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Ameer Abdulla is one of Egypt’s most prominent marine experts. His vast experience and involvement in marine conservation science both outside and inside Egypt have made him a key figure in the field in many countries around the world. Apart from being a lecturer in a number of universities internationally, he is also a senior research fellow in marine conservation science at the University of Queensland, Australia and a senior adviser in marine biodiversity and conservation science with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Global Marine Program.
Born in Cairo in the 1970s, Abdulla developed a deep passion for the sea and its creatures during his childhood spent on the banks of the Mediterranean, the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf. He inherited his love of the sea from his Alexandrian father and his passion for biology from his mother, who was a science teacher. Over time, Abdulla developed a natural curiosity for different kinds of sea creatures and fish, and spent hours watching and observing them.
“I found that marine biology was the perfect career for me as it combines my love for sea and my love for biology,” he says.
Fascinated by marine science, he applied for a number of universities and was accepted to a university in Florida for his bachelor’s degree. After that, Abdulla traveled to Australia where he received multiple scholarships to undertake his postgraduate studies. He believes that he was lucky to have had these opportunities as they taught him to work hard and do his best.
“I always believed in pursuing my PhD for a reason. I always felt that I needed to get a good education then come back to help Egypt. This goal was in my mind the entire time I was abroad,” Abdulla says.
Since then, Abdulla decided to dedicate his life to marine conservation science. After his PhD, he applied for a number of jobs in Australia, the US and internationally.
“I didn’t want to be just another marine biologist; instead, I wanted to make a difference. Therefore, I joined an international organization called IUCN that gave me the opportunity to work in Egypt, in the Mediterranean and in the Red Sea. I found it an excellent chance to try to provide some kind of help,” he explains.
Whenever he comes to Egypt, Abdulla devotes most of his time to undertaking marine ecological surveys and organizing training workshops for university students and marine rangers, in addition to giving lectures in various universities. He believes that his responsibility is to convey some of the knowledge and practices he has gained overseas that may be useful for Egypt.
“In addition to my passion for Egypt’s nature and heritage, I am keen to come to Egypt because I’m very worried about what’s happening to Egypt’s marine life and ecosystems. We are at a point in Egypt where damage to these areas may soon be irreversible,” he says.
“Unfortunately, it’s quite common that tourists care more about the marine ecosystem than many Egyptians,” he adds, arguing that most Egyptians are disconnected from the marine environment, as they don’t have the opportunity to experience it and see how amazing it truly is.
“As most marine ecosystems are hidden under water, people don’t really notice them and certainly don’t notice when they have been heavily damaged. If you go to a forest and cut some of its trees, people will be alarmed and quickly respond. However, if you remove coral reefs or sea grass, people won’t see that, and thus they won’t notice the true extent of the problem,” he notes sadly.
According to Abdulla, overdevelopment is one of the main dangers threatening marine life in Egypt. Unfortunately, rampant development on the coasts doesn’t happen in an eco-friendly way that could avoid or minimize damage to environment and the marine habitats. The destruction that follows is visible on coral reefs in many parts of Egypt where development is intense or unchecked.
Overfishing is another danger, Abdulla says, especially in the Red Sea. “In some places you may find that coral reefs are healthy because of a lack of development nearby, but there are no fish! This is also quite damaging as both fish and corals are key components in the balance of these marine systems.”
“Since 2009, coral reefs have started to bleach as a result of sudden and prolonged increases in sea temperatures, and this tendency has been amplified by coastal development and overfishing,” he adds.
In an attempt to preserve this fragile ecosystem, Abdulla is working with national NGOs such as Nature Conservation Egypt in the Red Sea to undertake scientific studies that would support decision-makers in developing better and more informed management strategies for these areas.
In his opinion, the problem in Egypt lies in implementing the currently existing laws. Therefore, there must be new and innovative methods for education, monitoring and locally managing areas, Abdulla argues.
Furthermore, Abdulla explains that most of the protected areas in Egypt are in fact not well protected at all.
Wadi Gemal and Gebel Elba, for instance, are called “protected areas” but fishing there is completely unregulated. According to Abdulla, the only fully protected areas or no-take zones are Ras Mohamed and Al-Nabq in Sinai.
“We hope that no-take zones will be designated in Wadi Gemal and Gebel Elba soon,” he adds.
Marine resource management agencies in Egypt are often criticized for not being effective, but face challenges such as a lack of financial resources and a lack of manpower to fulfill their missions.
Abdulla explains that there needs to be an increase in communication between law enforcement entities such as the Coast Guard and the institutions mandated with the management of marine areas within the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency to enhance marine resource management.
A stronger dialogue between government and civil society organizations, such as environmental NGOs, is also critical as they may be able to provide useful technical expertise, education and advocacy.
Abdulla is convinced that there must be a clear plan for increasing public awareness about the marine environment during the coming years. “This can be achieved by having well-known and high-profile ‘champions’ who can bring public’s attention to environmental issues,” he argues.
Also, it’s important to instill an interest in marine species and habitats in children by adding environment chapters in the educational text books, Abdulla says. “You protect what you love, and people should start loving their marine natural heritage.”
“Unfortunately, people who talk about environment in Egypt are seen as trivial or as having too much time on their hands. People need to understand that the environment is about eating, drinking, breathing, and finding and maintaining jobs as well as maintaining a natural heritage that is as important as a cultural one. The environment provides people with countless services that we take for granted and will only lament deeply once they are gone. Let’s find a way to prevent them from disappearing.”
This article is part of Egypt Independent’s “Environmentalist Portrait” series, in which we profile inspiring “green” individuals from various fields who make a difference in a country with a precious yet extremely vulnerable environment. The professionals we present in this series are working on a daily basis to safeguard Egypt’s various ecosystems and environmental importance.