Wild life 2017-10-30T23:52:21+00:00

South Sinai is one of three richest places in Egypt for biodiversity, the others being the Mediterranean coast and Gebel Elba in the extreme south west. The reason is simple: water. Although visitors may be forgiven for their disbelief, these places have by far the highest and the most reliable precipitation, in the form of rain, snow (in South Sinai) or fog (in Gebel Elba).
This section provides a miscellany of the common kinds of animals and plants that live in South Sinai, together with some of the more interesting rarer types.

Nubian Ibex (Capra nubiana)

Bedouin name: teytal, badana (male)         Status: Endangered

The magnificent ibex is completely at home in the steep rocky mountains,being able to traverse seemingly impossible paths. They used to live in groups of up to 40 animals, but now fewer than ten. In early February, males use their huge horns to fight for mating access to females. They are vulnerable because they have to drink every day, unlike many other desert animals. The last time they were counted, there were only about 400 in the whole of South Sinai. Luckily in recent years populations seem to be recovering in the Eastern Sinai. The Nubian Ibex used to be considered merely a subspecies of a much more widespread species, but now it is recognised as a separate species restricted to the Middle East.

Arabian Leopard (Panthera pardus nimr)

Bedouin name: nimr                             Status: Critically Endangered

Probably extinct in mainland Egypt for a long time, the subspecies called the Arabian Leopard, may still hang on in Sinai. There are a few in the Negev desert, but they have disappeared from the Hejaz mountains of Saudi Arabia (although they still occur further south). The difficult mountain terrain and their exceptionally secretive and wary nature makes it very difficult to establish the existence of a breeding population. The last positive record in Sinai was in 1996, and the last definite specimen in 1955. However, they live on in Bedouin stories. In the high passes you can still see leopard traps, long tunnels made from stones with a trapdoor triggered by an attachment to a meat bait. It is still possible that one of the St Katherine Protectorate’s camera traps may one day record one of these magnificent creatures.

Striped Hyaena (Hyaena hyaena)

Bedouin name: Dabc, Dabca            Status: Not at risk

Hyaena are rare but widespread in Egypt and Sinai, part of a large distribution stretching from Pakistan to southern Africa. They are general scavengers and predators, eating a wide variety of different foods including garbage – one of the best places to see them is at night at rubbish dumps. The Bedouin believe they eat one another from stupidity, and keep themselves hidden away for shame; but they also believe that eating hyaena confers great strength and health. Camera traps have photographed hyaena several times, and clearly there is a reasonable population of these interesting creatures in South Sinai.

Gazelle (Gazella dorcas)

Bedouin name: ghazal                   Status: Vulnerable

There are now only two species of gazelle resident in Egypt, both vulnerable to extinction; only the Dorcas Gazelle occurs in Sinai. It lives on sandy plains and wadis in the lowlands, with its stronghold on the El Qaa plain. It enters into the wadis to feed, and crosses over between east and west Sinai via the lower southern wadi systems. In mainland Egypt its main predator used to be the Cheetah, but since its disappearance the main threat is from illegal sport hunting, often on a highly organised scale. Luckily this hardly happens in Sinai, but populations are low and vulnerable. The Dorcas Gazelle lives in pairs or small groups, and feeds on many different kinds of plants. It requires access to water.

Foxes (Vulpes spp)

Bedouin name: abu al HuSain, abu rishi    Status: Not at risk

All three Egyptian species of fox occur in South Sinai, and their shrieks punctuate the stillness of the evenings – often sounding like children crying out in pain. The native common species is the Sand Fox (abu risha), smaller than the Red Fox (abu al hussain), with proportionately larger ears, and softer paler fur. The Red Fox has come in with human settlement, and is now the commonest species around St Katherine and the coastal towns, where it feeds on chickens and stray cats. The beautiful Blanford’s Fox is small with very large ears and a huge long bushy tail rather like a cat’s: it is very rare, and occurs only in eastern Sinai, right at the western edge of its world distribution (which runs all the way to Afghanistan).

Hare (Lepus capensis)

Bedouin name: arnab                   Status: Not at risk

Usually called a ‘rabbit’ in Egypt, hares are very common all over Egypt, including Sinai. They rely on remaining hidden in a hole or under a plant until the last minute, and so normally the only view of them is an animal rushing away at top speed from under one’s feet. They feed on plants such as Zygophyllum at night, and if necessary can survive just on the water taken in with their food.

They breed more in the lowlands because litter sizes reduce with altitude, and hence they are not so common in the mountains.

Although hares from South Africa to Egypt are all called the same species, the Cape Hare Lepus capensis, probably the situation is in reality more complex and several species are involved: Egypt’s hares probably belong to a North African version as yet unnamed.

White-crowned Black Wheatear (Oenanthe leucopyga)

Bedouin name: bagaca              Status: Not at risk

A small black bird with a white rump, under-tail coverts and outer tail feathers, together with a white crown in adults. This bird is one of the commonest and friendliest of the breeding birds of Sinai. The Bedouin call them ‘birds of happiness’, and welcome them around their houses.

Pairs stay together for life, and inhabit one territory continuously until one dies or disappears. In spring and summer, males produce their lovely liquid song (rather like a blackbird or a robin song from northern Europe)

Sinai Rosefinch (Carpodacus synoicus)

Bedouin name: jazama                Status: Not at risk

A finch with a very thick bill, with the males suffused with a rosy red colour over head and front half of the body. They are more usually nowadays called the Pale Rosefinch because they are far from being restricted to Sinai – indeed, their Sinai distribution is a marginal outpost of a much wider distribution right across to China They are common the South Sinai, feeding especially on seeds in fresh camel dung: one of the most reliable places to see them is on the paths to Mt Sinai in the early morning, after the camels have finished transporting visitors. They also feed on fruit and are fond of grapes and figs. They disappear from the high mountains in winter because they form winter flocks and move down in altitude.

Wild Plants

pricot (Prunus armeniaca):

Bedouin name: mishmish

A small tree with ovate leaves with a rounded base and finely serrated margin, the white to pink flowers appearing in very early spring well before the leaves unfold. In the old days, the ripening of apricots in St Katherine in May was the signal for families to decamp with their flocks to their gardens in the high mountains.

pear (Pyrus communis):

Bedouin name: shitwi

A small tree with white flowers opening before the rounded simple leaves. Pears have been grown in Sinai orchards for many centuries, with a number of very old varieties. The trees are very resistant, even more so when grafted onto hawthorn rootstocks.

 Sinai Plantain (Plantago sinaica)

Bedouin name: Heweit elbadan

 

This is the only woody species of its genus in Egypt, and it is a Sinai endemic, found nowhere else in the world. It is very common in Wadi Gebal, but hardly seen anywhere below 1800 m