Samy and me in 1998
I have spent 33 years of my academic career researching and publishing on Egypt and South Sinai's biodiversity and conservation needs, much of it working with my great friend and colleague Samy Zalat. This work has now finished.
It started accidentally, as always. Samy was the first biology research student in South Sinai after the Israelis left. His university took over the Tzukei David Field School to recreate it as Suez Canal University's Environmental Research Centre in the town of St Katherine. As a new lecturer, in 1986 I became his UK supervisor, and together we explored and researched Sinai. In 1996 the area became the St Katherine Protected Area, and our work and the park priorities gradually grew more and more allied, helped by the first park manager, Dr John Grainger.
The research programme concentrates on the natural habitat fragmentation caused by the deep wadis (dry valleys) separated by high mountains. The wadis within the great volcanic Ring Dyke around St Katherine constitute a set of habitats semi-isolated by the steep mountains. The more we study this system, the more distinct and unique each wadi appears. The gradual drying of the Sahara over the last 10,000 years has marooned an entire community of animals and plants on the high mountains, with many genetically distinct species and populations. There are several drainage systems that converge inside the Ring Dyke, and within each drainage system there are numerous wadis. Each drainage system and each wadi appears to contain a unique community of animals and plants, and many populations appear to have evolved semi-independently. Thus the wadi topography forms a system of interconnected, yet evolutionarily semi-independent communities that is very interesting academically, and very important from a conservation standpoint.
We had two LINK grants from the British Council that funded 12 years of collaborative visits, student exchanges, seminars, conferences, etc. These superb grants were not large, but provided seed money to bring collaborators from outside and to fund field trips that developed the field biology group at Suez Canal University. Full details are here.
In 2004 Samy was appointed as national coordinator of the BioMAP project, and invited me to become the international coordinator. For details, see BioMAP. My Head of Dept kindly agreed to allow my secondment from Nottingham University with BioMAP funding a teaching replacement. It was a very steep learning curve for me, as I knew little about management, but it changed fundamentally my outlook and my research in many different ways.
We established the Egyptian-British Biological Society in 1996, with the aims of fostering links between the UK and Egypt, running conferences and workshops, and publishing two biological journals (Egyptian Journal of Biology, Egyptian Journal of Natural History). We edited these journals for 15 years, finally finishing in 2014. They were pioneering because they were without page charges, refereed internationally and very quickly (2002) became Open Access on the Web, free to all readers. This differed markedly from normal Egyptian practice (see Gilbert & Zalat 2009). The Society supported an eventually successful reform of the criteria for academic promotion. Its first establishing conference was an International Conference on Biodiversity, held in Ismailia in August 2001, and several other conferences followed.
Having conducted joint field course for students from Nottingham and Suez Canal Universities for many years, in 2005 we started collaborating with Operation Wallacea to do the same for students from a much wider range of schools and institutions. Each year we took expeditions to different parts of the park to survey and record the plants and animals. In doing so we rediscovered the population of the Sinai Barbastelle bat not seen for more than 100 years. In 2012 the political situation made these expeditions impossible, and shortly afterwards OpWall withdrew from Egypt. Our research kept going for several years, but The UK Foreign Office's designation of South Sinai as dangerous invalidated Nottingham University's field research insurance, and all our research ceased in 2017.
My work in South Sinai
The BioMAP project 2004-8 in Cairo
Gilbert F & Zalat S. (2009) Egyptian science: how good is it? Can it be improved? Egyptian Journal of Biology 11: 91-98 [PDF]