On the very hot afternoon of June 5, 2008, a small group of Egyptian environmentalists celebrated World Environment Day by planting trees at the Giza Zoo in Cairo.
Under the slogan “Invest in a Better Future- Plant a Tree,” the group known as the Egyptian Association for Environment and Community Services (EAECS) brought together women and children from Cairo’s lower-income district of Mit Uqba to help plant trees. The goal was to give participants a hands-on experience that would help educate them about global warming and the effect of carbon dioxide emissions.
The participants had already attended EAECS-sponsored classes on environmental awareness and health, and organisers hope the women will take their new knowledge back to their communities and raise awareness among their children and neighbours.
The group helped plant five mature trees from different parts of the world on the zoo grounds, a move warmly welcomed by the zoo’s administration.
“Tree planting is a non-existent culture,” zoo administrative head Dr. Nabil Sidky told the Egyptian monthly The Community Times in its July 2008 issue. “It’s the first time someone has come to plant trees, and it’s very good especially that children are involved.”
“The tree is a symbol of historical continuity,” EAECS founder Suhaila El-Sawy told The Community Times. “It is not for decoration, it’s a life [form]. Every tree is considered an oxygen factory that supplies humankind with life and shade.”
Once considered among the crown jewels of African zoos, Giza Zoo was built by Khedive Ismail of Egypt's royal family. Opened to the public in 1891, it showcased imported flowers, exotic plants and a huge exhibition of African wildlife. Khedive Ismail acquired botanical specimens from all over the world to enrich the Giza gardens and brought in French agronomists to carry out his designs. According to Reuters, the zoo is also home to around 6,000 animals from 175 species, including some rare species of crocodile.
Up until the early 1950’s, the zoo was a favourite picnic venue for Egyptians.
“The Zoo was the traditional haunt of many lovers, with its manicured landscape and picturesque gardens,” Salah Abdel-Fattah, a retired professor of chemistry at Ain Shams University told Al-Ahram Weekly newspaper in 1999. “It was also an educational facility for the kids.
”Following the 1952 social revolution, social and economic issues were considered far more pressing than the Khedive’s legacy.
“Egypt is a developing country, and when you have millions of people living below the bread line, of course they don’t know and don’t care about planting trees or taking care of the environment,” said 27-year-old Ahmed Helal, a photographer who frequents the zoo. “It’s understandable that so many people are ignorant about environmental issues, and given the huge population growth, buildings take up all the space that was once allocated to parks and gardens.”
Like many architectural gems in Egypt, the Giza Zoo has since fallen into neglect and has been plagued by problems in recent years. Zoo spokesperson Mona Sadek told Reuters, in an August 8, 2008 interview, that mismanagement and the loss of up to 25 percent of its species ultimately led the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums to revoke the zoo’s membership in 2004.
In 2006, during the avian flu scare, the Egyptian government briefly closed the zoo when several birds died, according to an August 10, 2008 Reuters report. The Ministry of Health subsequently ordered the zoo to slaughter more than 500 birds and drain its ponds.
However, things seem to be looking up for the zoo since the 2007 appointment of a new director, who has brought about significant changes to the animals’ quality of life.
The botanical life, however, remains neglected, a fact that Sidky hopes will change by encouraging people to plant trees in the zoo.
“It’s not [that] we don’t have enough trees,” he explained, “but we rarely see people caring for animals or plants.”
“We want to revive the zoo through planting new trees,” El-Sawy added. “It’s not only about animals; the zoo’s botanical garden represents an Egyptian heritage.”