Egypt: The Heartbeat of a Migratory Flyway

As we bid farewell to spring, we remember we do not just bid farewell to the cool evening breeze or the unexpected fluctuations in weather. We also bid farewell to millions of birds that pass through Egypt, en route to their breeding and nesting grounds in Europe and Asia, after spending their winters in the warmer grounds across Africa.

 


Egypt’s treasures attract millions of tourists from all around the world. Its rich Ancient Egyptian heritage as well as its beautiful beaches and marine life have put Egypt on the map for visitors from all around the world. But many of us living here have forgotten about the original tourists that graced Egypt twice a year for tens of thousands of years: the birds. These flying treasures come in all all shapes, sizes and colours, yet nowadays, they fly by unnoticed and unappreciated by most of Egypt’s current settlers.


A little under 500 species of birds can be seen in Egypt, most of which are migrating birds that embark on a grueling biannual journey between their breeding/nesting grounds in Eurasia, and their wintering grounds in Africa, where they can spend their winters in a warmer climate with adequate supplies of food. They follow very specific migration routes, thousands of kilometers long, navigating on instinct and on accumulated experience.


Egypt is extremely important for these migratory birds because it is a transit point between different continents and habitats, connecting Africa and Eurasia, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean; deserts and wetlands, mountains and seas. Millions of birds pass through Egypt seeking food, shelter, and rest, as many human civilizations have done throughout the years.
These birds are also of extreme importance to Egypt. The Ancient Egyptians depended on the migration of birds to keep track of the seasons, and they were the first birdwatchers in history, carefully documenting the resident and migratory birds on their scrolls and in their temples. They looked to the skies for inspiration, worshipping these birds and integrating them into their religious beliefs. Horus, god of the sun, sky, and kingship, was depicted as a man with the head of a falcon, and is a popular symbol in Egyptian culture to this very day. Soaring high above us, connecting the land to the heavens and displaying agility and ferocity, it is no surprise that falcons had come to assume such an important role in the lives of Ancient Egyptians. Vultures, another set of species that fall under the migratory soaring bird family, are now commonly depicted in a negative light by popular culture. However, the Ancient Egyptians observed the intense maternal instincts of female vultures, thus linking vultures to maternal care and turning them into symbols of femininity and motherhood. Most female goddesses in Ancient Egypt were commonly portrayed wearing vulture headdresses, highlighting their femininity and maternal role on a grander scale.


Additionally, birds play a very significant role in balancing the ecosystem. They are excellent for pest control, as some species feed on rodents while others feed on insects. Birds help with pollination and seed dispersal, increasing their importance to agriculture and food production for humans and other organisms in nature.


Birds can also have a direct economic benefit, in light of the growing demand for birdwatching tourism around the world. A multi-million dollar industry, birdwatching tourism is defined as travel to see birds in their natural habitats, and is an extremely popular leisure activity in Europe and North America. When practiced properly, it is a beneficial form of responsible tourism that promotes the conservation of birds and their natural habitats. While other developing countries around the world have maximized their benefit from this form of tourism, Egypt is yet to take full advantage of this wonderful resource and conserve it in such a way that ensures benefit for both nature and local communities.


Sadly, Egypt is no longer the safe haven it once was for birds, particularly the migratory birds that depended on it to continue their biannual journey between south and north. A variety of different threats now face these birds, most notably illegal and unsustainable hunting/capturing of migratory birds. A wide variety of songbirds are hunted en masse for feeding purposes using newly developed and unsustainable hunting techniques, while other birds of prey, like falcons and eagles, are captured and illegally traded (locally and regionally) for falconry or merely ornamental purposes. Egypt has become an international hub for the illegal trade and trafficking of wildlife, with endangered birds of prey being illegally captured and sold to buyers in the Gulf for up to hundreds of thousands of dollars.


Furthermore, birds have suffered drastically due to the destruction and degradation of their natural habitats in Egypt. Among the main causes for this is, ironically, the Egyptian tourism industry. While tourism is one of the most important sources of income for the country, accounting for billions of dollars in revenue and supporting the livelihoods of millions, unsustainable policies for tourism development have led to the degradation of natural habitats, threatening the different plants and animals that depend them for survival. While habitat destruction for tourism development impacts the health of the ecosystem (which encompasses our own health), it will also reduce the attractiveness of these tourism destinations on the long run, an inevitable economic loss for Egypt.


In light of these growing risks and threats, there have been numerous actions on different fronts to conserve Egypt’s natural treasures. Nature Conservation Egypt (NCE) is a registered non-governmental organization (NGO) that was established in 2005 by a number of Egypt’s leading conservationists, environmentalists, and nature lovers, aiming to protect and conserve Egypt’s natural heritage through research, policy, and income alleviation. NCE strives for nature conservation by working in coordination with local and international NGOs, as well as local governmental bodies such as the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA).


ʻEnvironmental causesʼ, as they are commonly referred to, do not receive much attention in our region, as attention is usually directed at humanitarian issues that are commonly portrayed as being mutually exclusive from environmental issues. Such distinctions have added to the struggles faced by NGOs working in the field of environmental protection and nature conservation, particularly due to the lack of funding opportunities in Egypt as well as restrictions on international grants. However, civil society remains a crucial pillar in safeguarding the future of Egypt’s nature, as it represents the intent of Egyptians to collaborate and work to conserve their natural heritage, for current and future generations.


In the upcoming editions of the Maadi Messenger, Nature Conservation Egypt (NCE) will be providing readers with articles on different local initiatives underway for nature conservation, including research and advocacy. We will regularly update you with volunteering and fundraising opportunities, as well educational activities and trips that aim to bring you closer to nature, including birdwatching trips for all ages.

 

Noor A. Noor is the Executive Coordinator for the Nature Conservation Egypt.

Nature Conservation Egypt (NCE) is a non-government organization that is dedicated to the conservation of Egypt's natural heritage and the promotion of its sustainable use for the benefit of the present and future generations.

NCE also seeks to build partnerships with local and international bodies with similar interests.
It achieves these aims through demonstration of practical conservation measures, awareness raising activities, studies and lobbying.

Facebook Group: http://on.fb.me/POOcgt
Twitter Account: @Nature_Egypt

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