Since the time of the pharaohs, Egyptians have raised nets every autumn along the Mediterranean, to capture golden orioles, nightingales and corncrakes as they wing their way south for the winter. It's an ancient tradition, but in recent years the custom has gotten out of hand.
A few scattered nets along the coast have metastasized into a nearly impenetrable wall of traps, stretching almost without break from the Gaza strip in the east to the Libyan border in the west. Conservative estimates set the annual death toll of migratory birds in this area at 10 million, but others say it is probably an order of magnitude more.
In some areas, especially near Libya, the birds are caught for subsistence, by people who currently have no other way to feed themselves, but the vast majority, perhaps eighty percent of the birds trapped, are sold in markets as a pricey delicacy or hocked to high-end restaurants in Cairo for up to five euros for each slight songbird.
"The nets started going up in unprecedented numbers in the early nineties," says Lars Lachmann, a bird conservation officer at the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU) in Germany. "Then with the global paranoia around bird flu, the hunters weren't so keen—more likely to hide from the birds, than hunt them. But now that that scare appears to have passed, and given the recent and ongoing turmoil in Egypt, nets have been going up like never before."
There are laws on the books that should regulate and restrict this practice, but conserving migratory birds is pretty low on Egypt's to-do list at the moment. And sorting out which of three different ministries should attend to the problem, and how to make laws actually enforceable just isn't happening. Security forces are needed elsewhere.
Most desired by hunters, and thus the most at-risk, are quail, turtledoves, wrynecks and corncrakes.
"When exhausted birds come over the Mediterranean Sea, they encounter a row of nets on the sand dunes where the first bushes are," says Larchmann. "They just want to rest, and so land on the bushes and become entangled. The other sort of net commonly used is thrown over the south side of the few trees that grow along the coast. Birds fly in from the north, rest in the shade of these precious trees and then fly directly into the nets as they set off southward. "
NABU is petitioning the Egyptian government to take action and also calling on the German government to show its support. While the issue seems small when compared ot the humanitarian crisis in the region, the current levels of hunting are completely unsustainable and the issue simply can't wait until all of Egypt's other problems are resolved.
"All of these problems are interlinked," says Lachmann. "The revolution and the economic crisis were the driving factor for the increased bird hunting. So we can't just say, 'Solve the bird problem, we don't care what else is happening in your country.' Because if you can help alleviate the economic crisis, you can also help the bird hunting problem. You have to work on the two fronts at the same time, so neither one is neglected."
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Joanna M. Foster writes about the environment and energy for the New York Times, Popular Science and OnEarth Magazine among others. She has traveled extensively in Africa and India and is passionate about conservation and development issues, especially as they are impacted by climate change. she lives in Hoboken, New Jersey, but dreams of Kenya.