The bird hunting season that reopened on 25 December is ending today in a country blessed with a massive seasonal influx of migratory birds, many of which are protected species. This is the first time that the government has allowed the reopening of the hunting season since the outbreak of bird flu in 2008, when it was officially banned by decree.
Although theoretical, the decree, issued in 2008, was widely respected for a while because of the paranoia that surrounded the bird flu. Sherif Baha el-Din, an environmental consultant and a leading conservationist, explains that the panic sparked by the bird flu led to weird behavior.
“Some people stopped hanging their clothes outside for fear that a bird might poop on them, or when they spotted a bird, they would look the other way,” he says with a grin. But in the years that followed, hunters gradually resumed their hunting activities.
Striking in Egypt is the lack of a system that can monitor which birds are being killed and in which quantities, which would make sure hunting seasons are respected.
“You cannot open a hunting season when you don’t have a system to monitor this activity,” says Mindy Baha Eddin, a bird specialist and co-founder of Nature Conservation Egypt. She has witnessed atrocities committed by foreign hunters ― mostly from Malta and Cyprus, she says ― who literally shot anything that moved, protected or not, in Fayoum a decade back. “I was bird-watching in Fayoum with a group when we noticed that Maltese hunters were carrying garbage bags full of dead birds,” she explains.
Eyewitnesses in Abu Simbel also told Mindy about flocks of flamingos taken down by Maltese hunters standing on inflatable boats, and scenes of wounded birds splashing all around Lake Nasser.
“Maltese hunters are crazy fanatics,” Sherif says, “and they have been bird hunting in Egypt for decades, because Egypt has interesting-looking birds compared to its neighbors.”
Despite the small number of foreign hunters — about a thousand every year, according to Sherif’s “Directory of Important Bird Areas in Egypt” — the damage they cause is tremendous.
“They hunt for trophies and private collections,” Sherif says, explaining that they often skin the birds before leaving Egypt to hand over to taxidermists at home. “They have become increasingly cautious with time, and today to avoid the skins being intercepted at customs, they label them as agricultural produce and travel in a different plane than the birds’ skins.”
Also, the hunters now rent shotguns directly in Egypt and don’t need a special permit to bring their weapons into the country.
“That the country does not have a body to monitor local illegal hunting is something, but to be unable to track this small number of foreign hunters and make sure they don’t kill protected species in incredible numbers is questionable,” he stresses.
Local hunting practices differ from one area to the other, depending on the species of birds hunters are trying to catch. In Damietta Governoate, local hunters manufacture 3-meter-long nets that they set up at nightfall in between two walls and dismantle in the morning to avoid police detection.
“These people hunt for food,” says Basma Sheta from Mansoura University, who is doing her PhD on the transmission of the bird flu to domestic birds by migratory birds. “Damietta is almost an island,” she says, “with Lake Manzalla to the east, the Mediterranean Sea to the north and a branch of the Nile running by.”
“So the bird population is mainly composed of waterfowl, like geese, quail and ducks, and we have almost no raptors, so there are no foreign hunters in the area,” she adds.
Sheta explains that Sinai and Suez are the two hot spots for capturing raptors, and some Bedouin families are in the business of catching them, using birds of prey and selling them to the Gulf.
As a bird specialist, Sheta maintains good relations with the local hunters, and tries to acquaint them with some conservation ideas.
“Some of the hunters I know now systematically release smaller migratory birds, like the thrush nightingale, when they get entangled in the nets only to keep the quails,” she explains. “But these hunters are very poor, they sometimes stay three nights in the cold only to catch five to 10 birds each day,” she says.
Sheta explains that local hunters do not hunt with shotguns, a practice reserved for rich Egyptian hunters who belong to shooting clubs.
Mindy Baha Eddin is convinced that developing bird-watching trips to Egypt would have a much more positive economic impact on local communities than bird hunting, and hopes that the latter will develop and become part of the local ecotourism expansion.