By Bradnee Chambers
Political instability brings economic hardship, social upheaval and human suffering in its wake, with sometimes devastating impacts on the environment. The excessive trapping of migratory birds is an example of history repeating itself as political instability leads to increased damage to nature. Collaborative and workable solutions are needed.
Nets to catch birds have been set along the north coast of Egypt since the days of the pharaohs. For centuries the methods remained the same: hand-woven nets strung out in trees, a decoy to lure other birds, sticks coated with lime and subsistence hunters, armed with bows and arrows lying in wait to take enough quails or turtle doves to feed their families. Skills were passed on through the generations and the trapping of the birds was conducted at sustainable levels; the populations of the passing birds were unaffected by the numbers lost on their migration to and from Africa and Eurasia.
A recent report from a bird conservation charity, however, indicates that the level of take in Egypt has assumed a completely different dimension. Countless birds, predominantly song birds such as shrikes, warblers, nightingales, chiffchaffs and blackcaps, and even the occasional falcon, are falling foul of the nets. Most of these species are quite numerous but are facing a range of threats, such as habitat degradation and poisoning through pesticides. It will not be long before the Egyptian trappers have an impact on the birds’ populations and long-term prospects of survival.
Egypt stands at an important crossroads in the flyways of the many bird species that migrate between Europe and Africa. With the Mediterranean to the north and the Sahara to the south, the fertile coastal strip and Nile Valley provide a vital staging post for many species heading to breeding grounds in more temperate climes in the North or wintering grounds in central and southern Africa.
What have changed beyond all recognition though are the methods used to trap the birds. Hunters now travel by van or 4-x-4, not camel; they have rifles not spears; they aim to meet the demand of the market place and local restaurants for exotic culinary delicacies rather than their own domestic need for food. Sometimes raptors get entangled in the nets to which they are attracted when they see the songbirds caught there; these birds of prey, many of which are highly endangered, represent something of a bonus as they can command very good prices: several thousand US dollars in the case of a falcon. Instead of four or five nets set in a few trees here and there, Egypt’s Mediterranean coast from the Libyan border to Gaza has been transformed into a 700-kilometre long impenetrable barrier made of nylon mist nets that cost a fraction of the price of traditionally made mesh. Rather than use decoys, some high-tech hunters are now equipped with I-pods with recordings of bird calls to lure passing flocks to their doom.
Egypt is, however, party to the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) and the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (AEWA,) and has therefore made international commitments to protect and sustainably manage the wildlife passing over its territory and through its waters. The CMS, with 119 Parties worldwide and the only global treaty dedicated to the protection of migratory species and their habitats, has long adopted an approach taking whole migration routes into consideration. In the case of birds, these are “flyways,” which if properly managed ensure that species are protected throughout their range and not just in the key sites important for breeding, wintering or resting. To complement AEWA and another regional CMS agreement on birds of prey, attention has now been turned to elaborating a concrete conservation action plan for land birds in the region. Hunting, illegal killing and trade were among the human-wildlife conflicts identified as being in need of close scrutiny and stricter regulation.
There are other examples of the political instability that follows the overthrow of long-standing totalitarian regimes leading to devastating consequences for wildlife. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, a million Saiga antelopes roamed the steppes of Central Asia. Within two decades their numbers had plummeted to 50,000, as the new administrations in the newly independent countries struggled to establish their authority and build up an administrative infrastructure that included rangers in national parks to protect endangered animals. Yes, people are suffering; yes, people are struggling. It is a critical time in their history, but neglecting or even destroying wildlife is compromising the future sustainable development and well-being of the country. Let’s work together to preserve this shared natural heritage for humankind!
Dr. Bradnee Chambers is Executive Secretary of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals