A Cloudy view of environment progress over the past year
By Richard Hoath
dear, O dear. The environment. Egypt. The past 12 months. It is difficult to take any positives as other issues have completely eclipsed environmental concerns. Politics, the economy, law and order, security, civil rights or lack thereof and other issues have cast a huge shadow over environmental concerns in 2013. But that should not have been the case. Environmental concer
ns are not just about protecting rare animals, especially the fluffy and the cute — that may indeed seem peripheral to everyday concerns (though I argue not so). Environmental concerns are about access to clean water, to clean air, to less traffic, less pollution and to a cleaner and more sustainable life for all. That has not happened.
When ex-president Mohamed Morsi came to power in 2012, he made sweeping and extravagant “promises” that he would fulfill within his first 100 days of office, promises that pledged a near Utopia for Egypt’s human population but precious little for the environment. Those promises infamously came to nothing and like the economy, law and order, women’s rights, inclusiveness and unity, things got steadily worse in the first half of 2013 on the environmental front.
When I went down to Tahrir Square on the morning of February 1
2, 2011 I was so enormously heartened by what was happening. After the euphoria I had witnessed the night before, here was an immediate positive. As I wrote in my journal “Already there is a massive clean-up operation underway …the clean up continues with gangs of volunteers, seemingly from all backgrounds, sweeping and gathering garbage…government employees as well.” That now seems a long, long time ago.
By June 2013, my ring road commute was marked by huge piles of fetid garbage being burnt in the streets, black clouds of smoke billowing in scenes akin to Armageddon. The Egyptian people had been promised clean streets. Within 100 days. The opposite occurred.
And it was not just in Cairo. I went to Alexandria in April with a group of people most of whom had never been to the city before. The Corniche, demonstrations aside, was magnificent but a façade. Everywhere else was garbage, hidden beneath that environmental anathema, the plastic bag. Or rather millions of them. This was not the Alex my fellow visitors had battled through The Quartet to witness.
Outside the cities, the news from the Protected Areas and National Parks has be
en uniformly grim — much reported in this magazine. From Lake Nasser there has been widespread reporting of bird hunting — more of which soon — but also of the illegal hunting of the iconic Nile Crocodile for the pet trade and the killing of adults using cruelly baited traps.
In Sinai, the situation is uncertain. I have not made my annual October trip to North Sinai’s Zaranik Protected Area over recent years.
The security situation has deteriorated to that degree. Reports fro
m the Protected Area 34km west of Al Arish have been depressing. Spare a special thought and some appreciation for the rangers and wardens of these areas who are desperately trying to maintain some degree of protection against enormous odds.
Hunting has returned to Fayoum on Lake Qaroun — as if it really went away — though the NGO Nature Conservation Egypt seems to have been successful in halting the development of a vast Vegas-style hotel complex Porto Fayoum on the north shore of the lake.
The Red Sea shore has not been so lucky. While tourism is still way down, tourist development is seemingly booming. While Fayoum has so far avoided the Porto treatment, the same group’s monolithic monstrosity of a mall and hotel south of Ain Sohkna is at the crest of a tsunami of development that has irreparably changed the character of the coast very much for the worse. Side wadis I have had fond memories of exploring and camping in are now choked with landfill or clothed with concrete.
The same is true along the North Coast, one of the most important habitats in terms of biodiversity within Egypt’s borders. Such gems as the Thekla Lark and the Four-toed Jerboa may soon be a memory if the development continues unabated. But the biggest story from the Mediterranean coast is that of the wholesale decimation of migratory birds.
Exposed by a German television crew this spring and widely publicized by the German group Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU) and by The Guardian and Egypt Today, the slaughter of migrating birds has reached an unprecedented level with tens of millions killed annually as documented by NABU. It has always been bad. Now, it is a whole lot worse.
But at least the wildlife is still wild. Those incarcerated in Giza Zoo and other Egyptian zoos continue to suffer, and 2013 saw the deaths of several bears in Giza Zoo under mysterious circumstances. Whatever the cause, they can only be in a better place.
Are there any positives? Precious few. By the time of writing it does seem, post-second revolution that the streets are cleaner. But the traffic is no better. And reports from the Protectorates are no better. The independent Egyptian Rarities Committee, of which I am a part, is well up and running and working on its second series of assessments of ornithological rarity records.
As regards education, another bleak area bombarded by lost promises, a new series of children’s nature foldouts published by AUC Press have been translated into Arabic, funded by the US Forest Service, to take the environment into public schools. It’s a small step.
In short, the new Environment Minister Dr. Laila Rashed Iskander has a heck of a lot on her plate. I do not envy her but I wish her well in her monumental task. As I wrote at the beginning of this piece, the environment is not just about cute, fluffy animals; environmental concerns are about access to clean water, to clean air, to less traffic, less pollution and to a cleaner and more sustainable life for all. It is about a better environment for everyone and everything.
On a final, personal note 2013 saw the sad and premature loss of Mindy Baha El-Din, the conservationist, birder and campaigner who had fought so long and so hard for the betterment of Egypt’s environment. In these O so difficult times she is missed more than ever. et
H ave you ever wondered what the whale fossils in Fayoum’s Wadi Hitan would have looked like in real life? Not sure if that small swooping bird is a swift or a swallow? And just what is the significance of a giraffe in Pharaonic hieroglyphs?
The answers to these and other cocktail party questions are found in a series of four Nature Foldouts published by AUC Press this year. More than just a mine of trivia answers, these four-panel guides all feature artist Dominique Navarro’s beautifully detailed color illustrations of Egypt’s native wildlife in natural settings. Young readers will find it hard not to be captivated by the gaping jaws of ancient carnivorous whales or the piercing stare of the Caracal. Parents will appreciate the factoids that make them seem like the smartest people in the world in the eyes of their children. With maps identifying the significant sites around the country, these foldouts are a starter kit to understanding Egypt’s natural heritage.
AUC Press Nature Foldouts • Authored and illustrated by Dominique Navarro • LE 45 • Available at most English-language bookstores, including the AUC Bookstore. The series includes:
“Ancient Egypt’s Wildlife,” with consultant Dr. Salima Ikram
“Egypt’s Prehistoric Fauna,” with consultant Dr. Matthew Lamanna
“Egypt’s Flora & Fauna,” with consultant Richard Hoath
“Birds of the Nile Valley,” with consultant John Wyatt