Protectorates not protected: Petrified trees vs. urban sprawl

Located in the desert hills of Qattamiya, around 30 km southeast of Cairo, the Petrified Forest is a relatively small geological protectorate, comprising an area of only 7 square kilometers of land. It is also classified as a natural heritage site.

The protectorate does not resemble a forest in the common sense, but is rather characterized by tree trunks, logs and chunks of wood, said to have been petrified and fossilized over the course of more than 30 million years.

According to the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency, a prehistoric branch of the Nile swept trees across the river and deposited them in the area. Petrified wood dating back to the Oligocene epoch lies scattered upon, and tens of meters below, small rolling hills. The protectorate is also known as Gabal el-Khashab, or “Wood Hill.”

From the perspective of a non-geologist, there may not be much to see in this nature preserve besides little hills covered in sand, stones and rocks. On the surface, petrified wood is not found in abundance, although layers of it can be found 70 to 100 meters beneath the surface. The area with the most petrified wood scattered on the surface is in the preserve’s southeastern corner.

The Petrified Forest was declared a protectorate in 1989 by virtue of Prime Ministerial Decree No. 944. Yet it has been increasingly threatened by Qattamiya’s encroaching urban sprawl.

“The biggest threat comes from the constant construction work around the area,” protectorate director Mohamed Rashed told Al-Masry Al-Youm. “Within the past decade, we’ve seen an unprecedented increase in the construction of villas and apartment blocks–which are now just across the streets from us."

According to Rashed, the protectorate also suffers from construction workers, who often dump refuse–rubble, empty cement bags, industrial plastic-sheeting and scrap-metal–on the peripheries of the preserve. Such waste is clearly visible scattered about the protectorate.

“Most of the animals and wildlife disappeared from this area over the past ten to 15 years,” he noted. “Their habitats, hunting grounds and travel routes have been destroyed by urbanization and construction works.”

“There are a few foxes, desert-rabbits, snakes, lizards, and other reptiles that still inhabit the protectorate,” he added, pointing to the burrows and dens that can be found in the area. “But their numbers have dramatically dwindled.”

During a brief visit to the Petrified Forest, two small brown foxes were spotted as they darted out of their burrows.

In response to these threats, Rashed has proposed the construction of a brick wall to enclose the preserve and keep waste and urbanization outside the ancient forest’s precincts. As it stands now, a single wall stretches around one kilometer of the protectorate’s borders, just across from the newly built German University in Cairo.

Otherwise, the borders are demarcated primarily by streets, highways and building blocks, which surround the area on all sides.

"The finance ministry recently approved our calls for the construction of a wall,” said Rashed. “But we need a brick wall, not a fence, to keep people from dumping their waste on the protectorate's grounds." He expects the funding for this to come through early next year.  

“I would like to see investors taking over the administration of the protectorate, in order to properly protect and promote it” Rashed added. “The Petrified Forest, like so many other protected areas across Egypt, is clearly under-funded and under-staffed.”

“Investors could turn the forest into a popular tourist destination for both foreigners and local visitors,” he said. Rashed went on to explain that guided tours–detailing the history and geology of the protectorate–were available upon request, but, he added, “There are few visitors here, and even fewer who request such tours.”

“This protectorate has a great deal of touristic potential–but, unfortunately, it has not been properly being cared for,” concluded Rashed.

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