‘This changed my life.’ ‘It was the most wonderful experience.’ ‘It opened up my eyes to a new world. I never knew these birds were from so far away, or so rare. [The] people and Government here have no idea, just no idea.’ ‘This was a life-changing experience.’ 

Those are the words of youngsters from the Middle East after participating in nature-conservation activities and excursions. Just like seeds, waiting patiently in the dry desert for a sprinkle of rain to bring them to life, young people in the Middle East with an interest in nature need just a little stimulus to set them on a path to growing and flourishing. However, in countries where awareness of nature and the environment sit far down on the political agenda, and the agenda of most of the population as a whole, such stimuli can be as scarce as the rains in the regions’ deserts. Nonetheless, the seeds – the young people – remain there, ready to grow strong given the right conditions and to become the best hope there is for survival of the fragile biodiversity of the Middle Eastern region.

There is certainly a need to engage with the struggling bird-conservation movement in the Middle East, as I have been doing for close on two decades: on moral grounds, on long-term conservation grounds, on socio-economic grounds, on egoistic grounds… I could go on. To put it bluntly, as things stand right now, unless we help Middle Eastern countries to protect ‘our’ birds (or are they really?) as they run the gauntlet through the Lebanese mountains, the Cypriot bushlands and the Egyptian deserts, we in Europe will see fewer and fewer flycatchers, warblers and hirundines in our countryside. The major and most urgent threats to many migratory bird species, and the reasons for the decline of many species, are not found on their breeding grounds but along their migration routes and on their wintering grounds. What happens there has a huge impact on the populations. We can protect them as best we can at home, but, increasingly, the resources, collaborative work and public awareness are needed there, not simply in northern Europe. A deteriorating status of both nature and its few protectors in the Middle East will eventually spell bad news for us farther north too. 

The imagery of the threats that birds in the Middle East face is all too familiar by now: smiling young men with rifles, gathered around a pile of dead birds laid out across a patch of sandy ground or on a car bonnet. The collection of corpses regularly consists of bee-eaters, rollers, raptors, Turtle Doves Streptopelia turtur and shrikes – species that are protected and illegal to hunt, often rare or decreasing and, in our eyes, simply beautiful, exciting creatures not deserving of such a fate. Then there’s the depressing sight of Steppe Eagles Aquila nepalensis laid out on the dusty floor of a street market, their wings sellotaped tight to their body while they wait to be purchased for food. Illegal hunting – and legal hunting, for that matter – is not the only threat faced by migrating birds in the Middle East. Electrocution, oil pollution, non-intentional poisoning, desertification, ill-planned infrastructure and overexploited wetlands are all adding to the serious situation facing birds during their journey to, within and back from their wintering grounds. 


64. Discarded shotgun cartridges in Lebanon, October 2018. An all-too-common sight at migration hotspots in many Middle Eastern countries. 

Tomas Axén Haraldsson

In international development work, you often hear mention of the term ‘brain drain’ in reference to the flow of young, talented and often educated people moving away from developing countries. In the Middle East, this often means individuals moving to the affluent Gulf states, or to Europe and North America, in search of jobs, decent salaries and a better life in general. The departure of academics, healthcare workers, researchers and so on has substantial socio-economic consequences for the entire country. The nature-conservation sector is not spared from this brain drain. Too many promising and aspiring conservationists leave their home country to find better prospects of employment in better jobs in western countries and other wealthy parts of the world. Even though their work abroad might later be ‘reimported’ to their homeland, their departure nonetheless represents a loss to the ‘nature intelligentsia’ of countries like Egypt, Syria and Azerbaijan. One can hardly blame these individuals, given the often-dysfunctional governance, sky-high unemployment and disregard for nature conservation in many of the region’s countries; but, if we, in addition to helping to tackle the direct threats faced by nature, can assist in creating more opportunities for decent work and career openings, there is an increased chance of these people remaining and working on building much-needed home-grown conservation efforts.

