Public, Government Unconcerned : Hunters Relentlessly Kill Egypt’s Imperiled Species

Times Staff Writer

Ibrahim Helmy fights for what is probably a lost cause--the salvation of Egypt’s endangered wildlife. On more than one occasion, he has nearly died for it.

Helmy, a zoologist and naturalist, has spent most of his adult life crisscrossing the vast wastes of the Sinai and Western deserts, tracking and observing the elusive cheetah, leopard, gazelle and ostrich that once inhabited these desolate plains in abundance.

In 1964, his vehicle fell into a patch of quicksand in the Qattara Depression. He escaped with his life but was forced to walk 120 miles through the desert without food or water.


Ran Over Land Mine

He was less lucky two years ago when, studying gerbils near Sharm el Sheik in the Sinai, he backed his four-wheel-drive vehicle over a land mine and lost his right arm and his left leg.

Helmy has no time for self-pity, however, and no patience with those who feel pity toward him. What makes his soft voice rise in anger or sink to a pained whisper is not his long personal struggle to recover from his injuries but the worsening plight of Egypt’s endangered species.

“The cheetah, the leopard, the ibex and the ostrich . . . once we had these and many other species in abundance,” he said in a recent interview. “But they are gone now, gone or going. Unless we act quickly, all these animals will be gone forever.”

A few forms of wildlife--among them the cheetah in the Western Desert and the ostrich near the border with Sudan--still maintain a tenuous toehold in Egypt, but the odds of survival are stacked heavily against them.

Animals Have Two Allies

In their struggle against extinction, these animals have but two allies: the relative remoteness of their remaining habitats and a growing but still small and largely disorganized number of conservationist groups.

Pitted against them are an ignorant public, an indifferent government concerned with developing tourism and sportsmen of various nationalities who take advantage of lax laws and loose enforcement to hunt endangered species in Egypt with what has been virtual impunity.

“Of the two main threats to wildlife here, hunting and habitat change, hunting is by far the worst,” said Dr. Gamil Atta, a zoologist with the Egyptian Wildlife Service. “Hunting, in Egypt, is a terrible business.”

‘Lack of Enforcement’

The problem, said Dr. Nael abu Zeid, another wildlife service zoologist, is not so much a lack of laws but “the complete lack of enforcement of the laws we have.”

Animals like the cheetah, the ibex, the bustard and the desert falcon are technically protected species but are hunted nonetheless. Indeed, ignorance of the laws is so widespread that the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt recently upset conservationists by publishing a travel magazine that contained a promotion for a new shooting club that plans to feature hunting trips for “gazelles, ostriches, eagles and falcons”--all of which are classified as protected species.

The wildlife service is supposed to regulate the issuing of hunting permits in Egypt. But travel agencies, shooting clubs and other organizers of hunting trips here routinely bypass it to obtain permits directly from local police stations or provincial government offices.

“The (provincial governments) know nothing about wildlife conservation,” Atta said. “They are only concerned about tourism, and they think that the more hunting permits they give out, the more tourism they will attract. And the hunters, for their part, have no respect for endangered species.”

Blatant Offenders

The most blatant offenders in this regard are Italian and Maltese tour groups, wealthy Arabs from the Persian Gulf region, foreign oil company workers based in desert areas and, among local hunters, Egyptian army officers.

Helmy, his voice rising in anger again, recalls how he once saw a group of oil company workers chase a gazelle with their four-wheel-drive vehicle until it was so exhausted that it could no longer move.

“Then they killed it by running over it,” he said bitterly. “They did not do it for food. They just left it there. They did it for fun.”

Egypt, which possesses 25% of the Mediterranean region’s total wetlands, is a major way station for waterfowl and other migratory birds, and bird hunters from across Europe constitute an important component of Egypt’s tourism industry. Yet ornithologists complain that unregulated shooting, both in and out of season, is killing far too many birds, including species that are officially protected in Europe.

“Egyptians shoot birds too, but I blame the foreigners more because Egyptians have no wildlife conservation awareness, whereas the foreigners do,” Zeid said. “The reason they come to Egypt is to kill birds they are banned or restricted from shooting in their own countries.”

Small U.S. Grant

The wildlife service, formed in 1984, is supposed to help prevent this sort of excess, but it is too understaffed and underfunded to have much effect. Apart from salaries, which are paid by the Ministry of Agriculture, the service’s sole source of funding now is a $12,000 grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which will not extend beyond this year.

Politics also sharply limits the role of the service’s 12 full-time and 13 part-time staff members in protecting Egypt’s endangered wildlife.

“We are constantly fighting with the Ministry of Tourism and with the Environmental Affairs Agency, both of which know nothing about wildlife conservation and are concerned only with developing tourism,” said a wildlife service scientist, speaking on the condition that he not be identified.

The Environmental Affairs Agency, which has overall responsibility for ecological issues in Egypt, is widely criticized by local conservationists as ineffectual, ignorant of conservation issues and chiefly concerned with finding rationales for development projects.

To get around this, a number of environmentalists are trying to organize private conservation-oriented groups with the aim of lobbying government agencies and publicizing their cause in the local press.

Vanishing Laughter

“Environmental awareness is growing in Egypt,” said Moustafa Fouda, a marine biologist and professor at El Azhar, Egypt’s oldest university. “Ten years ago, when I first started talking about the environment, people laughed. Now, they listen.”

Still, these groups lack both coordination and clout. “We are not very well organized yet,” Fouda concedes, “and we have no overall leadership.”

One issue that may help catalyze some coordination between these fledgling groups is a controversy that is shaping up between the Environmental Affairs Agency and conservationists over plans to develop Ras Muhammad National Park in the Sinai Desert.

Ras Muhammad, the first area of Egypt to be declared a national park, borders the Red Sea in the southern Sinai and is particularly noted for its magnificent offshore coral reefs.

Plans being drafted by the Environmental Affairs Agency to develop the area for tourism include the construction of roads, a restaurant, a visitors’ accommodation center, a jetty and a diving school in what conservationists say is the most environmentally sensitive part of the park.

Mohammedi Eid, the army general who heads the Environmental Affairs Agency, denies that any of this will endanger the area’s delicate ecology. “Traffic in the area will be restricted,” he said. “Private cars will not be allowed to enter. There will be no danger at all.”

‘Irreparable Harm’ Seen

This view is sharply disputed, however, by most Egyptian ecologists and zoologists.

Zeid, a zoologist trained at Cornell University who has done extensive field work in Ras Muhammad, said that “extensive damage” already has been done to the area and that “irreparable harm” could result if the park’s “core zone” is developed as planned.

“You cannot imagine how much destruction is already going on there,” he said. “On land, the ibex has already been eliminated from the area and the mangroves are dying from oil pollution. If they build a tourist center there, what will they do with the sewage? . . . We realize that tourism is important, but we also need to give more serious consideration to the question of how we manage and safeguard these unique resources for the benefit of future generations.”

Ibrahim Helmy, confined by his injuries to his small apartment in a crowded suburb of Cairo, was asked if, given Egypt’s development priorities, there is really any hope left for its remaining wildlife or its diminishing wilderness areas such as Ras Muhammad.

He lowered his eyes to the floor and his voice to a whisper, and replied: “The responsible people here, they do nothing. But we still have hope. We must have hope. We must get them to do something, before it is too late.”