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North African wetlands constitute important stopover sites and wintering grounds for water birds breeding in Eurasia, including many globally threatened species.
In order to develop a regional program to support mid-winter surveys in the region, a workshop titled “Brainstorming on International Water bird Census in North Africa” was held in Tunis on 8-9 October, hosted by “Association Les Amis des Oiseaux (AAO).” Representatives of the Egyptian Ministry of Environment and Egypt’s NGO Nature Conservation Egypt (NCE) attended.
The purpose of the workshop was to try to strengthen mid-winter counts in North Africa and rebuild a regional network weakened by poor coordination, information exchange, data storage and processing as well as lack of resources and manpower to conduct surveys.
“North Africa and the Middle East present a unique bio-geographic area sharing a common language and culture,” commented Jean-Yves Mondain-Monval from the French Game and Wildlife Agency (ONCFS). “Water bird counts are an excellent vehicle to promote regional cooperation and develop ornithological capacity. The ultimate aim is to enhance conservation of habitats and water birds throughout the flyway.”
Wed Abdel Latif, a bird specialist from the Egyptian Ministry of Environment, made a presentation about Egypt. “Surveys have been conducted in protected areas,” he informed the participants. “There has been considerable capacity built in Aswan largely due to the efforts of Dick Hoak, a retired Dutch birder who has been visiting Aswan for the past 10 years helping with counts and training many good local birders.”
Egypt has the most wetlands in North Africa but they are some of the least surveyed. The last major census of wintering water birds was performed in the late 1980s. Some Egyptian wetlands have never been surveyed in a comprehensive manner, including Lake Nasser and the Mediterranean and Red Sea coasts. Most counts have taken place on an irregular and ad-hoc basis.
According to an upcoming paper to be published by Sherif Baha el Din, a renowned birder and the founder of Nature Conservation Egypt, surveys over the years have revealed significant changes in the composition of water birds both resident and migrant in the Egyptian wetlands. This indicates that major ecological changes have taken place.
“Water birds are good indicators of environmental health,” says Mondain-Monval. “Water bird counts are a useful tool to identify priorities. Annual surveys help us monitor trends in water bird populations and identify sites of importance.”
“There are applications for hunting management,” added Pierre Defos du Rau, also from the same agency. “Winter water bird surveys are one of the best means we have to monitor hunting. The information can be used to set hunting quotas. “
Countries around the world undertake mid-winter water bird censuses. The counts feed into the International Water bird Census (IWC) operated by Wetlands International. Since 1967, it has covered sites in more than 100 countries making it the largest global monitoring schemes, largely based on citizen science. The census monitors changes in the numbers and distributions of water bird populations at the flyway level.
“Water bird counts contribute to the implementation of international conventions such as the African Eurasian Water bird Agreement,” says Mondain-Monval. “As called for by the conventions, we are trying to strengthen cooperation in the Mediterranean Basin which is a very important region for wetlands and water birds.”
Tour du Valat, a research center located in the French southern region of Camargue, is one of the most active organizations involved in wetland conservation in the Mediterranean. Due to the support of Tour du Valat, ONSCF, the Regional Activity Center for Special Protected Areas and other international bodies there has been considerable capacity built in water bird counts in North Africa. Most countries have developed national teams and undertake annual counts.
Claudia Feltrup-Azafzaf, the executive Director of “Les Amis des Oiseaux” association explains that Tunisia has been doing well with the field work but must do more with data processing. Even Libya has produced an atlas of wintering water birds.
When asked about the benefits, she explains, that “water birds surveys are not an end in itself but a means to promote education, scientific research and conservation objectives.”
With a small grant from the French government, ONCFS has a three year project assisting Egypt to undertake winter water bird counts. “This is the last year; we hope the project will be extended” says Mondai-Monval. Surveys to date have covered part of Lake Nasser and Upper Nile Valley. It is still undecided which area the survey will cover this winter.
When hearing about the state of Egyptian wetlands, Stephen Flink of Wetland International assured that integrated wetland management is what is needed. “Biodiversity is one the key wetland resources,” he says. “It is surprising Egypt is not undertaking annual counts given its importance for wetlands.”
“Lack of support and resources are one of the biggest obstacles facing Egypt,” explains Abdel Latif. “For sustainability the surveys should be used as a tool helping with decision making and forming national policy.”
He also stressed that there needs to cooperate more with NGOs and universities. Most other countries in North Africa counts are undertaken by or in partnership with such bodies. He explains that one of the major constraints facing Egypt is the lack of professors with expertise in ornithology.
When asked how the situation can be improved in Egypt, he replied, “The involvement of international organizations is needed. “Flink was likewise surprised how birds and other wetland biodiversity was being overlooked by donors and conservation bodies. We have activities in deltas throughout the world, why not in Egypt?" he asked.
Mindy Baha el Din is an environmental consultant and a bird expert on the board of the NGO Nature Conservation Egypt. She is married to prominent conservationist and NCE founder Sherif Baha el Din.