December 8, 1999
Yippppeeeeeee!!! I'm off… Flying again! Gliding through these beautiful clear skies, diving for fish in the open blue sea...aaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhh! What a life! To think I took this for granted all these years! Well, never again...now that I know how fragile my existence is these days.
My ecosystem, this glorious geological paradise, the Sinai Peninsula that I look forward to flying over every year on my journey south, has been slowly deteriorating before my very eyes. I've been denying it...convincing myself that things haven't changed all that much, that I've just been romanticizing my childhood memories of the pristine Red Sea coasts and reefs, but after this close encounter with death I can no longer deny it. These humans are numbering our years for migrating through this region. Don't they realize they're killing us all off? Don't they see how they are destroying the land and polluting the sea? Don't they care? Well, at least I know some do...the humans might have caused my injury to begin with, but if it weren't for Dr. Jim and his friends at the Sinai Wildlife Project, I wouldn't be flying high right now...Thank you, Dr. Jim!! Thank you for returning me to the blue skies where I belong!
Oh, excuse me, how rude of me. Here I am basking in my regained freedom and I haven't even introduced myself. You must be confused. Let me back things up a bit to explain what I'm talking about.
I'm Sam! I'm a stork. No I didn't come here to deliver a newborn baby! Every year between August and December, my family joins over 30 other species of raptors and cranes who pass through the beautiful Sinai Peninsula while migrating south for the winter. But lately, less and less of us seem to make it to our destinations. You see Sinai is a magical place. An awesome, mountainous desert landscape surrounded by coastal dunes and the white sand beaches and spectacular coral reefs of the Red Sea. Fall has always been my favorite time of year because I've always loved flying over the colorful canyons and diving into the crystal blue Red Sea whenever the desert heat was too much. And talk about good eating! Even when I was little and my big brothers and sisters used to make fun of me because I couldn't catch many fish, I could always catch my fill in the Red Sea. There were so many different shapes and colors, always something to suit any appetite.
But now, unfortunately, the secret's out of the bag...humans have started to catch on to what a special place Sinai is. Humans have lived on Sinai for thousands of years, but mostly in small numbers and not in permanent settlements. The landscape is harsh and the water is poor which has made it difficult for people. But lately, all that has changed. Over the past few years, big hotels have been springing up along the coast. Tourists from all over have been coming to lie on the white sand beaches and snorkel and dive in the pristine coral reefs. Some of the more adventurous ones even go inland to experience the life in the desert.
So what's the difference if tourists come to enjoy Sinai? You must think I'm pretty selfish to want to keep all this beauty to myself. No, it's not that at all. I'm so happy to see humans smiling and refreshed after leaving their polluted cities...I never understood how so many of them could live in those places as it was...but they are bringing their pollution as well as other problems with them.
The very people that come to enjoy the beautiful reefs and the spectacular underwater world are the ones destroying it. Every week hundreds of motor boats go out leaking petroleum and exhaust in to the water, leaving off divers and snorkelers to climb on the reefs and sometimes even break off pieces of it to take home as souvenirs! Don't they know that coral reefs are living, breathing organisms? That they provide the ecosystem which millions of plants, fish and birds are dependent on?
In addition to the water sports, some tourists want to experience the adventure of living in the desert the way the desert people, the Bedouins, do. They want to eat the yummy fire cooked food like the Bedouins, sleep under the star-filled skies like the Bedouins, and travel to the untouched parts of the desert like the Bedouins. But unlike the Bedouins, they want to get to these places in a few hours; instead of spending days riding through the desert on camel back many opt to use 4-wheel drive vehicles. These vehicles have been tearing away at the land, uprooting the little vegetation that does grow and causing this incredibly fragile, harsh landscape to begin eroding.
The tourists have also brought a ton of garbage with them. I always thought they came to Sinai to get away from the pollution. Why are they bringing it here? The plastic bags and non-biodegradable waste products can be seen all over the desert and the coastline. Many of my relatives have choked on plastic containers and rings that were floating on the water top when they dove in for fish.
But the worst part is all the development that's been springing up to accommodate all the tourists. Only a few years ago tourist towns had but a handful of hotels and resorts on their beachfronts. Nowadays it seems like the whole coast, from the tip of Sinai up to the Israeli border, is either a hotel, a restaurant, or a construction site for an upcoming hotel or restaurant. One right after another...trying to beat out the next with a bigger swimming pool, whiter sand beaches, more spacious rooms, larger golf courses. The strangest thing about all this madness is that even though tourists do come here every year, not nearly enough come to fill these mongo-resorts. I thought it was because I was flying over during the wrong season, but that's not it at all. Too many people got excited about the potential of cashing in on the tourism and now most of the casinos and huge resorts seem like ghost towns because there's just not enough tourists to fill them all! Unfortunately that doesn't seem to be stopping them from building more! The thing is that although Sinai is surrounded by beautiful water, barely any of the water on the peninsula is drinkable. So putting hot showers and flush toilets in all these fancy hotel rooms and creating large grassy areas for golf and landscaping the fancy resorts and building large swimming pools and just providing water to drink and cook with is straining local resources and costing a lot of money to import water from elsewhere.
