The National Parks and Reserves (Protected Areas) of Egypt
by Jimmy Dunn
Many people with little knowledge of Egypt and less interest in exploring this ancient land believe it to be a desert. It is the vision portrayed if they casually run across a photo of the great pyramids in a magazine. However, most people with only a casual interest in Egypt at least recognize the duality of the land, a prospective that was not lost on the ancient Egyptians. To these people, the landscape is a contrast between the lush Nile Valley and the harsh sand of the desert to either side of the Valley. Still others, including Egyptians themselves, become aware that Egypt is much more diverse than deserts surrounding the fertile Nile Valley, though few of us have actually had the opportunity to seek out these various habitats where one may very well freeze to death under a blanket of snow in the high Sinai mountains, view tropical birds and a marshy lake district, or explore the rich pristine coral reefs and marine life of Egypt's coastal waters. Yet many of these areas are but a stone's throw away from the ancient monuments and the sandy beaches that are so popular among tourists. Perhaps this is why, since the early 1980's that the Egyptian government has been so intent on establishing Nature Reserves, or as they are often referred to in Egypt, Protected Areas.
Today, there are some 21 national parks in Egypt, of which perhaps the best known and one of the oldest is at Ras Mohamed on the tip of the Sinai Peninsula. Only established in 1983, this is actually a marine reserve that is, to the outside world, most familiar to scuba divers. Here, one finds mangrove trees, along with some 200 species of coral, around 1,000 species of fish, along with various birds such as Osprey and White-eyed gulls, but also endangered turtle populations and even threatened mammals such as the Dorcas Gazelle. And while many thousands of people bake on the beaches of Sharm el-Sheikh, famous as a city of peace, few visit Ras Mohamed, which is only a short drive south.
Other more recently established reserves may, however, be more interesting to the land lovers among us, as well as being very convenient to our sightseeing intenerates. For example, many excursions into the Sinai visit the world famous St. Catherine's Monastery and Mount Sinai, but few realize that they are amidst one of Egypt's most recently established national parks, covering some 5750 square kilometers. Established in 1996, this park covers much of the central part of South Sinai where rugged mountains surge above an alien landscape and were 80% of the rocks are over 600 million years old. Besides visiting the Christian monuments, tourists also have the opportunity to explore this rich habitat on nature treks where one may venture upon the Innes Cobra which is considered to be very vulnerable to extinction, Geckos, Agamids, Skinks, Rodents, Hedgehogs, Hares, Red foxes, Wild cat, the Sinai Leopard, Rock hyrax, the Nubian ibex and Dorcas gazelles.
The St. Catherine's reserve abuts several others, including the Nabq Protected Area which is very diverse, including excellent reefs but also considerable flora along with a rich bird population and many types of land mammals. Another nearby park is at Ras Abu Galum which covers some 500 square kilometers and is among the most picturesque protected areas in Egypt. It encompasses high deserts with a climate not unlike that of the Mediterranean providing a varied ecosystem where exists some 44 species of plants that are completely unique to this area
There are actually several other Protected Areas in the Sinai, including one at Taba, which includes mountain passes, caves and a network of valleys, and those in the Northern Sinai that have been known to some birding enthusiasts for many years, including Zaranik on the eastern shores of Lake Bardawil abutting the Mediterranean Sea where millions of birds settle for rest along their migratory routes and at Ahrash near El Arish which is densely covered with numerous acacia and camphor trees.
Other parks, along the Mediterranean Sea heading west onto mainland Egypt include the Petrified Forest Protected Area, with its unique dunes, the Ashtum El Gamil Protected Area on the eastern edge of the Delta where a typical Mediterranean climate allows a variety of plants together with another rich population of birds and freshwater fish.
Alexandria, the ancient city which is growing in popularity for tourists due to the ancient discoveries in its bays and the the new library that also houses a museum, sits between a two nature reserves at Lake Burullus to the east and one of Egypt's oldest reserves, Omayed, established in 1981. Both of these coastal regions include considerable bird life, along with various mammals and interesting geological features.
Heading south out of the Egyptian Nile Delta, and only eight kilometers form the great pyramid, one encounters the El Hassana Dome where rare plants unique to this area may be discovered, along with geological features that appear as an open museum, displaying the record of ancient life, its environment and climate during the late cretaceous age.
Further south, in the Fayoum just south of Cairo, we find the Lake Qarun Protected Area, which are wetlands of international importance. This amazing area must surely attack future tourists, as it has in the past, for here one finds all manner of plants, but also a huge diversity of birds, fresh water fish and one of the most extensive and notable fossil fields in the world, along with a number of ancient Egyptian monuments.
Just below (south) of Lake Qarun is the Wadi El Rayan Protected Area. It consists of an Upper Lake and a Lower Lake, separated by a water fall, and includes sulfur springs and extensive dune formations. Here we find the 11 species of reptiles, 9 species of mammals, including the endangered Slender horned Gazella, 13 species of resident birds and 26 varieties of migratory birds.
On the Eastern side of the Nile across from the Lake Qarun and Wadi El Rayan protected areas, and just below the Petrified forest is Wadi Digla, This valley starts as small tributaries where rainfall pours on the hills surrounding the valley. This habitat supports along with birds, 20 different types of reptiles and perhaps even a few deer, together with 64 kinds of plants.
South of Wadi Digla is the Sannur Cave Protected Area, where ongoing alabaster drilling operations created 54 big cavities leading to a cave at the bottom that extends 700 meters with a width of 15 meters. Here, just southeast of the city of Beni-Suef, several of the quarries are of very ancient origin.
The next National Park south is the Wadi El Assuti protected area which functions as a gene reserve for the breeding of animals and wild plants that are endangered. This is the last of the southern parks for some distance, other than the Nile Islands.
However, there are three others that either abut, or are near the southern border of Egypt. Clustered fairly close together mostly on the east side of Lake Nasser, they include the Saluga and Ghazal, Wadi Alaqi and Elba Protected Areas. Saluga and Ghazal are two island situated about three kilometers north of the Aswan Dam. This area provides wildlife that once inhabited the land now under water from several projects a chance of survival along with a habitat for about 60 kinds of rare birds that are in universal danger of extinction. Wadi Alaqi is formed by a dry river bed running some 275 kilometers in length where a number of rare species of mammals, bird and reptiles, together with invertebrates may be found.
The Elba Protected Area, established in 1985, borders the Red Sea and includes a complex ecosystem consisting of 22 islands, coral reefs, coastal sand dunes, wetlands, desert plains and coastal mountains rising to some 1437 meters. At the top of Jabal (mount) Elba, a "mist oasis" exists where precipitation creates a unique and rare ecosystem not found elsewhere in Egypt. Here, an almost limitless expanse of flora and fauna includes forty species of birds as well as the endangered Dugong.
Finally, there are the Nile Islands, which are considered nature reserves. There are about 144 of these that exist from Aswan up into the Delta region and provide shelter to all manner of birds, fish and reptiles.
It can be expected that more Protected Areas will be established in Egypt, but the current variety of these parks may provide interesting side trips to the causal tourists, and will be of extreme interest to nature lovers of all ages. They actually do not constitute a new type of tourism, for there have been a few visitors exploring these regions for many years, particularly the birding enthusiasts. What they provide to others, is a bit more variety in a land that invites the world to see its antiquities and culture of all periods, and visit its wonderful sea resorts along the mainland coast and in the Sinai.
- The Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA)