en zh es ja ko pt

Volume 50, Number 3May/June 1999

In This Issue

Back to Table of Contents

Sinai's Watchmen of the Wilderness

Written and photographed by Joseph J. Hobbs

In a sense, Mahmoud Mansour was born a ranger. His grandfather was a hakim , an elder of the Jabaliyyah Bedouin tribe that has inhabited parts of the mountains of south Sinai for more than 1500 years. His grandfather, Mansour says, "knew the world in all its dimensions," and from him Mansour learned which plants to use for which kind of ailment, when to move the herds from mountain to valley pastures, how to inspire confidence in difficult times, and how to give wise counsel. But mostly Mansour learned a love of the land that was the livelihood of his family and tribe.

Wearing, in effect, his grandfather's mantle, Mansour has for much of his 40-odd years immersed himself in one of Egypt's most abundant and delicate natural environments. When he has had the time, he has taken it upon himself to walk for days at a stretch to see mountains he had not seen before, and along the way he has made himself an expert in the region's plant and animal life. He has bathed in nearly all of the many granite-lined pools, and often interrupted his sojourn to repair a trail or a water hole, or to help one of his approximately 1500 fellow tribesmen with his garden, much as they might help him with his.

Although he supplements his agricultural income with guide work and other odd jobs about the town of St. Katherine, Mansour is one of relatively few Jabaliyyah who still spends substantial time in the highland gardens that once were among the tribe's primary sources of sustenance. (See Aramco World, March/April 1995.) With help from his wife and three children, he keeps sheep and goats, and he tends peach, pear, pomegranate, quince, apricot, olive and even a banana tree in a rock-walled garden about two hours' walk from the famous sixth-century Monastery of St. Katherine.

In his garden, he has both admired and cursed a wily cast of characters who plunder a portion of his produce—mostly foxes, hyrax, ibex, chukar partridges and Sinai rosefinches. He is reluctant to describe them as pests, and he has never resorted to killing them. But he has thought long and hard about how to come to terms with them: He could put netting over the bearing trees, but where could he find such netting in St. Katherine, a town whose largest store is only a single small room? And what about protection for the hundreds of other rock-walled orchards tended every summer by his fellow tribesmen?

In 1989, I had the privilege of spending seven months walking with Mansour—whom I came to know simply as Mahmoud. As a geographer who had learned much about Bedouin life in Egypt's Eastern Desert, I was in Sinai to focus on Bedouin perceptions and uses of natural resources. I shared my results with the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA), which was exploring the idea of conferring some form of protected status on the region.

As Mahmoud and I conversed, I learned he was deeply supportive of nature protection because he was so dismayed by what was happening around him. Most Jabaliyyah gardeners, it seemed, were solving their predator problems with air rifles and traps. Men of his and other tribes had hunted ibex until these great mountain goats had become so rare, and so shy of humans, that he could walk for months without seeing one, though they used to inhabit the mountains in numerous small herds, and were famous for showing themselves fearlessly. Trees and shrubs, historically protected by tribal laws, were more and more being cut with impunity for fuel and fodder by Bedouins whose livelihoods no longer depended so heavily on the land.

Mahmoud, it turned out, had thought hard about how Sinai's wildlife might be preserved, but he was skeptical about the extent to which his compatriots might support any kind of official scheme. His unhappy conclusion was that there would have to be a fenced-off reserve, a kind of outdoor zoo, within which both the several thousand tourists who visit the mountains each year and the local Bedouin could experience what would be left of south Sinai's wilderness. He figured that the mountain bloc known as Jabal Abbas Pasha—an area roughly the size of the Cairo Zoo—would be suitable. His sentiments were shared by a few EEAA officials, and Mahmoud had escorted one to introduce him to the place.

At that time, however, the EEAA was concentrating on its work with the European Union to set up Egypt's first national park, the marine sanctuary at Ras Muhammad at the southern tip of Sinai, host to some of the largest and most delicate coral reefs in the world. In St. Katherine, about 100 kilometers (62 mi) inland, there had for several years been occasional talk about developing a protected area, but little real progress had been made. Yet as eager developers submitted proposals for sprawling hotel complexes and even a cable car up Jabal Musa—widely believed to be the Mt. Sinai of the Qur'an and the Bible—the urgent need of protection grew.

In the early 1990's, the EEAA and the EU began to turn their attention toward the interior of the peninsula, including the Monastery of St. Katherine and the surrounding montane wilderness. By 1996, the Zoological Society of London had become involved, and through it the partnership hired Dr. John Grainger, a self-effacing Englishman who had helped Saudi Arabia develop its national system of protected areas in 1990, and who had also helped in similar developments in Kuwait, Ghana and Sri Lanka. Grainger was thrilled by the natural and cultural diversity of the St. Katherine area, its scenic grandeur, and its potential for scientific research, wildlife restoration and environmentally sensitive tourism. As he spoke to audience after audience throughout Egypt, drumming up backing for the project, he said repeatedly and with heartfelt conviction that "St. Katherine has the potential to become one of the world's great mountain parks."

