How bird-watching in Cairo can help us live peacefully & protect our natural heritage.
Cairo can be a daunting place to live. The noise and pollution can take over your senses, and you can be submerged in the urban atmosphere. A wander out into the streets of Downtown can find you consumed by the city, where the people, cars, dogs, and cats vie for space and sustenance on the crowded streets. Intermittently, however, you find them joined by a foreign traveller, dropping down onto the pavement for a short while, before recommencing their journey. I have often found myself watching these tiny animals, as they peacefully hop around the otherwise chaotic everyday scenes. They can be seen in the trees as they sing calmly over the top of car horns and fruit sellers, and observed gliding high above us against the clear skies. They seem invisible to those around them, yet so distinctly out of place, and it is breathtaking to think that many of these humble creatures arrived here after soaring over the plains of Africa.
We often forget that we sit atop of the world’s most inspiring continent. Urban life is, by its very nature, so removed from the natural world. This is why bird-watching can be such a wonderfully serene experience, and one which can bring such benefits to our lives. We all need a break from city life, whether that be a trip out to the countryside, or just taking time to appreciate the natural beauty in our back-garden. We are privileged to live in Egypt, one of the foremost spots for bird-watching in the world, and now is the best time to discover it.
This time of year brings a change: warmer climates for us in the north, whilst the south prepares for winter. The birds, who know this too well, will now be flying over our heads, making for more temperate climes. Two fantastic locations to view these creatures are within our reach: the Nile and the Red Sea. “Just go to a coffee shop on the river, with a pair of binoculars and a guide book, and watch.” Dr. Sherif Baha El-Din, co-author of Common Birds of Egypt, has spent his life watching the skies for birds. “There are plenty of good spots in Cairo to see interesting species. The trees above Cairo Zoo host a surprising variety. There’s the Gezira Club in Zamalek. Wadi Degla in Maadi is a good place to spot some of the desert species. And of course there’s the Nile. Take a trip on a felucca or go to the Pharaonic Village to appreciate all that the river has to offer.”
For new bird-watchers the most difficult thing can be getting started. Many are unsure of where to go or what to do. “The best thing to do is to get in touch with experienced bird-watchers,” says El-Din. “Organisations such as Nature Conservation Egypt can provide a useful network. You will also find that bird-watchers are among the friendliest people you can encounter; they are more than happy to help people taking an interest for the first time.” Bird-watching really is as simple as it seems. A pair of binoculars is recommended, as well as a relevant bird-guide. “Many people also use cameras these days,” says El-Din. “They produce some great pictures of birds, without even knowing what they are!”
Take a short trip outside of Cairo in nearly any direction and you can find other great birding spots. Wadi Natrun, famous for its Coptic monasteries, boasts great views of water-birds on the banks of its lake. The oasis of Fayoum is a great place to spot a wide variety of African birds, and travelling further up the Nile will bring its own rewards. Less than two hours from Cairo is the Red Sea. Ain Sokhna is widely recognised as one of the best places to see the bi-annual raptor migration. Here, the entrance to the Red Sea acts as a bottleneck for thousands of predators on their way to Europe. These fantastic soaring-birds have been making the same trip since the time of the pharaohs, but these days their existence is under threat.
Humans are disrupting the migratory routes in Egypt in a number of ways. Bird-hunting, particularly on the Mediterranean coast, has increased dramatically over recent years and has gathered much attention. The recent economic crises has led people to look to hunting for a new source of income. Since the ousting of Mubarak, the security forces are limited in their ability to prevent it. Bird-hunting is usually done with long stretches of nets, with no way of discriminating between common and threatened species, raising serious concerns for nature activists.
Wind farms are being developed along the Red Sea coast, which threaten the important migration routes of many species. To the credit of the government many of these plans have been delayed, due to environmental concerns, but for Dr. Baha El-Din the biggest issue is habitat destruction. Construction in the desert always comes at a cost to the environment. “Everywhere is natural, the desert is not arid. The damage these constructions do are so difficult to reverse. The hunting situation is bad but if we really wanted to we could end it tomorrow. With the modern developments that are being built, we can lose the habitats of certain species for ever, literally in minutes.”
The recent economic and political crises in Egypt have not helped matters. Protection of areas of natural importance is no longer such a priority for the government. Governmental policies actually stand to do further damage to the Egyptian ecology, through lack of preparation and research into environmental issues. “You don’t hear about assessments these days,” says El-Din. “We are in survival mode; environmental concerns are no longer a priority. This is understandable. We need to address the issues in the short term, but somebody needs to think ahead.”
Our environment cannot speak for itself. It needs people to stay vigilant to what is going on, people who have a long term interest in their surroundings. We need to show how valuable our environment is and to push it up the agenda. Wadi Degla is the closest of these important areas to Maadi. “I’m sure Wadi Degla would benefit from frequent responsible visitors,” says Sherif El-Din. Bird-watching can, therefore, be a public service. The lifeline of these wonderful creatures, which bring the beauty of Africa to us, is threatened by hunters and bulldozers. We can do our bit to protect them by just enjoying them as they are, as they have been for ages past, to ensure that they continue to bring joy to others for many years to come.
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