Visitors from the sky

Every spring, millions of birds pass through Egypt on their northern migrations. Along the way, they face threats from hunting, wind farms, harsh climate and habitat loss.

Isabel Esterman caught up with Richard Grimmett — director of conservation for Birdlife International — after a visit to Egypt, where Birdlife and its local affiliate Nature Conservation Egypt have been working with the New and Renewable Energy Authority and the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency to safeguard migrating birds.

He described the major issues facing Egypt’s avian visitors, as well as some encouraging signs of progress from the government side.

Isabel Esterman: The spring migration for birds is in progress. Could you give some idea of the scale of migration through Egypt and its importance to global bird populations?

Richard Grimmett: Egypt is at a really important location on the migration flyway between Africa and Europe. You are, if you like, at the crossroads of that migration. So millions of migratory birds are at this moment traveling north across the Sahara, and they will need to cross into the Middle East and then journey up through the Middle East to Europe.

You are really at the crossroads. They need to try to use the land connections. Particularly the soaring birds, the storks and the birds of prey, need to find those short crossings and cross over water. So there’s this very big concentration of migratory birds through Egypt at this time.

It’s into the millions of migratory birds in general, probably tens of millions. In terms of the soaring birds, these birds that are forced to take these land crossings. We are talking about 1.5 million or more of these each migration season.

IE: So, what are the main threats for migratory birds crossing through Egypt?

RG: They face multiple threats, not only on migration, but during the breeding season and during the winter. Particularly, the loss of important sites and important habitat for them — the loss of wetlands, for example.

They do, in certain parts of their migration, experience the threat illegal unregulated hunting and trapping. They are vulnerable to energy development, so they run the risk of collisions with power transmission lines and, as they are developed, wind farms.

They are losing habitat on their migration, particularly in Egypt to tourism development. That narrow strip of coast along the Gulf of Suez and the Red Sea is increasingly being developed for tourism, and they are losing valuable stopover sites and habitats.

And of course, they’ve just crossed the Sahara, so they’re desperate. They need food and places to rest and stock up before continuing their journey. The sites and habitats in Egypt are particularly important for them on their migration. Once they get into Europe — or if they’re going the other way, south of the Sahara — there’s an abundance of food and habitat. So it’s particularly on their migration that they are under great stress.

IE: You mentioned power and wind farms. Egypt is trying to use more wind power as part of a plan to lower its dependence on fossil fuels. Is that something that can be done without a hugely adverse effect on bird populations?

RG: Yeah, I would hope so. I think you have to recognize Egypt’s need to develop its energy capacity. It’s very dependent on oil, and there are very severe shortages in electricity. So we have to recognize that Egypt needs more energy. We are supportive of the switch to renewable energy, for wider global benefits and in the context of the need to combat climate change — we’ve got to recognize this.

Renewable energy does offer a great option for Egypt. It has some of the best wind energy resources in the world along the Red Sea, the Gulf of Suez Coast. The trouble is that this is also where bird migration is concentrated, and so it’s important to pursue this development in order to absolutely minimize the risk to migratory birds.

And so far, we feel Egypt has gone about this in a very serious and responsible way. It’s already excluded very large areas that were suitable for wind energy development. It’s already decided, based on strategic environmental assessments, that large parts of that stretch of coast should not be developed for wind energy, because it’s just too sensitive.

That’s already making a major concession, and one has to acknowledge that.

And it has gone about taking very detailed environmental assessments of the risks at sites that it is choosing to develop. It’s done some very thorough ornithological studies, and based on those it has excluded further areas from development. Even within those areas they thought were safe, they’ve had to go and exclude further areas.

Every time they do this, they are reducing their potential for the renewable sector. But even then, there are risks. And what they are looking at now is careful management of the sites during the migration season.

They’re looking particularly at the option of shut down — shutting down the turbines while the migration is underway. One positive thing about this is that migration does tend to be concentrated during reasonably well-defined periods, and reasonably well-defined areas.

The hope is that for the farms that are being developed in sensitive areas, they can manage this through shutdowns, and that’s either going to have to be shut down during the daytime during the peak migration season, or more sophisticated shutdown on demand.

