A Bedouin research assistant monitors the growth of a tortoise, one of a threatened population of 60 in the northern Sinai desert.
Photograph by Omar Attum
EGYPT'S DESERTS ARE VAST and open. The quiet can be overwhelming. But there is an unmatched sense of liberation to be found in a place where nothing but sand meets the horizon. As we gather data, I'm continually reminded of what the desert was like before my arrival. I may find horns of a gazelle species now extinct here or the tracks of a camel caravan that passed through 50 years ago. This is the power of the harsh landscape and a source of its great wealth: It consumes everything, but what it destroys it simultaneously conserves. For example, the Neolithic rock art and the remains of ancient Nabatean, Egyptian, and Roman civilizations have preserved a record of human culture and also of the native ecology. From the rock art, you can actually tell which animals used to inhabit the region — and you can infer which species went extinct. You can see etchings of elephants and know that 3,000 years ago Egypt was a savanna. It's like a history of biodiversity written in the stones. Conserving that diversity is the focus of my fieldwork. I'm training the local people, illiterate Bedouin herders as well as college-educated park rangers, to gather data on endangered populations of tortoises, gazelles, and ibexes. In truth I'm often on the receiving end of the education. The native people, the Bedouin elders especially, have an incredibly intimate knowledge of plants, wildlife, and tracking methods that no one else has. My friends at the tortoise project like to joke, "You got your college degree from a Bedouin tribe, and you got it for free!" — As told to Maywa Montenegro