Bird conservationists in Egypt are working with the country’s tourism sector on an educational program that would help protect millions of migratory birds and create a potentially profitable tourist activity: bird watching.
Egypt’s location on the Red Sea and Nile River makes it, by some accounts, the world’s second most important stopover for millions of soaring migratory birds every year, including falcons, eagles and vultures.
But a general lack of awareness and the state’s environmentally harmful practices, such as urban developments along the birds’ routes, degrade their natural habitat and leave them at risk of death.
“People in Egypt tend to belittle the concept of bird watching, but the presence of birds is an indication of the health of your natural surroundings, “ explains Noor Ayman Noor, executive coordinator at Nature Conservation Egypt, the first Egyptian non-governmental organisation to focus on nature conservation. “If these birds disappear, you should know that something is very wrong with the environment.”
In partnership with the UNDP as well as the Egyptian Ministry of Environmental Affairs, the conservation group started an educational program in December 2014 to train local tour guides and hotels along the Red Sea and the Southern Nile basin about bird watching. The aim is to help tour guides gain bird-watching appreciation and expertise, and to give them the material and marketing skills to introduce bird watching activities to tourists.
Bird watching is an important facet of ecotourism, one of the world’s fastest growing tourism sectors with annual revenues of $77 billion a year. With its highly varied natural landscapes and wildlife, Egypt stands to gain from ecotourism investments, some experts believe, especially considering the huge blow its tourism industry has suffered. Tourist numbers fell from 14.7 million in 2010 to 4.4 million in 2014, while revenues fell by 95 percent from 3 billion Egyptian pounds in 2010 to 125 million in 2014.
“Once you talk about money, people start listening,” Noor says. One of the biggest obstacles in the way of ecotourism, she says, is that the tourism sector’s success has too often been “based on how many tourists they can get, which is why mass tourism has spread like cancer in Egypt and has degraded so many natural habitats.”
An American University in Cairo professor and birdlife expert, Richard Hoath has been writing about Egypt’s birdlife since 1988. He praises the program for raising awareness threefold: of the country’s natural heritage, the environment, and eco-tourism as a lucrative industry.
“People are increasingly travelling to enjoy the natural environment [of Egypt],” he says. “And increasingly they want to know what they are seeing and know about what they are seeing. In the case of birds, especially foreign visitors will pay a lot of money for sightings of rare species. A network of knowledgeable and field savvy guides benefits the local economy and the foreign visitors alike.”
The bird-watching education program involves training sessions and tours. Participants first receive training on how, where and when to spot birds. The classroom work is followed by an excursion where they can put their theoretical knowledge to use.
Marketing material will include leaflets and best-practice guidebooks. By helping the guides and hotels market these activities, the conservation group hopes to establish a network across the area that would financially benefit from the soaring migratory birds and therefore would help to protect them.
The sessions will be held with tour companies as well as hotel staff located in South Sinai, along the Red Sea coast, and Luxor as well as Aswan. So far, up to forty guides have been trained in the Southern Sinai resort city of Sharm El Sheikh, with several more sessions scheduled over the coming months.
Ali Abdallah Ali, one of the few bird watching guides in Egypt with extensive experience, hosts the training sessions in collaboration with the conservation organization.
“We developed a module that would at the very least make the guides aware [of birds], enable them to name the various species in the area, and develop bird watching as an activity in their hotels and camps,” he says. “We also hope to explain to people that the disappearance of migratory birds is a massive risk to our natural ecosystem and our natural resources. Anything that threatens the existence of birds will ultimately destroy our country.”
Despite its ambitious project, Nature Conservation Egypt is understaffed and currently struggling—as are all NGOs in Egypt—with restrictions on access to foreign funding.
Though the conservation group works in partnership with the Egyptian government and the UNDP, its reliance on foreign funding puts it in a difficult position. On one hand this funding enables it to start projects that the Egyptian state would otherwise not fund, and on the other hand its reliance on foreign funding puts its longevity at risk.
“This is a catastrophe because this means that our natural resources are not appreciated nor financed locally,” Noor says. “And as long as we’re constantly dependent on foreign funding, there can’t be sustainable development and conservation. A tree doesn’t borrow sunlight or its roots from another country; for it to survive it needs to depend on its own resources.”