In a region with many authoritarian regimes that take a harsh view of non-governmental organisations, you might think that working with conservation would be hard if not impossible. Governments – and society in general – in the Middle East tend to have a strict attitude towards youth movements that touch on civil protest, democracy activism, political opposition, sexual-minority rights and freedom-of-speech-related messages. During my time working in the region, I have generally found that bird- and nature-conservation projects are perceived by the authorities as unthreatening and politically harmless, and they usually open many doors that might otherwise be shut. This allows us to create a decent livelihood for these naturalists and interested groups, and a fertile soil for the green leaders of tomorrow, without disrespecting local customs and laws. 


65. Young Syrian children at the Mheimideh wetlands, April 2009. 

Tomas Axén Haraldsson

There’s often a snowball effect, and influential individuals in the local community regularly start to take an interest in the success of such projects. During my regular travels in the region to participate in various projects, I have drunk tea and shaken hands with more mayors, ministers and ambassadors than I can remember. Local and regional media also pick up on the success of the projects. Although birds were the initial focus, the projects often touch on something more and begin to connect the dots between wildlife and people, becoming a forum that inspires innovation and forward momentum both in conservation and in people’s lives. 

There is still a lot more that we can – and should – do, though. And the ‘we’ in this case is not just individuals and smaller charities, volunteers, ecotourists and committed individuals. The larger NGOs and international stakeholders need to invest time and resources and gain trust in the wider Middle East region. At the moment, funding for these vitally important bird areas is minimal and, one of the biggest sticking points for preventing brain drain and developing local effectiveness in the Middle East is that much of the coordination of projects still gets routed through European-based offices. BirdLife International does a lot of important work, but also, unfortunately, has the reputation among some locals in the region for being ‘the UN of bird conservation’ – a huge colossus sitting in air-conditioned offices in the region’s capitals, a little out of touch with the events on the ground and with limited contact with the active grass-roots groups instrumental in getting things done. 

Of course, the ultimate solution to many of the issues needs to happen at a government level. Inter-governmental agreements, such as trade and business deals between European and Middle Eastern nations, ought to include clauses on topics such as prevention of illegal bird killing and biodiversity protection. It’s in all our interests that nature is not degraded and lost forever. And there needs to be more done at a national level to stop the sort of conservation brain drain that occurs right now. It cannot, in the long run, be foreigners who swoop in to stop illegal hunting and careless infrastructure projects from destroying nature in the Middle East, taking the moral high ground in the process. Action like this only goes to increase the already brewing mistrust against insensitive and ‘neocolonial’ Westerners. It has to be local groups and stakeholders, backed by a local rising voice and momentum of awareness, and with support from local governments as well as the international community.

Despite all the problems, there are currently a number of local-led projects already flourishing in the region: in Azerbaijan, young, local birdwatchers now act as coordinators, guides and migration counters at Besh Barmag; Lebanese and Swedish teenagers have met up at bird observatories in the two countries to observe projects first-hand and learn and exchange experiences; there is now a thriving birdwatching community in Egypt, with individuals conducting outreach activities and raising awareness of birds and conservation within the local communities; and in Cyprus, conservation groups and youngsters from both the North and the South of the island took part in the first bi-communal bird camp.


66. Migration counters at Besh Barmag, Azerbaijan, autumn 2022. 

Elvin Məmmədsoy

There are many simple ways that the development of such initiatives for conservation in the Middle East can be supported: a donation to or membership of the Ornithological Society of the Middle East, the Caucasus and Central Asia (OSME) not only supports research in the region but also directly helps OSME’s Youth Development Fund (https://osme.org/the-youth-development-fund), which directly funds projects for 16 to 25-year-olds in the Middle East. Visiting any of the sensational birdwatching destinations in the region to show tourist boards and governments the value of the region’s nature can also have a significant impact. Easiest of all, sharing, discussing and celebrating conservation projects in the Middle East on social media or amongst local birders helps to spread the message and show the world the importance of giving the region’s conservationists what they need to flourish. 

Tomas Axén Haraldsson; e-mail [email protected]

Tomas Axén Haraldsson is a Swedish national who has been involved in Middle Eastern birdwatching, bird conservation and youth development for 20 years. He holds a degree in Middle East Studies from Stockholm University and sits on the OSME Council, where he initiated the OSME Youth Development Fund. He co-founded the Egyptian Ornithological Rarities Committee, the Besh Barmag bird migration project in Azerbaijan, and led some of the first commercial birding groups to Syria in 2008–11.

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