They are at the moment trying to put those agreements in place. We are encouraged by that, and we think this is being taken very seriously. I think the point to stress is that this is not an issue just for Egypt. These birds are shared resources, a shared natural treasure that Egypt is host to for a short period. So getting it right is really appreciated by countries north and south.

If they get it wrong, Egypt will come under criticism for not safeguarding these birds on their migration. The stakes are high, and I think so far we have to recognize the great commitment to progress that Egypt is making.

But obviously, we can only make the final judgment once the wind farms are operating and the shut-down arrangements are proven to be effective, and there is independent monitoring of that to ensure that the risks have been managed.

IE: Egypt is notorious for hunting and trapping, especially during the southern migrations along the Mediterranean coast. Could you talk a bit about the scope of that problem?

RG: This has gained a lot of attention over the past year. I think we’ve always known there was a lot of hunting, quite a bit of it [is] illegal activity going on in northern Egypt, along the Mediterranean coast. But we weren’t aware of the scale of the issue and the numbers of birds being trapped, the lengths of the nets being put up to catch birds.

The scale has caught people by surprise. And it’s often indiscriminate. While some hunting of some species can be sustainable, the use of nets is indiscriminate. You could be catching some birds that are declining or threatened, and you can’t discriminate from those that are legal to catch and to trade.

There have been discussions that the Egyptian government has been involved with, with the convention on migratory species to develop an action plan to address this issue. Birdlife has been helping with the development of that action plan.

We’ve been pleased to see the commitment that the Egyptian government has made to address this problem, recognizing that, again, these are birds that are shared between many countries. They’re not just Egypt’s birds.

It’s important for Egypt, I think, to address this, because it’s caused a little bit of damage to its reputation in Europe, for example. Hopefully we can make some progress over the coming couple of years, and we’re finding donors are willing to support this. Hopefully it can make some positive difference.

IE: What about climate change? There seems to be a growing body of research that indicates climate change affects seasonal bird migrations. Is that something that’s observable in Egypt, and what might its impact be?

RG: That’s a good question. I’m not sure I’m aware of any indications of the impact on climate change in Egypt, although I hear of some species shifting their ranges north, and perhaps some species spending the winter in Egypt that might previously not have done so.

The overall picture is one of great anxiety, because we’re likely to see desert regions become much drier and more extensive, and so the migration across the Sahara is going to be much tougher. It’s going to be more difficult for birds to find food in order to stock up, and to build up fat reserves to undertake their migration if the regions south of the Sahara have less rainfall and are drier. And they are forecast to become much hotter.

IE: For the time being, though, it sounds like there are actually some good efforts from the Egyptian government. Are you seeing that from the grassroots as well? And what can ordinary Egyptians do to try to protect the birds passing through this country?

RG: I think on the positive, the Egyptian government, we’ve been very impressed. And full marks to the government for being committed to safeguard migrating birds during their migration through Egypt. Obviously, there’s a long way to go to make sure that the measures are implemented, but it’s pretty good.

In terms of what civil society and what the Egyptian citizen might do more generally, they have an important role to play in terms of trying to promote responsible hunting, and trying to stop the illegal and indiscriminate activities. These things will ultimately only change if there is a change in public attitude.

This isn’t just an issue on the North Coast, it’s an issue in other locations in Egypt.

Ultimately, the people of Egypt have to decide if they wish to create a safe haven for migration, and put a stop to some of these illegal activities. Because the government can only do so much in that regard.

IE: With all of the other things that Egypt is dealing with, why should birds be something that people care about?

RG: I think birds are very much connected to people, and Egypt has a long history of recognizing the importance of birds — whether that be through their important place in Egyptian mythology, to the important role they play in agriculture (controlling pests, for example) and through to the important role they play in art and culture in recent times.

And they can be a great solace. It’s great to have birds around you, particularly when times are tough. They can provide great outlets for recreation, for enjoyment and happiness. How can we live without birds?

Even in difficult times, there’s got to be a place for taking care of birds, and appreciating birds, and sharing the planet with birds.

Isabel Esterman 

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