The Zaranik protectorate, located around 30 kilometers west of Arish along Egypt's Mediterranean coast in north Sinai, is a vital stopover for worldwide bird migrations. During the autumn season it is the chief Egyptian gateway for a migratory route that takes birds from both Europe and Asia south to Africa. Two hundred and seventy different species of birds have been reported in Zaranik during past autumns.
Lake Bardawil, a large body of coastal saltwater, lies at the protectorate's western edge. Classified as a wetland and an important bird destination, Zaranik was declared a natural protectorate in 1985 as one of the first of its kind. At 250 square kilometers (roughly 70 percent of its area is covered in saltwater, 30 percent by land and sand-dunes) Zaranik is also one of Egypt's larger protectorates. Yet just how protected is this protectorate?
According to the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA)–the executive body of the Ministry of State for Environmental Affairs–the Zaranik Protectorate is confronted by several threats including uncontrolled bird hunting, unregulated tourism and recreation–which may result in the loss of some species–as well as the use of land for livestock grazing, and most importantly, the presence of a salt mining industry within the protectorate. This industry may upset the natural balance of the protectorate.
At the protectorate's entrance is a large statue of a seabird. Yet walking in a few meters in, it is not birds that grab your attention but rather a large scale salt-mining operation. There is no humming, tweeting, and chirping of birds. Instead the humming engines of machinery and huge trailer trucks fill the air.
A six-kilometer long asphalt road runs south to north through the protectorate. Man-made ponds, known as concentration ponds and crystallizers, are located along both sides of the road. The industrial operations of the Nasr Company for Salt Production are blatantly clear to all visitors.
So how is it that such a large scale industrial operation continues to operate within an official natural protectorate? Saad Othman, director of the Zaranik protectorate, told Al-Masry Al-Youm that the Nasr Salt Company was established on this piece of land in 1983, two years before Zaranik acquired its status.
"At first the company used to operate on an area of 53 square kilometers but following the establishment of the Zaranik Protectorate their operations have been decreased to approximately 25 square kilometers," he said. Othman said that this decreased area of operations was due to Prime Ministerial Decree 264/1994 which stipulates industrial operations may not occupy more than 10 percent of the area of any natural protectorate.
"The Nasr Salt Company has very few detrimental effects on the protectorate," he added. "In fact it is more beneficial to the protectorate than it is detrimental."
The company's salt "concentration ponds have served to increase the surface area of water in the protectorate, and thus it provides additional habitats and spaces for birds," Othman argued.
Walking through the protectorate, however, most birds are found resting, nesting, and hunting in those ponds which are a safe distance away from the presence of humans and their industrial operations. Very few birds are in those concentration ponds where trucks and machinery actively operate.
"The detrimental effects of the company are not noticeable within the protectorate," Othman said, "but rather outside its borders," particularly along Lake Bardawil. "The Nasr Company extracts water from the lake, which lies outside the borders of the protectorate; and is under the administration and jurisdiction of the General Authority for Fish Resources."
Othman admits that the operation of the Nasr Company may result in decreased levels of zooplanktons and phytoplanktons–essential marine microorganisms–in the water of Lake Bardawil upon which fish and birds depend for survival.
"In the process of water-pumping, small and juvenile fish, or fingerlings, may die as they are sucked out of the lake–which may detrimentally affect breeding cycles, fish stocks, and in turn the birds which depend on these fish for food," he said.
According to Othman, all fishing regulations and industrial operations based around Lake Bardawil are the responsibility of this lake's respective authorities, and the General Authority for Fish Resources. "The lake is none of our business," he said.
Mohamed Nagy, of the independent Habi Center for Environmental Rights, presents a different argument. Nagy believes that it is not only the Zaranik protectorate which is threatened.
"All of Egypt's protectorates are confronted with threats and problems," Nagy said."The salt mining industry is clearly affecting and impacting the environment of this protectorate, along with its plants, wildlife, and the birds which migrate to this area from around the world."
On a recent visit to Zaranik , Nagy noted, "I was surprised to find such a large presence of workers, trucks and machinery within the protectorate."
Nagy explained the Habi Center had not conducted any in-depth studies or analyses on the conditions of the protectorate.
"There were several large spots of oil on the road by the ponds within the protectorate, perhaps from trucks or other machinery," he said, however. "This may have been cleaned-up. However, it is clear that the land is becoming more saline due to the salt mining operations."
According to Nagy, "if an industry does not directly serve to maintain and preserve the protectorate in which it is found, then it should be relocated outside the protectorate–or at least into the buffer zone of the protectorate."
Othman argued that other than reducing the area of salt mining operations within the protectorate, there are more positive achievements which have been realized in Zaranik. The small "Bedouin communities residing within the protectorate have been organized into a local NGO which serves to keep them from hunting or catching birds, and other wildlife found here."
Othman added that projects and grants are offered to these Bedouins to provide their communities with livestock fodder. "In this way we manage to keep grazing animals from eating up the grass and plants–on which the birds depend for food or nesting," he said.
"Some Bedouins do come in and hunt birds here, but they are unable to do so collectively because our team of rangers and employees detect and prevent them. We can't prevent each and every hunter from doing so."
He added that most of these hunters and bird catchers are lured to the protectorate during quail hunting season, "but we do our best to keep them out."
Of the 270 some species of birds that seasonally migrate to Zaranik, "some species have noticeably increased in numbers, and some have decreased, while others are threatened, endangered, or on the verge of extinction."
Othman also pointed to the tortoise and sea turtle protection initiatives in Zaranik, which include a hatchery. "Our rangers survey, monitor and protect their nesting sites. In doing so they successfully keep people from collecting or destroying their eggs."
Turtles are pivotal in keeping jellyfish populations in check, Othman said.
This article is part of Al-Masry Al-Youm’s weekly “Protectorates not Protected” series, in which Egypt’s protectorates will be covered with the aim of determining the degree to which they are in fact environmentally "protected."