Flora and fauna

1 Introduction
2 Mammals
3 Reptiles and amphibians
4 River, lake and marine life
5 Insects
6 Birds
6.1 Birdwatching locations

In the desert environment, annual plants have a very short life span, growing, blooming and seeding in a few short days, covering the ground, when moisture content permits, with a patchy carpet of low-lying blooms. Desert perennials are sparse, tough and spiny with deep root systems. Desert animals are rarely seen, being generally nocturnal and/or underground dwellers to avoid the heat. With water from the River Nile, an oasis or precipitation in the south, the plants are tropical and subtropical and the wildlife becomes more obvious in the form of small and medium-sized mammals like rats and the Egyptian mongoose. Bird life proliferates by the water, with roosting egrets, herons, kingfishers and hoopoes all very common. The birds of prey range in size from kestrels to black kites and Egyptian vultures. The number of Nile fish is decreasing but the coasts continue to teem with fish.

Although predominantly desert there are many sub-regions. The northern coast of Egypt is influenced by the Mediterranean but the scrub vegetation soon gives way to semi desert; the Nile Delta area includes coastal wetlands and salt marsh; inland lakes and reservoirs provide saltwater and freshwater sites for migrating and resident birds. The limited areas of arable agriculture along the narrow Nile Valley and in the extensive Delta contrast with the vast expanses of scrub. The mountain ranges of Sinai provide their own climate, delaying flowering and shortening the growing season. Even the desert areas which cover so much of this region provide contrasts, the sands (erg), gravels (reg) and rock (hammada) being interspersed with the occasional flourishing oasis. The Red Sea provides a colourful and unusual selection of sea creatures.

Many of the habitats mentioned above are under threat, either from pollution, urbanization, desertification or advanced farming techniques. Fortunately the conservation movement is gaining pace and many National Parks and Nature Reserves have been created and programmes of environmental education set up. However, regrettably, wildlife is still regarded as a resource to be exploited, either for food or sport.

In desert regions, wildlife faces the problem of adapting to drought and the accompanying heat. The periods without rain may vary from four months on the shores of the Mediterranean to several years in some parts of the Sahara. Plants and animals have, therefore, evolved numerous methods of coping with drought and water loss. Some plants have extensive root systems; others have hard, shiny leaves or an oily surface to reduce water loss through transpiration. Plants such as the broom have small, sparse leaves, relying on stems and thorns to attract sunlight and produce food. Animals such as the addax and gazelle obtain all their moisture requirements from vegetation and never need to drink, while the ostrich can survive on saline water. Where rain is a rare occurrence, plants and animals have developed a short life cycle combined with years of dormancy. When rain does arrive, the desert can burst into life, with plants seeding, flowering and dispersing within a few weeks or even days. Rain will also stimulate the hatching of eggs which have lain dormant for years. Many animals in the desert areas are nocturnal, taking advantage of the cooler night temperatures, their tracks and footprints being revealed in the morning. Another adaptation is provided by the sandfish, which is a type of skink (lizard) which 'swims' through the sand in the cooler depths during the day. Perhaps the most remarkable example of adaptation is shown by the camel. Apart from its spreading feet which enable it to walk on sand, the camel is able to adjust its body temperature to prevent sweating, reduce urination fluid loss and store body fat to provide food for up to six months.


Mammals have a difficult existence throughout the area, due to human disturbance and the fact that the species is not well adapted to drought. Many have, therefore, become nocturnal and their presence may only be indicated by droppings and tracks. Mammals represented here include the red fox which is common in the Delta, the sand fox, a lighter coloured hare, the shrew and two species of hedgehog, the long-eared and the desert. The appealing large-eyed and large-eared desert fox or fennec is less common and is often illegally trapped for sale. Despite widespread hunting, wild boar survive. Hyenas and jackals still thrive particularly in Sinai, while wild cats are also found in Sinai and the Delta. The leopard, formerly common in North Africa, is now extremely rare, but is occasionally seen in some isolated regions in Sinai, often to the panic of the local people.

