Sherif Baha el-Din is one of Egypt’s most prominent naturalists. His various discoveries, his contribution to conservation and his 30-year-long involvement in developing Egypt’s protected areas have made him a key figure in environmental circles. Apart from being an environmental consultant, he is also the President of Nature Conservation Egypt (NCE) and the BirdLife International Affliate for Egypt.
Born in 1960 in the coastal town of Ras Ghaleb on the Red Sea, located north of Hurghada, Baha el-Din developed a fascination for nature and biodiversity early on, especially reptiles and bird-watching.
“The house I grew up in as a boy was situated four meters away from the sea, a turbulent area with lots of waves, that attracted many migratory birds,” he recalls.
Fascinated with reptiles, he used to roam the area close to his house, flipping thousands of rocks in the hope of discovering snakes lazily coiled underneath, although the task was unrewarding at best.
But there were birds in this area — plenty of them — and he focused his curiosity on them. Whenever he went out to observe birds, he carried a heavy and dusty volume of “Egyptian Birds”, one of the rare descriptive books on birds published at the time.
“There were no illustrations of the birds, really, mainly text, and I would draw birds by closely reading their description. But sometimes my vision was miles away from what the real bird looked like,” he said with an amused tone.
His family moved to Cairo after the 1967 war, and he attended art school at Helwan University in 1975, even though he preferred science.
"My marks were not high enough and I joined art school out of spite," he said.
Not assiduous in the slightest during his time at university, he constantly used his free time to pursue bird watching in Heliopolis at an abandoned club that attracted a wide variety of birds. His frequent bird watching introduced him personally to no less than 40 different species.
“I discovered bird watching independently, ignoring that this was an already existing activity, and once I discovered a new species called the 'yellow hammer', a type of sparrow," he said.
Browsing through a large leather folder, Baha el-Din took out early bird paintings that he drew when he was a young man — mostly birds he had observed in the Heliopolis Club. The refinement, the precision of the lines and the effect of texture was one of an accomplished artist, but he said art school taught him nothing more as far as technique was concerned.
In 1981, he was hired as an ornithologist to assess the extent of damage inflicted on various species after a major oil spill in the Red Sea. He said the field work was exciting and rough. He worked with a group of scientists to determine how badly the wildlife had been affected by the spill, surveying a strip of coast from Suez to Ras Banas.
During a month of field work, they found so many dead animals that they filled an entire truck with dry carcasses, he said.
Baha el-Din’s infatuation with protected areas began in the 1980s, when he became the scientific adviser for the Zaranig area, the second area in Egypt to be registered as a national park. Established in 1985, the Zaranig protected area features Bardawil Lake, which encompasses a large variety of unique aquatic and terrestrial habitats and is an important bottleneck and staging area for migratory birds.
The 1980s witnessed the creation of the country’s first protected areas prior to the establishment of the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA) in 1994, the governmental body in charge of managing national parks. Until the EEAA was formed, the governmental body in charge of managing Egypt’s protected areas was the Ministry of Agriculture.
“When the EEAA was created, the management of the protected areas became slightly more comprehensive, although the system is still far from being perfect,” he says. Baha el-Din said that each protected area manager meets with the Ministry of Environment once a year to discuss the amount of money they need, and the budget allocated to each of them depends on how vocal and professional each manager is.
A few years after the EEAA's creation, Baha el-Din participated in a large-scale assessment of Egypt’s national parks and was one of the specialists in charge of defining a systematic plan for all the protected areas in the country. For two years, he worked with scientists to assess the protected areas that already existed and list other areas that needed to be protected, such as Siwa, the White Desert, Salloum and Gif al-Kebir — a large plateau located at the extreme southwest of Egypt on the Libyan border.
Since the law concerning the establishment and management of protected areas was passed in 1983, 19 protected areas have been declared, totaling some 80,000 square kilometers and representing Egypt’s most important natural resources.
The main criterion for an area to become a national park is its unique contribution to the biodiversity of Egypt, through the presence of its endemic species, its geological specificities and its importance in the country’s natural heritage, which could also draw an influx of eco-tourists. Baha el-Din stresses that some areas, such as Saint Catherine in the Sinai, are particularly important to salvage and preserve because they offer a unique mix of natural and cultural aspects.
He is currently working on adding the seasonal Dashur Lake to the list of protected areas, because the site offers a fascinating blend of a preserved ecosystem and history.
“It is a green grassy land that used to be King Farouk’s favorite hunting area," Baha el-Din said. "This wetland landscape has remained untouched since the time of the Pharaohs and has been preserved from the intensive cultivation and degradation of the Nile Valley’s lands."
He stressed that not only has the area managed to conserve its unique wildlife, but it is also one of the rare places in Egypt where you can imagine how the ancient Egyptians lived.
According to Baha el-Din, one of his most important achievements is “to have managed to extract 60km of coastal land from the teeth of the Tourism Development Agency in the South of Marsa Allam, and declare the Wadi Gamal protected area,” he says with a smile, remembering how fierce the battle was. Today, Wadi Gamal is a protected area situated between two areas of intense touristic development. Significantly, it constitutes one of the main attractions for tourist visitors.
Looking to the future, Baha el-Din is convinced that the government needs a long-term vision and should think about what the country is going to look like in a hundred years.
“Egypt should end its construction frenzy and invest in medium-term projects as part of a whole vision for the future, because currently the government is funding random projects without having a global plan," he said.
One of these projects to preserve Egypt’s capital in the future involves the protected areas, he said.
“These areas could easily fund themselves and even make extra money if they were properly managed and invested in to attract eco-tourists,” he stresses.
He concludes by saying: “There is a blatant mismanagement of the foreign donors’ money as well, and I really hope that the revolution will not change the people, but our way of doing things.”