Environmentalists protecting Tunisia's migratory birds find peace and purpose

Under threat and in decline, Tunisia's natural beauty continues to entrance those lucky enough to catch a glimpse of it

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On a sunny Friday morning in mid January, a little blue rental car cruised down the quay along the nearly empty beach in Hergla, a small resort town in Tunisia's Sahel region. The water was clear, the temperature inviting, but the visitors were not there for the beach. Instead, they parked their car and turned inland, towards the salt marsh not 100 metres from the shore.

They were there for the birds.

While one of the four, a middle-aged Egyptian man from his country's environmental ministry, set up a spotting scope on a tripod, the other three – an Egyptian ecologist, a young Libyan ornithology student and Hichem Azafzaf, the co-ordinator of the international waterbird census in Tunisia – peered through binoculars and scanned the surface of the shallow sebkha, or salt lake.

"Looks like there are seven – no eight – flamingos out on the water, and four grey herons plus a handful of stilts out near that rock," Mr Azafzaf said. "We will need the scope to count how many for sure."

It was not a large number, considering the nearly 380,000 waterbirds Tunisia hosts every winter as they feast on brine shrimp, insects, fish and other small organisms in the muddy marshes all along the country's coast, bulking up for a trans-Mediterranean migration in the spring. But every individual counts, and every individual must be counted.

As the team logged the information, Mr Azafzaf, who has been co-ordinating this annual census of Tunisia's migratory bird population for more than two decades, explained the importance of this body of work, an effort also undertaken in 150 countries simultaneously. As a whole, the survey has produced one of the most complete pictures of global ecological change in recent decades.

"It is hard to see change on a micro scale," he said. Five more or fewer flamingos on one salt marsh may not seem like much on any given day "but when you do a massive count, you start to see patterns of growth or decline for individual species and can understand what actions need to be taken".

And while the populations of many of the species that the dozens of teams participating in the census count have grown in recent decades, more than 30 species are in decline. Some, such as the black tern, have all but disappeared from Tunisia's shores.

Mr Azafzaf said a combination of pollution, poaching and climate change has had the greatest impact on the bird populations in Tunisia, but the country's politics also plays a role.

There is tension between humans and the environment that has only increased since the revolution. As people struggle to stay afloat and the government proves more and more dysfunctional, efforts to combat ecological damage have fallen by the wayside.

Cheaper housing is being pushed to the edges of towns and cities and, in many cases, has sprung up on top of wetlands. Ad hoc infrastructure contributes to wastewater run-off, and the country's continuing waste crisis threatens humans and animals alike.

"Before the revolution you never saw this kind of pollution," said Mr Azafzaf. "Afterwards, people started doing what they wanted – they were not afraid of anything any more. Now they dump their trash, their construction rubble, anywhere they want," and oftentimes, that is in or near the sebkhas.

Large scale climate change also affects their habitats. "If there are two or three dry years in a row, farmers will start to till up and use parts of land that used to be the lake bed for salt marshes, slowly encroaching on the habitat," he said.

There is an urgency to their work that Mr Azafzaf is hoping to instil in a rising generation of ecologists, including Sara Alwhishi, 24, an ecology and ornithology student from Libya who travelled to Tunisia to participate in the census.

Over a sardine and harissa sandwich on the shore of the sebkha, she told me how this kind of fieldwork had given her studies meaning and purpose, and had changed the way she saw the world she lived in.

"There is a sweet peace that comes from watching creatures closely," she said. "It helps you understand you are part of something bigger, and that even the smallest actions – like tossing my napkin on the ground after a meal – have consequences beyond what we imagine."

"Nature is not just here for us to have and use; we have to take care of it, protect it, and it will keep protecting us."

The count that afternoon was sparse but before we parted ways, Mr Azafzaf pulled me aside and opened Google maps on his phone. Scores of red location markers tagged his favourite observation points around the country and he showed me a spot near my house where, he said, about 10,000 water birds, including hundreds of flamingos, were feeding on one of the country's largest salt lakes.

I set out the next day to find them myself.

From a distance, the flamingos appear to be white dots on the glossy expanse of the lake. But as I moved closer and lifted my binoculars, their features pulled into focus: spindly pink legs lifted as graceful as a ballerina's as they moved through the knee-deep water; piercing yellow eyes and dark red and black beaks.

Something disturbed them – perhaps the sound of we humans mucking about on the muddy shore, or maybe something else entirely unseen – and in a rush of air, they lifted off, hundreds of them, exposing a stunning flash of magenta and black flight feathers, wheeling in graceful choreography and with surprising speed towards the opposite shore.

I stood in awe and felt deeply what Sara, the young ornithologist had meant, as a line from the Scottish poet Wendell Berry came to my mind: I come into the peace of wild things.

Updated: January 31, 2022, 8:33 AM