There are three species of gazelle, all well adapted to desert conditions; the dorcas gazelle preferring the Western Desert, the mountain gazelle inhabiting locations above 2000 m in Sinai and the desert gazelle locating in the reg of the northern Sahara. The latter is often hunted by horse or vehicle, its only defence being its speed. There are over 30 species of bat in the area, all but one - the Egyptian Fruit bat - being insectivorous. Recent ringing has shown that bats will migrate according to the season and to exploit changing food sources. Many species of bat have declined disastrously in recent years due to the increased use of insecticides and disturbance of roosting sites.

Rodents are well represented. They include the common house rat and the large-eyed Sand rat, the gerbil and the long-tailed jerboa which leaps like a tiny kangaroo. Many gerbils and jerboas, sadly, are found for sale in pet shops in Europe.

Weasels are common in the Delta region, and even in urban areas such as Cairo, where they keep down the numbers of rats and mice. The snake-eating Egyptian mongoose with a distinctive tuft on the end of its tail is frequently sighted but sightings of porcupines are rare and then only in the far south. The ibex too is only found in the south.

Reptiles and amphibians

The crocodile, treated as a sacred animal by the Egyptians who kept them in tanks by their temples, is no longer found north of the Aswan Dam. A few remain in Lake Nasser and in Sudan. Tortoises are widespread. Terrapins are less common. Both tortoises and terrapins are taken in large numbers for the pet trade. There are over 30 species of lizard in the area, the most common being the wall lizard, which often lives close to houses. Sand racers are frequently seen on dunes, while sand fish and sand swimmers take advantage of deep sand to avoid predators and find cooler temperatures in the desert
. Spiny lizards have distinctive enlarged spiked scales round their tails. The
(or Egyptian monitor) can grow to over a metre in length. Geckoes are plump, soft-skinned, nocturnal lizards with adhesive pads on their toes and are frequently noted running up the walls in houses. The chameleon is a reptile with a prehensile tail and a long sticky tongue for catching insects. Although basically green, it can change colour to match its surroundings.

Snakes are essentially legless lizards. There are some 30 species in Egypt but only vipers are dangerous. These can be identified by their triangular heads, short plump bodies and zig-zag markings. The horned sand-viper lies just below the surface of sand, with its horns projecting, waiting for prey. The saw-scaled carpet viper, which is of variegated dark camouflage colours, is twice the size but don't stay to measure, it is considered the most dangerous snake in Egypt. The Sinai or desert cobra, up to 2 m long, was the symbol of Lower Egypt. It too is deadly. Sand boas stay underground most of the time. Most snakes will instinctively avoid contact with human beings and will only strike if disturbed or threatened.

River, lake and marine life

There are over 190 varieties of fish in the River Nile, the most common being the Nile bolti with coarse scales and spiny fins and the Nile perch, frequently well over 150 cm in length. Bolti are also found in Lake Nasser. Other fish include the inedible puffer fish, lungfish (which can survive in the mud when the waters recede), grey mullet and catfish which are a popular catch for domestic consumption but some species can give off strong electric shocks. Decline in fish numbers is blamed on pollution, over-fishing and change of environment due to the construction of the Aswan Dam. Marine fish such as sole and mullet have been introduced into Lake Qaroun which is becoming increasingly saline.

The Mediterranean Sea has insufficient nutrients to support large numbers of fish. The numerous small fishing boats with their small mesh nets seriously over-exploit the existing stock. The catch is similar to the North Atlantic - hake, sole, red mullet, turbot, whiting. Sardines occur off the Nile Delta but in much reduced quantities due to pollution. Tuna, more common to the west, are caught off Libya too. Grey mullet is fished in and off the Nile Delta while sponges, lobsters and shellfish are also harvested.

The fish of the Mediterranean pale into insignificance against 800 species of tropical fish in the Red Sea not to mention tiger and hammerhead sharks, moray eels, slender barracudas and manta rays. Here, while sport and commercial fishermen chase after tuna, bonita and dolphin, scuba divers pay to explore the fringing coral reefs and view the paint box selection of angel, butterfly and parrot fish and carefully avoid the ugly scorpion fish and the even more repulsive stone fish.


