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WADI GIMAL Protected Area

Conservation and reef protection has for decades been the realm of conservationists and non-governmental organisations. Today, global warming and the impact of developing economies is pushing such organisations to seek a broader approach to conservation.
Egypt has been in the vanguard of countries embracing this challenge and taking significant steps towards a sustainable conservation program. Like most countries, Egypt faced many difficulties due to an ever expanding tourism industry and limited financial resources. With the help of a large number of NGO's (non-governmental organisations) and very passionate individuals, Egypt has, since 1983, ratified a number of  international conventions and obtained funding as well as aid through international cooperation.

Since then, no less than 24 areas have been identified and recognised as protected natural parks covering an area of more than 100,000 square kilometres with 16 more areas in the pipeline. The current protected areas fall under four main ecological groups: Geological Protected areas, Desert Protected areas, Wetland protected areas and Marine protected areas. Together, these areas cover some 10% of the total area of Egypt.

Wadi Gimal - Hamata is one of the most recent additions to the growing list of protected areas in southern Egypt. This area lies between the growing tourist village of Marsa Alam and Berenice, covering 4,550 square kilometres of land and 1,500 square kilometres of sea. Amongst the many important features of this area is the Island of Wadi Gimal itself. The island is one of 22 islands dotting the Red sea coast. Although very small (2.5km x 1.7km), the island supports some of the best ecosystems throughout Egypt. Hundreds of coastal birds such as suti falcons and osprey breed and make the island their home and thus access to the island has been restricted
since 2003.

The Wadi Gimal National Marine Park is the area immediately around the island. There are no less than 30 coral reefs around the island which support some of the most diverse and healthy ecosystems in the Red Sea. It is no wonder that intrepid divers and snorkellers from around the world are increasingly attracted to this area. As a result, the tourism industry in Marsa Alam is booming and the addition of an international airport an hour and thirty minutes drive from the Marine Park has made the area more attractive to hoteliers and tourism agencies.

The Shams Alam Resort commenced operations in 1999 before the area was declared a national park. This is the only hotel with direct access to the park from its shores with daily boat trips to the many reefs in the area less than 20 minutes away. Further urban development became illegal after the area was declared a national park. With this great privilege came a great responsibility, and from the beginning, the management of the hotel and the Wadi Gimal Diving Centre within the hotel were committed to the protection of the area. Since its inception, they have worked hand in hand with the NGO's, local authorities and park rangers to develop the resort with minimal impact on the environment. The results are very positive and stand to witness that with the right attitude, development of the area can be done with minor impact on the environment.
There have been a number of initiatives in collaboration with the park rangers. They are based right outside the hotel and are available for consultation around the clock. Beach and reef clean-ups, for example, are regularly organised and the guests are encouraged to join in. As the number of guests grew, so did the number of diving boats. More and more guests needed access to the outer reefs. Access to the house reef by the shore was limited and often guests would walk over the reef. A number of studies were carried out to identify a suitable location for a bridge to the reef which would double up as a marina with minimal environmental impact. Ultimately a site was chosen and the decision was taken to build the marina using only manual labour. There would be no blasting of the reef or any drilling using powered machinery. This ensured that there was no pollution of the immediate area around the marina and no shock waves from pneumatic drilling in the reef which would have ultimately destroyed it.

The next challenge for the diving centre staff was to educate the guests. Very often, lack of education in the subject of conservation induces guests to cause damage to the reefs without them even realising it. To this purpose, a number of initiatives were undertaken. The diving centre continuously promotes Naturalist and Peak Performance Buoyancy courses. These PADI sanctioned courses are specifically designed with reef protection and conservation in mind. Many of the non diving guests often like to have a go at snorkelling. The diving centre offers snorkelling trips by boat and from the shore. In both cases, guests are given a detailed briefing about the environment in which guests are also advised about the risks of direct interaction with the reef and its inhabitants.

Traditional signs were put up along the beaches, and notices were added in rooms advising guests about the do's and don'ts as can be found in most hotels. However, these types of signs are now so common in hotels around the world that most people don't even see them! In the end, the dive centre and hotel came up with a novel idea. They created the Underwater Times, an article in the form of a newspaper which reported an interview with a fictional character, Dr.Hardshell, the leader of the United Seas. The article was informative yet funny to read. It included many pictures, one of which was a scuba diver with a microphone interviewing a turtle! The article was translated into three languages and distributed around the hotel and has been a great success.

Education has been the cornerstone in the conservation program for the area. With the help of programs such as the Gulf of Aqaba protected areas development program, in collaboration with the EU and USAID, an organisational structure for environment protection has been set up which also includes a nature conservation training centre. Last year more than 100 rangers graduated with specialisations in various areas. Amongst other things, rangers are responsible for assisting the coastguard with patrolling the coast for illegal hunting and illegal fishing, monitoring behaviour of birds and turtles in the area including habitats and breeding patterns, and monitoring coral growth and fish populations on the reefs.

The aspect of education however was broader. The local Bedouin community depended on the reefs and the areas around the park for their livelihood. A special project to educate and retrain the local community was set up, and today a large number of the hotel and diving centre staff is drawn from here. Most of the fishermen in the area have been retrained and are employed as boatmen with the diving centre.

These are just a few examples of the work that is being done in the Wadi Gimal area. There have been many other projects and many others are still to come. The passion and the dedication of all those involved in the conservation of the area is paying high dividends as today the region is one of the most sought after destinations in the Red Sea, not only for scuba divers but photographers, journalists, birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts.

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