Images of a yipping fox, leaping dolphins, marine turtles stippled with light, and a crocodile half-hidden in the murky waters of the Nile decorate the walls of Zamalek’s El Sawy Culture Wheel. The photographs are prize-winning entries in Egypt’s first nature photography contest, an event held to celebrate Egypt’s biodiversity and to honor the memory of pioneering conservationist Mindy Baha El Din, who died in March 2013.
The American-born herpetologist and environmentalist was dedicated to protecting the eco-system of her adopted homeland, and encouraging young Egyptians to involve themselves in conservation efforts. One of Baha El Din’s dreams, explains event organizer Watter al-Bahry, was to see young Egyptians love wildlife, document Egypt’s natural world through photography, and work to save the environment. “This is the least we can do as young Egyptian people to pay back what she did for us.”
Bahry, along with five fellow nature-photographers and conservation activists, is a founder of Egypt Geographic, which was established in November 2012 as an online group dedicated to raising awareness of Egypt’s wildlife through articles and photographs. Throughout the past year, it has also taken its activities offline, organizing bird-watching trips and wildlife and photography workshops for rural youth in Fayoum.
Now under the umbrella of the NGO Nature Conservation Egypt, the group also plans new activities focusing on environmental problems like bird hunting and pollution.
This puts it in line with international organizations like the International League of Conservation Photographers, which seek to use the power of photography to highlight both the beauty of the natural world and the threats facing it, and to inspire people to act to conserve the environment.
Wildlife photography has the potential to build awareness of Egypt’s biodiversity, explains Bahry. Many young people, he says, watch programs on channels like National Geographic, and while this may inspire a love of nature, it can also give people the idea that the environment and wildlife are things that exist in the grasslands of sub-Saharan Africa or the ice fields of the Antarctic, not in their own country.
Egypt may not have elephants or penguins, Bahry says, “but still, we have something here.” He hopes that raising the profile of nature photography in Egypt can foster greater interest in and protection for bio-diversity closer to home. Seeing photographs like that ones on display at El Sawy “creates a personal attachment with that kind of creature,” he explains. His Egypt Geographic colleague, Ahmed Waheed, adds, “to photograph a bird you have to know how it is moving. You have to know more about it, and you have to protect it.”
One of the messages of Egypt Geographic, and the photo contest, is “leave everything as it is, just try to enjoy nature,” says Waheed. However, he explains building awareness of even this simple philosophy was a challenge. Some photographers put insects and other animals in studios, where bright lights ensure a beautiful picture, but also harm the animals. “We refused all of these pictures,” he says. “We wanted to make sure that all the photographed creatures in the contest are Egyptian, in the wild.”
Despite the initial challenges, the organizers managed to get a healthy crop of submissions from 37 photographers, in five categories: Marine Life, Reptiles, Mammals, Birds and Insects. At an opening ceremony on February 11, a panel of dignitaries, including Environment Minister Laila Iskandar, handed out prizes in the form of wooden statues, manufactured by a firm that supports local handicrafts.
This year’s event, according to the organizers, is just the beginning. After four months of work on the contest, and a last-minute push to get everything ready in time, they are too exhausted at the moment to make concrete plans for the next contest. “We didn’t sleep for three nights now,” says Waheed. But they hope to make the contest and exhibition an annual event.
Contest photographs are on display at El Sawy Culture Wheel until February 19. See https://www.facebook.com/events/720315561314390/?ref=22 for further information.