Today, a decade after those months of walking and camel-camping under the stars, the single mountain that Mahmoud recommended be preserved lies within one of the largest, most resource-rich and most complex protected areas in the Middle East. The 4350-square-kilometer (1740-sq-mi) St. Katherine Natural Protectorate includes the entire high mountain massif of south Sinai as well as portions of its adjacent coastal plains. More than 7000 Bedouin belonging to six tribes live within and close to its borders, along with 27 species of plants found nowhere else in the world and fauna that includes hyenas, wolves, and perhaps even leopards. A budget of more than nine million dollars is sustaining an initial five-year project, renewable in 2001, to establish and manage the preserve.

As for Mahmoud, he is now employed doing what he was surely born to do: With 24 other Jabaliyyah Bedouin, he is a haris al-biyah ("nature guard," commonly translated as "community guard"), whose duty it is to see that the project succeeds both in protecting nature and improving human welfare within the park.

The relationship between protected areas and the indigenous people who inhabit them has frequently proved to be difficult for all. In Zimbabwe in the 1920's, for example, and in Uganda in the 1950's, the Ik and San people, respectively, were driven from their traditional homelands to make way for parks that catered primarily to expatriate and foreign tourists. Both of these relocations brought famine and social disruption. In Kenya, during a drought in the 1970's, local people were denied access to the game animals in Tsavo National Park, their traditional food reserve, and the resulting resentment led to spiteful poaching and a general distrust of wildlife authorities.

From the outset of the St. Katherine project, Grainger and his mentor at the EEAA, Natural Protectorates Director General Ahmad Shehata, adopted an assumption that is increasingly popular, but still largely untested: Inhabitants, tourists and wildlife can coexist.

Shehata, to his lasting credit, believed that to make the assumption a reality, the St. Katherine project would have to begin by talking with the local Bedouin about their concerns. This was unprecedented in park development in the Middle East, and it is rare anywhere in the world. The effort grew into what is today called the "Bedouin Support Program," through which up to 10 percent of the park's budget is directed to the needs of local people, who are in turn encouraged to invest their energies in supporting the park's conservation-oriented objectives.

In 1995, a year before the protected status was scheduled to take effect, I returned to St. Katherine and spent four months recording conversations about day-to-day Bedouin problems and possible Bedouin contributions to the park project.

The following summer, Grainger and Shehata commissioned me to head a team to prepare specific recommendations on the Bedouin role in the park. The team included Egyptian and international anthropologists, a community development specialist, a pediatrician, and staff from Ras Muhammad National Park. Throughout the summer, all around south Sinai, over endless rounds of sweet tea and sumptuous meals of goat meat served over rice, in black wool tents, cinderblock houses and under the shade of acacia trees, we researchers conversed with Bedouin men and women about their livelihoods, their problems and their hopes. Our tapes and notebooks recorded recurring, deeply practical needs: more jobs, more income, better medical care, more access to fresh water through more and better wells, help in the gardens, pest control, and much more.

Late that summer, more than 100 Bedouins representing all the park's tribes, clans and settlements turned out for a majlis, a special "sitting" or conference for discussion and celebration of the project's Bedouin-oriented initiatives. The research team reported what it had learned from the people and outlined the park's action plan for the next few years. The Bedouins were more than a little pleased to learn that many of their suggestions would come to pass, and that one formed a core element of the park: Under the leadership of a professional Egyptian ranger team, 25 Bedouin men, representing all the park's tribes and covering each of its major geographical regions, would be hired as full-time, salaried "community guards." In a tangible sense, this would turn the St. Katherine Natural Protectorate into a park by and for the people who lived within it.

What the Bedouin Support Program team learned that led to this recommendation was that conservation is nothing new to, the Bedouin. Jabaliyyah tribesman described a system they called al-hilf, "the agreement," in which everyone in the tribe agreed not to allow their sheep and goats to forage in mountain pastures above about 1700 meters (5400') between December and May, to give delicate spring plants time to flourish before being pressured by hoof and palate. Muzayna tribespeople, who number roughly 2000, described their own system, which they called dakhl ("essence"), in which an individual man assumed responsibility for the protection of a particular group of trees.

Both tribes used traditional tribal law, called 'urf, to enforce these systems of protection. For example, among the Muzayna, one who cut green limbs or destroyed a tree was fined in cash or livestock, and the fine was turned over to the man who detected and reported the violation. Likewise among the Jabaliyyah, anyone who caught a violator of the seasonal reserve could collect a fine directly from the transgressor.