What finally did me in was the new sewage line the government built to try to deal with all the new development on the southern tip near Na'ama Bay. They built a huge pipe to carry the sewage away, but it broke and left an enormous lake of untreated sewage a few hundred meters from the coast in the desert. I should have known better than to go too close, but I didn't see the warning signs until it was too late. I dove forward and met my fate with the contaminated lake. Weighed down by the sewage, I lay there falling sick by the side of the lake. Gosh, it's just too awful to remember all the gory details...all around me were old friends and relatives, lying there dead or in the process of dying...I couldn't help them. I couldn't even fly! It was so hot under the strong sun and there was no shade, no water too cool us down. It was worse than any nightmare I've ever had.
It seemed absolutely hopeless, but for some reason, something told me to hold on...that something would save me. That's when Dr. Jim came to my rescue. Like a knight in shining armor he swooped me up along with some of my other relatives that still were alive and took us back to his hospital. Instead of riding a white horse, this knight came in on a beat up old white jeep, but I wasn't complaining. I just couldn't believe I was still alive and that I was in the care of THE Dr. Jim! For years I had been hearing about the legendary Dr. Jim and his hospital, the Sinai Wildlife Project, that has saved a number of my relatives. Every year he and the other dedicated volunteers that work with him help thousands upon thousands of injured birds like me.
I was surprised when I got there just how small the place was. Ironically situated inside the grounds of the largest resort hotel in Sinai near Na'ama Bay, the hospital is a modest little building made entirely out of waste products they salvaged off construction sights around the area--trust me there's no shortage of construction sites!
I was also very surprised to find that they don't just treat birds. Sinai Wildlife Project is the only Rehabilitation center in all of Egypt. They receive sick or injured animals from all parts of the country and sometimes the world and have seen over 100 different species here since 1992, 30 of which are Category I endangered species. I couldn't believe it. You mean this handful of volunteers working out of this little building cures all these animals?!
While I was there I met Alice the Sinai hedgehog, whose life has been threatened because people have found out that parts of the Sinai hedgehog are used quite effectively in traditional medicines. Alice was pretty quiet and shy, but her neighbors were very much the opposite. Marios and Yiannis are Greek tortoises and they were as outgoing and friendly as any Greeks I've ever met! You're probably wondering how animals as slow as the tortoise could end up so far away from their home...I certainly was...but as it turns out they were caught on the border when somebody tried to smuggle them out of the country. I realize all humans are different, but I still don't think I will ever understand you. Why some humans are willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars to own an endangered animal is beyond me, but that is what was happening to Marios and Yiannis. They were being smuggled in a sack of potatoes and the border police saw something move and thought the potatoes were rat infested. They opened up the sack expecting to find rodents, but found Marios and Yiannis instead!
With all the care of the volunteers at Sinai Wildlife Project, I was better in no time. But to be honest I didn't want to leave yet. I hadn't gotten up the courage to meet the fierce peregrine falcons or the sand vipers yet. I hadn't even checked out any of the craft projects Sinai Wildlife does to help the local Bedouin communities. But I realized I needed to be on my way, the Sinai Wildlife Project isn't like the overbuilt deluxe hotels in the area--it's actually full most of the time! This week alone, they helped about 500 eagles and storks like me!
To add to it all, a fieldtrip of 8th grade students from Cairo American College showed up this morning, too. Dr. Jim definitely had his hands full showing them around and introducing them to the project. So, I said goodbye and took off again.......woooohoooo! Flying over this beautiful land that I have a new appreciation for. All these new construction sights and motor boats I see spotting the horizon are sad...but hopefully people are starting to wake up. If more youth like the bright 8th graders I saw this morning start learning and caring about the protection of this land, Sinai will hopefully remain a beautiful refuge for us all for years to come. Goodbye Sinai Wildlife Project! Goodbye Dr. Jim! I'll see you guys next year (but hopefully just as a visitor)!
Sam the Stork
Monica - Fitting the Stereotype, or Resisting It?
Kavitha - Camping Out in the Sinai Desert
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