Egypt’s National Parks, frequently referred to as ‘protected areas’, dot the country’s diverse land from its northernmost tip to its southern border. They range from mountainous areas of Sinai to islands in the Nile; from underwater coral reefs to the remote desert. Some—including the Elba protected area—are like nothing else on earth. The policy is to preserve each region’s natural beauty, ecological balance and areas of outstanding interest.
Yet, as Environment Minister Khaled Fahmy reminded a recent discussion group in Cairo, that included MPs and leading media and community figures and which focused on development plans for nature reserves, these beautiful and invaluable areas are under constant threat. Mr Fahmy highlighted the need to develop a strategy to harmonise the requisites of both conservationists and local communities.
“Nature reserves all over the world support eco-tourism activities side-by-side with their main mission of protecting natural resources,” Mr Fahmy told the discussion group. So the Environment Ministry plans to develop Egypt’s nature reserves to match international trends.
The ministry’s new strategy for protected areas begins with a plan to identify those areas in which eco-activities can be developed. Egyptian law stipulates that the Environmental Affairs Agency is responsible for issuing permits for any activity related to a protected area, provided the activity does not infringe on the protected area, and is compatible with international environmental standards.
To realise this goal, the Environment Ministry is collaborating with several national and international apparatuses to provide funding. “Investors would lift the fiscal burden off the State budget,” Mr Fahmy said, “and the income generated from these projects would go towards research on preserving our natural wealth.”
The development strategy will launch in three reserves, the Minister announced: the Petrified Forest, Wadi Degla; and Wadi al-Rayan. All three have suffered major breaches and are most in need of protection.
The Petrified Forest
This area lying south of Maadi on the outskirts of Cairo is where traces can be seen of the abundant woodland that covered the Red Sea hills millions of years ago. Long a favourite playground for picnickers, it was declared a protected area in 1989.
The trees were washed down from the hills by heavy rains and strewn among other deposits of sand and gravel in the Oligocene period, when the surface was nearly at sea level and was covered by shallow lagoons. The wood was later covered by hot water containing silica that caused the tree trunks to fossilise. Over the course of time these Oligocene deposits were uplifted to their present height, and were eventually exposed by erosion.
The biggest threat to the reserve now comes from the constant construction work around the area. The many construction programmes nearby have led to most of the animals and wildlife disappearing from this area over the past ten to 15 years. To make matters worse, there has been an accumulation of garbage, sand and rubble.
“The environment minister has no authority to take the decision whether to exclude or include any part of the reserve,” Mr Fahmy said, “so we have filed a request to the Prime Ministry to include the western border of the reserve so as to prevent any upcoming construction around the reserve. The western part is of huge importance, since it is the main road to the part of the reserve that includes the petrified trees. We should preserve these at all costs.”
According to Mr Fahmy, a geological museum will be built at the Petrified Forest reserve by a fund granted from the Ministry of Housing in accordance with environmental conditions and the nature of the reserve.
Wadi Degla in Cairo governorate was declared a protected area in 1999. The valley covers a land area of 60 square km and is home to more than 60 plant species, as well as its 20 species of reptiles—including the endangered Egyptian tortoise testudo kleinmanni—and 12 native bird species. Wadi Degla also provides a haven for migrating birds. Mammals, which are seen only rarely, include wild rabbits and foxes.
The ministry hopes to preserve the core of the reserve by setting up a visitor centre at the edge of the reserve with car parking facilities, an open-air theatre and a coffee shop.
“All these constructions will be built in natural rock so as to maintain the original nature of the reserve,” Mr Fahmy said.
Wadi al-Rayan and Wadi al-Hitan, aka Valley of the Whales, were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site on 15 July 2005, several years after they were declared protected by the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA). This region southwest of Fayoum is of important paleontological interest owing to the existence of wide variety of fossilised flora and fauna.
Fayoum is the largest fossil graveyard in Africa. Here the earliest known primate has been found—possibly a remote human ancestor—dating from the Eocene period about 35 million years ago. The continuing work on primate fossils in Fayoum is adding considerably to scientific knowledge about hominid evolution.
Wadi Rayan was long earmarked as a site suitable for a freshwater reservoir, and in the late 1960s the area was flooded with agricultural drainage water from Fayoum to form three lakes, of which one has since dried up. All has not gone as hoped, however, because the lakes are turning progressively brackish—as happened with the once vast sweet water lakes of Qarun in Fayoum and in Maryut, southwest of Alexandria. The area around the lakes is now quite naturally green, mostly with reeds, but time will tell whether the ground is suitable for the agricultural projects planned for the bed of the dried-up lake.
One of the remaining lakes drains into the other, several feet below, at the Waterfalls. The reed-fringed pools are pretty, with brightly-painted rowing boats bobbing in the water and sea gulls dive bombing the surface. The falls themselves are clearly artificial, and attractive enough if not compared to Niagara or Reichenbach.
Valley of the Whales
The Valley of the Whales lies about 55 kilometres into the desert. It takes its name from the fossilised skeletons of primitive whales which were found there in abundance. The flat sand stretches almost as far as the eye can see, just as if it were still the flat bed of the ancient Tethys Sea which washed against that shore 40 million years ago. Continental drift has since shrunk this once vast ocean to the sea known today as the Mediterranean. The rows of backbones lying neatly in the sand represent the fossilised remains of Zeuglodon, an extinct cetacean, which have lain here in the intervening aeons. Three species have been identified in Wadi Al-Hitan: Basilotaurus Isis (a misnomer, as this “king of reptiles” was, of course, a mammal); Prozeuglodon; and the smaller Dorudon, which was perhaps a precursor of later whales. Zeuglodon at that stage had probably only half-settled in the sea. They had long, slimmish bodies, pointed snouts with long white teeth, front flippers much like a seal’s and small but perfectly-formed hind legs folded into feet.
Piles of sand and debris mark the graves of most of the 250 or so skeletons identified in this small area. It is the erosion of the sandstone rock that exposed these fossils; eventually even the fossils could wear away if not adequately protected.
“This reserve is a tourist attraction,” the environment minister said as he emphasised the importance of eliminating random encroachment which may harm the fossil region.
“That is why we have established a museum to blend in the reserve,” Mr Fahmy added. “It looks like a mound of the same rocks.”
Plans include a coffee shop, parking lot, bicycle park and camping area, all built well away from the fossils.
More to come
Mr Fahmy outlined plans for new reserves in the future to add to the 30 already in existence, “This is very important,” he said, “given that many areas that need protection are already being eyed by so-called investors for potential investment projects, since they are sites that carry inherent economic value.”
Among these are the lakes of Burullus and Qarun and the Gabal Qatrani Formation, another palaeontological and geologic formation in Fayoum governorate.
At the close of the session, Mr Fahmy expressed his gratitude and appreciation for all the efforts of the government, parliament and politicians for their concern to protect Egypt’s natural resources and biological diversity and help maintain environmental balance.
Photo credit for Whale Museum: Thomas Hartwell/AP Photo
7 May 2017