Environmental Voices: Migratory birds threatened in Egypt

Bird migration is one of the greatest spectacles of the natural world. Every year millions of birds migrate along specific routes, many of which are now well studied and understood.

We also know that migration is an energy consuming activity that places birds under considerable physiological stress. Many smaller bird species are active flyers and migrate on a "broad front," moving in a wave, spanning continents from east to west. Some of these birds store fat reserves before making their flights and then fly to high elevations to make their long migratory jumps.

Other birds, predominantly large broad-winged birds–for example raptors, storks, cranes or pelicans–conserve energy by soaring on local rising air currents, deflected upwards by hills and mountains or hot air thermals formed over land, to provide uplift, circling in such currents to gain height and, where the lift ceases, gliding slowly down until they reach the bottom of another thermal, where they repeat the process.

In this way, many can fly over 300km in a single day, almost without a wing-beat. These birds are termed migratory soaring birds (MSBs), and tend to follow regular routes, termed "flyways," to maximise opportunities for soaring while minimising migration distances. During their passage through these "flyways" there are spots with large concentrations of birds occurring at so-called migration "bottlenecks," such as narrow sea crossings and mountain passes, and other strategic points where the birds are funnelled or guided by lines of hills, ridges or edges of valleys and other places where they can maintain their flying height. These include the classic world "land-bridges" such as the Panama isthmus in the Americas, Gibraltar and the Bosphorus in Europe and, in the Middle East, the Gulf of Suez and Bab al-Mandeb at the southern end of the Red Sea.

During their migration these large, highly visible slow-moving birds are susceptible to localised threats such as hunting, collision with electricity pylons and wind turbines (particularly when they fly low or come in to land), and the destruction of their resting habitats. These threats often have a severe impact on global bird populations.

A decline in populations of migratory soaring birds would upset the balance of prey populations and disrupt the assemblage of species in critical ecosystems because most MSBs are predators at the top of their food chain and occur across a wide range of habitats.

Egypt lies in the heart of one of the world’s most important migratory routes: the West Asian-East African migration flyway, with a particularly important bottleneck at Gebel al-Zeit, north of Hurghada.

Every year almost 200,000 MSBs cross this area, including many endangered species populations such as the globally threatened Egyptian Vulture, the critically endangered Northern Bald Ibis, the endangered Saker Falcon, the vulnerable Greater Spotted Eagle and Eastern Imperial Eagle, and many other globally near-threatened species. Moreover, it is important to note that almost 100 percent of the world population of Levant Sparrow Hawks pass along this flyway twice a year, as well as 90 percent of the world population of Lesser Spotted Eagles, 60 percent of Eurasian Honey Buzzards, and 50 percent of Short-toed Eagles, Booted Eagles and White Storks.

In autumn the area of Gebel al-Zeit is especially important, as many birds, after crossing the Gulf of Suez, arrive tired, flying at low altitudes, and often land in large numbers. Almost all of the vast numbers of White Storks that migrate over South Sinai in the autumn (most of the world population) pass through the Gebel al-Zeit area.

A one-day count on 7 September 1998 resulted in a total of 56,000 White Storks. Up to 100,000 birds cross the Gulf of Suez in this region in a single day. Black Storks, Great White Pelicans and many species of birds of prey also pass through the area in huge numbers.

Now these MSBs are relatively well protected in Europe, and in east and southern Africa since they are part of the game park experience, but they receive practically no conservation attention during migration, when they are most vulnerable and most physiologically stressed. Moreover, in the case of some species almost 50-100 percent of their global or regional populations pass through the flyway "bottlenecks" in the space of just a few weeks.

The Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA), having recognized Egypt’s importance for the birds' migratory routes, has declared many areas as Important Bird Areas (IBAs) and has succeeded in protecting some of them. Furthermore, it has recently put forward nominations for the listing of certain migratory bird sites on the World Heritage list. These include: Lake Bardawil and Zaranik in North Sinai, Gebel Shayeb al-Banat and Gebel Dukhanin the Eastern Desert, Saluga and Ghazal Nile Islands in Aswan, as well as Lake Nasser.

However, Gebel al-Zeit, Egypt’s most important bird migration bottleneck, is missing from this list. The area declared an IBA at Gebel al-Zeit is not protected and only covers a small part of the bottleneck crucial for bird migration.

Following from this negligence, there are currently several projects underway to create huge wind farms in the area of Gebel al-Zeit. Funded by foreign aid agencies, the National Renewable Energy Authority (NREA) is focusing on Gebel al-Zeit without taking into consideration the danger it is exposing migratory soaring birds to.

Fortunately some of these funding agencies have been alerted to the huge risk of converting Gebel al-Zeit into one of the world’s largest wind farms and in view of the importance of the area for migratory soaring birds, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) has recently relocated its wind farm project to west of Minya. It is hoped that other funding agencies will follow suit.

With humongous investments planned for such development projects in several IBAs, environmentalists say that at least some money should go into carrying out more research to help clarify how much wind farms interfere with the migration process. Scientists feel they should be consulted for proposing alternative sites for such projects and designing mitigation measures.

In an environmentalist utopia, all important migratory birds’ sites, bottlenecks and routes should be declared IBAs, and be protected as well as declared World Heritage Sites. Also, there should be very close coordination between countries sharing migratory routes as there is a dire need for the collection of extensive data and the sharing of this for the purpose of designing a proper strategy for conservation along these routes.

The situation at Gebel al-Zeit is just one case where migratory birds are under threat due to human activities in Egypt–there are other areas and different dangers ranging from habitat destruction to water pollution, hunting and so on. It is important to act now because the loss of birds due to these continuous pressures cannot be reversed, and a decline in bird populations is an irreversible catastrophe which Egypt should desperately try to avoid; the price to be paid will be very high.

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