Aswan–The dry desert wind that fills the canvas sails of feluccas weaving their way between the islands of the First Cataract carries the biggest single threat to Egypt’s last remaining stand of Nile Valley gallery forest.
On muggy summer nights embers from fires set to remove weeds on resort hotel properties ride the northerly breeze, crossing a narrow river channel and landing on the combustible underbrush of Saluga and Ghazal islands. The two Nile islands, which lie three km south of Aswan, are part of a designated protected area increasingly encroached upon by human activities.
Fires have spread to the protected islands at least three times in the last ten years, says park ranger Mona Seif al-Din. The biggest blaze, in 2003, ripped through some of the nature preserve’s valued acacia trees.
“After that fire we added pipes to bring water to the islands in case of fire,” says Seif al-Din. “But when the Nile is low [and the water barrier that separates neighboring islands decreases] it is hard to protect the islands from fires.”
Mahmoud Hasseb, general manager of South Area Protectorates at the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Authority (EEAA), says a luxury hotel on neighboring Isis Island, and a hotel-owned entertainment area on nearby Basma Island, are the two main fire and pollution threats. He says the EEAA has repeatedly warned the owners of these establishments not to burn piles of cut grass or dump sewage into the river.
“These problems usually only happen when they are working at full capacity,” he says, disputing reports that the tourist establishments are operating without an environmental impact assessment (EIA).
The unique and threatened ecosystem of Saluga and Ghazal islands prompted the government to declare them a protectorate in 1986. The two granitic islands, covering less than half a square kilometer, contain vestiges of the acacia gallery forest that once covered all the islands near the Nile’s First Cataract. Their natural biodiversity includes over 100 species of plants, 15 species of mammals and 135 recorded species of birds.
“Acacias are especially important to the ecosystem,” explains Seif al-Din. “There are five species of acacia on the islands, including some very rare species. It is unique to have this number [of acacia species] in one place.”
The midstream islands–which juxtapose dry scrubland and lush wetland–are also rich in birdlife, attracting more than 60 rare species of migratory and resident birds. The avian diversity has made Saluga and Ghazal Protectorate one of the preeminent birding sites in Egypt, drawing researchers and watchers from around the globe.
A ringing station for migratory birds was established in the protectorate in 2003 under the auspices of Poland’s South East European Bird Migration Network (SEEN). In July, a new visitor’s center opened in memory of Japan’s late Prince Takamado Norihito, an avid bird lover who was especially fond of the islands.
While the protectorate is uninhabited, its topography bears scars of human activity. The eastern half of Saluga was quarried in antiquity, and 12 feddans near the southwest corner of the island are currently under cultivation. The EEAA initially hoped to purchase the farmland, but budgetary constraints forced a compromise whereby the farmers could continue to tend their crops provided they abided by the protectorate’s regulations.
“The farmland is not a problem because they don’t build, pollute or burn,” says Hasseb. “In effect, it acts as a buffer zone for the island.”
The accessibility of the Nile islands –reached by a short felucca or motorboat ride from Aswan–is a double-edged sword, according to Seif al-Din. Tourist visits to the protected islands can help educate the public on the importance of preserving biodiversity. On the other hand, the hordes of children who descend on the islands for school field trips can trample plants, litter and disturb the wildlife.
“Some of the schools come for fun, not education,” she says. “The kids shout and play loud music.”