There are a number of insects that travellers might not wish to encounter - bedbugs, lice, fleas, cockroaches, sand flies, house flies, mosquitoes, wasps and ants. By contrast there are large beautiful dragonflies which hover over the river, the destructive locusts fortunately rarely in swarms, and the fascinating black dung beetles, the sacred scarab of the Egyptians, which roll and bury balls of animal dung as food for their larvae. Scorpions, not insects, are all too common in Egypt.


The bird life in the region is increased in number and interest by birds of passage. There are four categories of birds. Firstly, there are 150 species of
resident birds
, such as the crested lark and the Sardinian warbler. Resident birds are found mainly in the fertile strip of the Nile Valley and in the Nile Delta. There are surprisingly few in the oases. Secondly, there are the
summer visitors
, such as the swift and swallow, which spend the winter months south of the equator.
Winter visitors
, on the other hand, breed in Northern Europe but come south to escape the worst of the winter and include many varieties of owl, wader and wildfowl.
Passage migrants
fly through the area northwards in spring and then return southwards in increased numbers after breeding in the autumn. Small birds tend to migrate on a broad front, often crossing the desert and the Mediterranean Sea without stopping. Such migrants include the whitethroat, plus less common species such as the nightjar and wryneck. Larger birds, including eagles, storks and vultures, must adopt a different strategy, as they depend on soaring, rather than sustained flight. They rely on thermals created over land, so must opt for short sea crossings following the Nile Valley, Turkey and the Bosphorus.

There are a number of typical habitats with their own assemblage of birds. The Mediterranean itself has a poor selection of sea birds, although the rare Audouin's gull always excites twitchers. Oceanic birds such as gannets and shearwaters, however, over-winter here. The Red Sea coast hosts the indigenous white-eyed gull and white-cheeked tern, migrant pelicans, gregarious flamingos and, near Hurghada, brown boobies. Ospreys breed on the nearby Isle of Tiran.

Wetland areas attract numerous varieties of the heron family such as the night heron and squacco heron, while spoonbill, ibis and both little and cattle egrets are common. Waders such as the avocet and black-winged stilt are also typical wetland birds. The species are augmented in winter by a vast collection of wildfowl. Resident ducks, however, are confined to specialities such as the white-headed duck, marbled teal and Ferruginous duck. On roadsides, the crested lark is frequently seen, while overhead wires often contain corn buntings, with their jangling song, and the blue-cheeked and green bee-eaters. Mountain areas are ideal for searching out raptors. There are numerous varieties of eagle, including Bonelli's, booted, short-toed and golden. Of the vultures, the griffon is the most widely encountered. The black kite is more catholic in its choice of habitat, but the Montagu's harrier prefers open farmland.

The desert and steppe areas have their own specialist resident birds which have developed survival strategies. Raptors include the long-legged buzzard and the lanner, which prefer mountain areas. The Arabian rock pigeon of Sinai is a protected species. Among the ground-habitat birds are the houbara bustard and the cream-coloured courser. Duponts lark is also reluctant to fly, except during its spectacular courtship display. The trumpeter finch is frequently seen at oases, while the insectivorous desert wheatear is a typical bird of the erg and reg regions.

Special mention must be made of the Nile Valley. Essentially a linear oasis stretching for hundreds of kilometres, it provides outstanding birdwatching, particularly from the slow-moving cruise boats, which are literally 'floating hides'. Apart from the wide range of herons and egrets, specialities include the African skimmer, Egyptian geese, pied kingfisher and white pelican. Even the tombs and monuments are rewarding for the ornithologist, yielding Sakar falcons, Levant sparrowhawks and the black-shouldered kite.

Birdwatching locations

Lake Burullus

A good location for Delta birds - thousands of wigeon, coot and whiskered tern and other water birds. Access can be difficult.

Lake El-Manzala

(in the Eastern Delta with access from Port Said)
It is an important over wintering area for water/shore birds.

Lake Bardweel

(on the north Sinai coast)
Well known for migratory birds in their thousands, especially in the autumn, and in particular water birds, ducks and herons. Shore birds too like avocet and flamingo can been seen here.

Wadi El-Natrun

Here in the shallow lagoons may be found Kittlitz's plover and blue-cheeked bee-eaters, but don't expect an instant sighting.