Members of all six tribes recalled past decades when individuals among them had been personally responsible for the protection of ibex in particular areas. Muhammad 'Iyd, a graybeard of the Ghawalma, stated that he was still responsible for the welfare of ibex near the eastern border of the park, and he listed off all the mountains in his domain: Maytuura, al-Hayaala, al-Misma, Nagabayn, al-Huwaym al-Mugalala, al-Miyraad, al-Mawga, Abul Dhagg, al-Bar-aadi, al-Murra, Budhayna, al-Sadr, Abu Turayfiyya, al-Araada, Mirayyih.... By all accounts, it is thanks to 'Iyd's concern that the ibex on these remote mountains are among the only ones in south Sinai that live free from human influence. That is the essence of 'urfi law: A person pledges to uphold a principle that all tribespeople regard as just, and as long as the person lives and perpetuates that pledge, acting against it violates both his personal honor and 'urf itself.

The problem for Sinai wildlife is that there are fewer and fewer people like 'Iyd who are willing to stake their honor to protect trees and four-footed creatures. Life in Sinai has changed. Most Bedouin are semi-nomadic at most, and their sustenance now comes largely from wage labor as tourist guides, hotel keepers and assistants, construction laborers and truck drivers, and from work in the distant Nile Valley and even abroad. Livestock numbers have declined by as much as 90 percent in a generation, making it virtually irrelevant for the tribe to think about keeping a fodder reserve in the mountains. As each component of the indigenous livestock-and-agriculture economy becomes less important to the society, the conservation ethic that sustained it dies too—remembered by the old, but to the young only a vague vestige of some past time.

Until now. When the Bedouin talked with park personnel about the way things used to be, they found themselves painting pictures of lush landscapes teeming with wildlife, and this often led to words expressing a desire to recover some of that heritage. Musa Muhammad Abul Haym of the Jabaliyyah mentioned a photograph he had seen in Tarikh Sina (History of Sinai), a book published in 1916. (See previous page.) "Did you see what the Plain of al-Raaha looked like then? It was all covered with large silla bushes. That is what we could see again here, if we gave the place some protection."

Another Jabaliyyah man, recalling accounts by his grandfather, reckoned it had been 75 years since ibex, gazelles, grackles and partridges would allow men to approach them. But, he said, "if we do not kill the animals they could become as approachable as they were before." All over south Sinai, the park researchers heard a repeated refrain of Bedouin confession and appeal: "We used to have a better environment; we destroyed it; we can get it back if we work for it."

In reply, the researchers asked what the park could do to help in this recovery. At meeting after meeting the answers were nearly identical: The park should use 'urf to assign responsibility for nature protection in specific areas to individual men. The harts al-biyah—the term was a Bedouin one—should be employed by the park to patrol a designated area; in it he would keep track of the numbers and movements of wildlife, supply water to ibex and other animals in times of drought, document violations of park conservation laws, collect trash, help backcountry hikers in emergencies, and perform other useful good deeds as befitted his title.

There should be three or four community guards assigned to each of the larger wadi-and-mountain blocks, the councils tended to agree, and they should not sit in an office or house somewhere but be mobile men, 'ahl al-makan ("people of the place"), residents or frequent users of their areas of responsibility. Above all, they should not be chosen for political reasons, because they were members of shaykhs' families, or men whom the tribe owed a debt. They should work full time, with a salary, because, the men agreed, only that level of responsibility would make any violations of park conservation laws also a violation of 'urf laws. Hunting ibex or cutting trees in an area patrolled by a community guard would constitute a violation of his very livelihood.

During the months following the majlis, Ali Metrash, one of five Egyptians working in the protectorate whose university degree allows him to assume the title of ranger, carried out the delicate task of choosing the community guards. Ali's training as an anthropologist served him well as he conducted scores of interviews among each of the tribes. He collected information about which tribes and clans were presently responsible for particular wadis and mountains, and then he carefully drew the lines of responsibility on his maps. He asked the tribal shaykhs to supply their own nominations, and he also sought the opinions of a wide range of tribal members. In several cases, he recommended a popular choice over a shaykh's choice, in an attempt to check political power without undermining it.

By July 1997 Metrash had formally invested 16 men with the authority of community guard. He and the other four university-trained rangers began spending most of their days walking with these men, and in a process of mutual discovery the roles of community guards and park rangers began to evolve.

