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Local group makes mark at Egypt's Lake Qarun

afrol News, 22 September - Egypt’s first IBA-Local Conservation Group/Site Support Group (SSG) has persuaded one of the country’s largest construction groups to end the dumping of waste at Lake Qarun, which holds regionally important numbers of waterbirds in winter.

The construction company has also pledged to restore an area of saltmarsh destroyed by tourism development along the lake shore, as a bird sanctuary.

The Lake Qarun Protected Area LCG/SSG was established by Nature Conservation Egypt in 2008, with a grant from the Aage V. Jensen Charity Foundation.

The lake occupies the deepest part of the Fayoum Depression, more than 40 metres below sea level. Once a large body of fresh water supporting Nilotic flora and fauna, the lake now receives almost all its water as drainage from irrigated land. As a result, and because the only ‘outflow’ is via evaporation, levels of salinity have been steadily increasing. The lake is now slightly more salty than seawater.

Because of these environmental changes, a local subspecies of Sardinian Warbler Sylvia melanocephala norrisae has become extinct, while Slender-billed Gull Larus genei, which began breeding in the 1990s, has now reached around 8,500 pairs. Numbers of breeding Spur-winged Lapwing Vanellus spinosus also meet IBA criteria, as does the wintering population of Black-necked Grebe Podiceps nigricollis.

A salt extraction processing plant has been set up, which over time will improve water quality and permit habitats to be restored, as well as providing employment. But unregulated tourist development along the southern shores of the lake is destroying the best waterbird habitats, particularly mudflats and saltmarshes, and leading to increased disturbance to birds. Hunters, including organised parties from Europe, regularly ignore the lake’s protected status.

The SSG was set up to enhance biodiversity conservation and benefit-sharing with local communities, in recognition that local people could make a significant contribution towards conservation efforts by reducing exploitation and hunting in the protected area.

“The SSG we established has 20 members, 13 men and 7 ladies, including fishermen, school teachers, farmers, and some people who work at the salt factory”, said Dr Kohar Garo Varjabedian, Principal Coordinator of the SSG project.

SSG members have removed shooting blinds erected by duck hunters, and plan to erect signboards with information about the lake’s protected status, and its importance as an IBA. They are also involved in awareness raising and education activities with schoolchildren.

The local government also has an ecotourism strategy for Lake Qarum, which is increasingly seen as a premium tourist destination. “We are focusing on ecotourism and its related economic benefits for local communities, by convincing the fishermen to rent their boats for nature trips along the lake during the closed season for fishing,” Dr Kohar Garo Varjabedian explained.

The SSG has proved to be an important point of contact between the lakeside community and the Protected Area authority, and also the Egyptian government. “For example, we have taken some of the problems that the fishermen were facing to governmental institutions such as the Fish Development Authority and Water and Environmental Police,” added Dr Varjabedian. Better communications between the fishermen and the authorities, together with stricter law enforcement, has reduced illegal fishing. "The fishermen report that fish yields are improving".

When one of the country’s most powerful construction companies began work on a tourist development on the south western shore, the SSG moved into action. “We had reports that the workers at the site of the project were dumping piles of cement, sand and rock, and destroying the saltmarsh habitats of the birds,” said Dr Varjabedian. “We showed the photos that we had taken to the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA), and the director stopped them, and the bulldozers were quickly pulled back to 30 metres from the shoreline.

“The construction company’s owner has pledged to set aside a proportion of his shoreline for saltmarshes to be re-established, providing a small bird sanctuary on the lake. This was to have been a hunting lodge in his original plan, and he has made a commitment not to allow or sanction hunting parties along the lake. These actions from his side were announced after our meeting with him.”

In the summer of 1998, some 3,000 fledgling Slender-billed Gulls were found dead on El Qarn island, their main breeding site, almost certainly the victims of poisoning. Now local attitudes have changed. “Recently some fishermen found a wounded flamingo and took it to the LQPA office to be treated”, said Dr Varjabedian. “This has never happened before at LQPA.”

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