Near Cairo

Near the airport at Gabel Asfar the recycling plant provides a mixed habitat with opportunities to see painted snipe, Senegal coucal and the white-breasted kingfisher. The Egyptian nightjar may be heard but is unlikely to be seen. Cairo Zoo, Giza is recommended for the song birds in the gardens. In cities, or any settlement for that matter, the black kite acts as a scavenger. Near Cairo, at the Pyramids, look out for the Pharaoh eagle owl.


This is the perfect place for observing migratory birds; raptors in particular which pass over in their thousands, also gulls, waders and terns. Look for the greater sand plover and broad-billed sandpiper also white-eyed gull and lesser-crested tern more often associated with the Red Sea. All these resident and migratory birds are attracted by the mud flats and conditions in Suez Basin.

Taba region

Residents include Namaqua dove, little green bee-eater, mourning, hooded and white-crowned black wheatears. Migrants include olivaceous and orphean warblers. White-cheeked and bridle tern can be seen off the coast between Taba and Sharm El-Sheikh.

Mount Sinai

Look for Verreaux's eagle which nest in this area. Residents include lammer- geier, Sinai rosefinch frequently sighted near St Catherine's Monastery, barbary falcon, sand partridge, little green bee-eater, rock martin, desert and hoopoe larks, scrub warbler, white-crowned black and hooded wheatears, blackstart, Tristram's grackle, brown- necked raven and house bunting. There are special migrants to be observed such as masked and red-backed shrikes, olive-tree and orphean warblers. Look also for Hulme's tawny owl.

Tip of Sinai (round Ras Mohammed)

The Nabq protected area is recommended. Mark up sooty falcon seen on the cliffs nest here, Lichtenstein's sandgrouse further inland near the recycling plant, white-eyed gull, bridled tern, white-cheeked and lesser-crested tern (less common are brown booby and crested tern). Osprey nest in this region too. Migratory birds include white storks. There is a white stork sanctuary near Sharm El-Sheikh.

El-Fayoum oasis

Noted for water birds and waders. It has been associated with duck hunting from ancient times.
Over-wintering duck, coot and grebe gather here in great numbers. Lake Qaroun in El-Fayoum oasis is a saltwater lake and the area is now protected. In winter it's covered with water fowl. On the north shores of the lake falcons and hawks quarter the ground and in the trees see the green bee-eater, bulbul and grey shrike. Note too lapwing, swallow and Senegal thick-knee. Shore birds include sandpiper, curlew, coot and grebe.

Red Sea (off Hurghada)

A rich habitat supporting 15 species of breeding birds, both water birds and sea birds. Brown booby, western reef egret, white-eyed and sooty gulls, crested, lesser crested and white-cheeked terns, red-billed tropicbird, bridled tern are on the list. The islands in the Red Sea provide a safer habitat for the birds. Such is Isle of Tiran, approach only by boat, not to land. Osprey nest here, in places quite common. Sooty (a few) and white-eyed gulls
(more common) are found on the uninhabited islands further south.

Around Luxor

Look for black-shouldered kite,
black kite, Egyptian vulture, Senegal thick-knee, purple gallinule with perhaps a painted snipe or a Nile Valley sunbird on Crocodile Island where Hotel Movenpick has made an effort to protect the environment for these birds. On the other side of the River Nile in the Valleys of the Kings and Queens are rock martin, trumpeter finch, little green bee-eater. Desert birds found anywhere in desert are represented here by hoopoe and bar-tailed larks.

Dakhla Oasis

The surface of the large lake called the Fishpond is almost obscured by birds, mainly avocet, stilt and coot.


One of the best places for herons and kingfishers, best viewed from the river itself. Pied kingfishers and Egyptian geese are common. At Aswan try Saluga Island which is a protected area.

Abu Simbel

This is important due to its southerly location. After viewing the monuments take time to look for rarities including long-tailed cormorant, pink-backed pelican, yellow-billed stork, African skimmer, pink-headed dove and African pied wagtail.

Jebel Elba

In the very southeast corner of Egypt Jebel Elba has samples of sub-Saharan birds - Verreaux's eagles, pink-headed doves and perhaps even ostrich. However, this region cannot be visited without a permit, which is not likely to be forthcoming.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
Products in this Region

  No related products

PDF Downloads

  No PDFs currently available

Digital Products

Available NOW!