Now, it is established that community guards assist the park rangers by reporting any hunting, killing, disturbance or collection of wild species occurring in their respective patrol areas. They monitor and report on the status of wildlife populations, and they set up watering stations for animals. They keep an eye on building and rock-quarrying activities, which take place mostly on the coastal fringes of the mountains, to be sure these are done within the restrictions of their permits. When Bedouins or tourists are injured in the mountains, community guards are there to assist in first aid and evacuation. They report on the conditions of foot trails and vehicle tracks, and perform or arrange for their repair.

Community guards also track the numbers of visitors and their destinations, and they instruct their fellow Bedouin, who work as guides escorting all backcountry tourists, in the basic rules: no cutting of vegetation, no graffiti, no litter. When tourists are not compliant, it falls on the community guard to clean up.

As park employees, community guards also explain and seek support within their home districts for other Bedouin Support Program policies. These include visits to both town-based and back-country Bedouin settlements by doctors and veterinarians, as well as the services of a specialist who is helping women improve the quality of their handicrafts, so that they can market the crafts to tourists and increase their income. In Cairo, park officials are lobbying for legislation that would require off-road tour operators in the region to hire a Bedouin guide—a move that would promote both jobs and responsible tourism.

By late last year, the number of community guides had risen to 25, and there are plans to add six more. In the course of discharging their duties, they have already seen a fair bit of high-country action: Faraj Musa of the Muzayna followed suspicious-looking vehicle tracks to what turned out to be an illegal quarry inside the park, and authorities put a stop to it. In Wadi Ladiyd, near the park's wild and inaccessible southern boundary, Sami Aflan of the Hawaytaat tracked down and intercepted trappers of rare falcons that the poachers would have sold abroad.

Jamil Ataya discovered the dens of several hyenas, a species whose numbers have been in decline, and he began pleading for the animals' protection among his fellow Bedouin, who were well-accustomed to killing both hyenas and wolves that prey on their livestock. This is one of the more delicate issues for the park, whose conservation mandate extends to all wildlife. At present, the park staff is studying the possibility that tourist income derived from viewing these wild predators might help offset livestock losses. But in the meantime, the burden of protecting the marauders falls on the community guard, who must persuade individual after individual to take a hands-off approach.

Murdhi Hamdaan of the Muzayna engaged in water-rights diplomacy when several of his enterprising tribesmen struggled to install three 14-kilometer (9-mi) pipelines to deliver water from a mountain well to the burgeoning coastal tourist settlement of Dahab. Although they sold the water at a tidy profit, their gains meant losses to the Bedouin shepherds and date-palm farmers at the headwaters, the oasis of 'Ayn Kid, whose waters were quickly depleted. As community guard and respected elder, Murdhi was called upon to mediate the conflict, and he engineered a compromise whereby the entrepreneurs were limited to a single pipeline, sourced higher than originally, that would draw water only when the remainder could still meet local needs.

In this region, however, there is at times too much water: Only days after flash floods in September, Jabaliyyah community guard Zaayid Muhammad had repaired several washed-out walking trails and runoff drains. Nearby, Mahmoud had been building waterless composting toilets just below the summit of the world-renowned pilgrim and tourist site of Jabal Musa, the first such facilities on the most heavily traveled trail in all of Sinai.

"So many things have changed since the protected area was established," says community guard Isma'il Ibrahim. "The Bedouin used to throw down garbage. Now they collect it." Like other community guards, Isma'il was chosen because he was already respected, and now the work he does for the park seems to be reinforcing the respect in which he is held, evidenced by the assistance he receives from other Bedouin.

Zaayid Muhammad explained his impressions of his role: "It's our country. We need to take care of it. If we don't, who will?" By investing the responsibility for the park in the people who most benefit from an improved environment, the program seems to be working well.

I last visited Mahmoud in the summer of 1997. We sat together in the shade of rocks atop Jabal Umm Shumar, the lofty apex of the St. Katherine Natural Protectorate, and he spoke about the park's progress. Gone was the pessimism of a decade ago, and in its place was now a deep satisfaction at having played a key role in such a significant project.

Speaking about the mountain, its wildlife, and the future, he recalled being told that "about 200 years ago, there was a terrible drought all over this area. Then people began to notice that ibex were congregating here on Jabal Umm Shumar, in groups of 40, 50 or more. Then it began to rain, and it kept raining, and the drought was broken. So to thank God and the ibex, the people declared that hunting ibex around Umm Shumar was forbidden. Over time, this promise was forgotten. Now we see the people are remembering such things, praising God and protecting the animals."

Joseph J. Hobbs is professor of geography at the University of Missouri in Columbia. He is the author of two books published by University of Texas Press: Bedouin Life in the Egyptian Wilderness (1989) and Mount Sinai (1995). He extends his special thanks to Mahmoud Mansour for his unfailing expertise and lasting friendship.

This article appeared on pages 12-21 of the May/June 1999 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1999 images.