinai, particularly in the protected area of Ras Mohamed, which serves as a resting and feeding spot on their migration path. In the spring, migratory birds can be seen on the coasts of the Red Sea, and smaller numbers can be observed in most parts of the country, Kamel said.
He said that many migratory birds spend the winter in Egypt, particularly on the coasts of the Mediterranean and Red Seas, and along the Nile Valley, especially in the south in Aswan and on Lake Nasser.
Among the birds that can be seen in large numbers are white storks, pelicans, plains buzzards, and honey buzzards. Some endangered birds can also be observed, such as the Egyptian vulture, once revered by the ancient Egyptians.
The Egyptian vulture is now considered one of the five endangered birds in Egypt, along with the free falcon, the eastern eagle, the great spotted eagle, and the bald ibis, Kamel said.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 25 May, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly