MAIN PHYTOGENETIC RESOURCES IN EGYPT AND THE MAIN THREATS
Egypt is located in the north-east corner of Africa at a crossroads between four bio-geographical regions. It is also at the centre of the great belt of desert that stretches from Morocco in north-west Africa to the high, cold deserts of central Asia. To the north it lies on the Mediterranean Sea and to the east on the Red Sea. This privileged location is enhanced by the fact that it is divided by the Nile, the world’s longest river. So, in spite of its characteristic hyper-aridity, Egypt is home to a large diversity of land habitats. It houses at least 800 species of non-flowering plants and 2,302 flowering species and sub-species (62 endemic and 2 endangered). Because of the hyper-aridity, the total number of species per taxon is generally low on a world scale. The levels of endemicity are reasonably high, because gradual desertification of northern Africa over the last 5,000 years has isolated and fragmented the local fauna and flora, allowing the development of many unusual forms.
The loss of biological diversity in Egypt is directly or indirectly related to the impact of human activities. The main causes are excessive hunting, industrial pollution and human settlements. Excessive hunting is endangering several species of resident and migratory birds and a considerable number of ungulates, such as gazelles and antelopes. Contaminants in the air, water and soil (especially in rural areas) are threatening a large number of plants and animals and causing a serious impact on environmental equilibrium. This is leading directly to the loss of certain elements of biological diversity while producing a substantial increase in other harmful, exotic elements such as certain species of rat and bird, as well as red spiders and cotton worms.
An example of the devastating effect that can be caused by the introduction of exotic species is the water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes), which took over the river Nile and irrigation networks and drainage channels all over the country. A more recent example is the introduction of the water fern (Azolla filiculoides), which was used as a biological fertiliser in rice fields and has now propagated throughout water courses and seems to be destroying native hydrophytes, such as Lemna spp. and Spirodela spp.
There are many plant and animal species in Egypt which are at the very edge of their geographical or ecological range so have little tolerance to ecological pressures. Perhaps the best example are the corals in the Red Sea, the Gulf of Suez and the Gulf of Aqaba, in that these locations are at the world’s northern limit for distribution of these corals. Any environmental change in this fragile ecosystem will have a very negative and destructive effect for such corals. The situation is similar for mangroves. Some animal and plant species can be described as relics, such as the small populations of gymnosperms, with Juniperus phoenicea trees that still exist in some parts of the Sinai hills (EI-Maghara Gebel, Yelleg, and EI-Labni Halal).
With regard to the loss of cultivated biodiversity, many species of agricultural and/or commercial interest have been introduced into Egypt over the last 2 centuries, becoming the backbone of its agriculture – cotton, some varieties of fruit, and some animal breeds, including fish and chicken. This has led to the neglect of local varieties and breeds, to the extent that some have been degraded or have disappeared altogether.
STATUS OF IN-SITU AND EX-SITU CONSERVATION
Egypt aims to set up a network of protected areas representing and conserving all species and habitats of interest. A multi-disciplinary committee (comprising various ministries, research centres and non-governmental organisations) has drawn up a schedule for achieving the objectives laid down in the National Strategy for Conservation of Biodiversity. Attention has focused on the reduction of the main threats to diversity. This includes the strengthening and expansion of the network of protected areas. Egypt plans to have 40 protected areas covering 17% of the country by 2017. To date, a network of 27 protected areas exists. It comprises 6 marine reserves along the Red Sea to protect mangrove forests and coral reefs, 8 wetlands along the Mediterranean and the Nile valley – including 144 islands – to protect birds and habitats for amphibians and fish, 8 reserves in the Sinai desert and the eastern and western deserts to protect dry lands and their flora and fauna, one mountainous region in Sinai of great importance for the three monotheistic religions because it includes Saint Catherine’s Monastery and Mount Sinai and has a very high concentration of endemic species, and 5 geological parks with unique natural characteristics, such as the Maadi Petrified Forest which contains the petrified remains of forests dating back 35 million years (Oligocene) and serves as a witness of the Earth’s flora in the past.
The Ministry of Agriculture has also been very active in drawing up a network of collections of cultivated plant varieties with the aim of studying, classifying and checking farming practices. There is also a project to devote about 3.8 million hectares over the next 15 years to the extension of sustainable agriculture.
Current estimates on species that represent the main taxonomic groups of fauna and flora in Egypt are provisional and incomplete. There are important collections of a limited number of insects, birds, plants and seeds.
With the aim of improving ex-situ conservation in Egypt, the Ministry of the Environment created the Natural History Museum which aims to complete the collections of the largest possible number of taxonomic groups of plants, animals and micro-organisms. Also, the National Germplasm Bank and the National Centre for Reproduction in Captivity were set up as central entities to bring together all research and ex-situ conservation activities taking place in the country. The Egyptian Institute for Horticultural Research (Ministry of Agriculture) coordinates the management of several botanic gardens, such as the Aswan Botanic Garden located on Kitchener Island, the Orman Botanic Garden, the Al-Nozha Garden and the Qubba Botanic Garden. Other research stations are the Sabahia Research Station in Alexandria, the Maa’had fouad el Awwal l’Essahara and the Botanic Garden of the University of Alexandria’s Botany Department. Information has also been found on the Zohria Trial Gardens, the Antoniades Public Park and the El Saff Botanic Garden.
Centres of Plant Diversity
- Egypt National Genebank
- Egypt Captive Breeding Centre
- Egyptian Natural History Museum
- Al-Nozha Garden
- Aswan Botanic Garden
- Orman Botanic Garden
- Qubba Botanic Garden
- Sabahia Horticulture Research Station
- Maa’had fouad el Awwal l’Essahara
- Botanic Garden and Department Botany of University of Alexandria
- Saff Botanic Garden
- Zohria Trial Gardens
- Antioniades Public Park