In Search Of Christmas Spirit In Egypt’s Nature
I struggle in December. I want to write something of festive relevance to celebrate Western Christmas but it is difficult with an Egyptian nature column.
by Richard Hoath
The flora and fauna so embedded in childhood memory are simply not here. The holly and the ivy? Ilex aquifolium and Hedera sp. both are absent from Africa except for the very northwest. The English Yew of Yule log fame is native to much of Europe and coastal regions of northwest Africa but not here. The Robin, sporter of the red breast, may flaunt itself on a zillion Christmas card snowscapes but it is at best an uncommon winter visitor here and only in the north so the connection is tenuous. So I thought I would write about Reindeer of Rudolph and red nose fame.
It takes us to Wadi Rish Rash in the northern Eastern Desert about two hours south of Cairo. It is spectacular. The very rough track in this four-wheel-drive territory meanders along the wadi floor and on both sides intimidatingly vertiginous cliffs rise. Many kilometers in there is a dilapidated lodge from where King Farouk went into the mountains to hunt the Nubian Ibex and it was the prospect of seeing Nubian Ibex that had lured me there on my first visit. Below the lodge is a small garden fed by a spring and it was at this spring that the ibex were meant to drink.
Nubian Ibex would have to wait for dusk. The rest of the day was spent trekking the wadi floor. Many of the expected Eastern Desert denizens put in an appearance. There were White-crowned Black and Mourning and Hooded Wheatears. Small flocks of Trumpeter Finches, males all rosy-pink and red-billed flitted through the boughs of tamarisk trees and Streaked Warblers skulked below. Above there were Sooty Falcons and amongst the rock talus of the side wadis there were Golden Spiny Mice. While almost all of Egypt’s desert rodents are nocturnal, the Golden Spiny Mouse is active by day and so, though restricted to the Eastern Desert and South Sinai, it is relatively easy to see. Back at camp I found a wintering Redwing, a small European thrush that is rare here. A great find.
The ruined lodge had an elderly custodian (can you have bawabs in the middle of nowhere?). Aha! I thought — a chance to tap local knowledge. I pulled out my copy of F. H Van den Brink’s A Field Guide to the Mammals of Europe (there was no Egyptian field guide at the time) and turned to the ibex plate. Pointing to the ibex, a male with magnificent swept-back horns, I asked the custodian whether this animal was still found here. He looked sagely at the picture and assured me that yes they were and that they did indeed drink at the spring.
Great, I thought. And then a twinge of caution. Too often I had been given traffic directions by people who had no idea where I was going but wanted, very kindly, to be helpful. I went back to the plate where there were other similar large herbivores. I pointed to the Chamois, a distinctive goatlike antelope of the Pyrenees, the Alps and other European mountain chains. Oh yes, that was here. I flipped the page to another herbivore plate. I pointed to the Moose or Elk of Northern Europe and much of northern North America the size of a lanky Shire and with vast antlers. Yes that was here. And then to the Reindeer or Caribou which, when not towing Santa’s sleigh is restricted to the high Arctic. Oh yes that was here. Here being Wadi Rish Rash in Egypt’s Eastern Desert. I learnt a lesson.
Underwater though there are Christmas trees. In the form of worms. The name worm is given to pretty well anything that is long and slender and cylindrical and generally soft and saggy and it is a name given to a huge number of invertebrates who have nothing in common other than being long and slender and cylindrical and generally soft and saggy. There are rag worms and peacock worms and ribbon worms and earthworms and fire worms and nematodes and tapeworms and many more. There are acorn worms and before you start dismissing worms as inferior and primitive then consider that the acorn worms are classified with us humans in the Phylum Chordata — chordates like us. Darwin loved worms. Try Steven Jay Gould’s essay entitled “Worm for a Century, and All Seasons” in Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes. Worms, despite being long and slender and cylindrical and generally soft and saggy, are important.
And below the sea, and in Egypt’s Red Sea is the small but flamboyant Christmas Tree Worm. The scientific name may hint at something different — Spirobranchus giganteus does imply something gigantic but much of the worm is embedded in a calcareous tube in turn embedded in the coral. The tentacular crown, the spiraled array of feathery tentacles that form the visible animal is only one to two centimeters in height. Each animal has two such crowns emerging from the coral and they emerge as a pyramid of plumes and in a vast array of colors. These feathery appendages filter microscopic plankton from the water — a living net if you will. They may be tiny but they are one of the most architecturally spectacular reef inhabitants.
Back above water the Christmas tree may be a non-native pine but below it may be gifts and I have a few suggestions. There are now many, many books on Egyptian wildlife but I would like to single out one. I have taken many people out birdwatching over the past year and virtually all have lacked a field guide. Buy one! It will give so much pleasure and reward. The guide for experts is Lars Svennson’s Collins Bird Guide trumpeted, and rightly so, by the publisher as “the most complete guide to the birds of Britain and Europe” and for that include North Africa and the western Middle East including Egypt. Make sure you get the 2nd edition but sadly this is very difficult to come by in bookstores here. It is sad we have to go to the Amazon to get a book on local birds! Be warned the more widely available Porter and Aspinall’s Birds of the Middle East does not include Egypt.
AUC Press have a slim photographic guide that includes most of our common species as well as Egypt’s specialties. It is A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Egypt and the Middle East. And at LE 65 it is affordable and accessible. A great stocking filler.
For those with a little more in the wallet and with a desire to promote Egyptian species and conservation then there is always adoption. I was involved in a project to conserve the Egyptian Tortoise in North Sinai, a project now perhaps defunct. It was sponsored by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and I used to sponsor an Egyptian Tortoise for my niece and nephew. They got a tee-shirt, a certificate and an update on their chosen tortoise and it was brilliant. Sadly I cannot do that anymore — ZSL only do sponsors for a few popular beasties such as tigers and Indian Lions.
But the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) does have an adoption scheme that covers many other species including those found in Egypt. You could sponsor a Hawksbill Turtle found in and breeding on the beaches of Egypt’s Red Sea. You can adopt a Dugong, a bizarre aquatic relative of the elephant also found in Egypt’s Red Sea. But my favorite is the Fennec, the world’s smallest canid and available for adoption here. A basic gift pack and certificate of adoption cost $25. My Christmas present to myself is to renew my adoption of my Black Rhinoceros Lankeu in the Nairobi National Park in Kenya — not Egyptian but a small way I can compensate for the notorious and illegal horn and ivory trade that passes through the Khan El-Khalili here.
I know there are dog people and there are cat people (I’m both) so for those with a cat-like inclination try the Cat Survival Trust in the UK. They rescue wild cat species from the illegal trade and from bad zoos and from idiots who try to keep wild cats as pets, and give them a good home when they cannot be released into the wild. They do amazing work and you can adopt an Egyptian species such as a Swamp Cat or Caracal here. There is no gift pack but the donation (amount of your choice) goes to conserving these cats, both the upkeep of their rescued animals and for conservation and research in the wild.
Richard Hoath is a Senior Instructor at AUC’s Department of Rhetoric and Composition. He has published extensively about Egypt’s wildlife and fauna.