Cape Buffalo, Bison and Water

By Bianca T. Esposito, NWNL Research Intern
(Edited by Alison M.  Jones, NWNL Director)

NWNL research intern Bianca T. Esposito is a senior at Syracuse University studying Biology and minoring in Economics. Her research this summer is on the intertwined relationships of biodiversity and our water resources. This is Bianca’s second blog on Biodiversity for NWNL. Read her first blog on wild Salmon here.

This blog compares how water impacts the health of sub-Sahara’s Cape buffalo populations to how North America’s bison impact the health of our water resources.  This investigation covers three of our NWNL case study watersheds: Africa’s Mara and Nile River Basins, and North America’s Mississippi River Basin.

The Cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer caffer) is found in Kenya’s Mara River Basin savanna and Uganda’s Nile River Basin plains. The bison (Bison bison) used to dominate the Mississippi River Basin’s Great Plains and are still there in scattered small populations. Both species are large, herbivorous mammals that primarily graze on tall-grass ecosystems. However, their habitats and connections to water differ significantly.

Africa’s Cape buffalo migrate seasonally in large herds on cyclical routes dependent on fluctuations in water availability. They move out of areas with limited resources and into areas where moisture and nutrients are available. Cape buffalo also migrate away from their habitat when water levels increase, since flooding restricts their foraging abilities. In these cases, Cape buffalo move to a drier habitat where, in turn, they may experience drought. Either way, when resources become low, their vulnerability becomes high.

Jones_090927_K_9062.jpgA lone Cape Buffalo bull in Kenya’s Mara Conservancy (© Alison M. Jones)

Africa’s famed Serengeti-Mara Ecosystem is located throughout northern Tanzania and extends into Kenya. Much of this region is situated within the Mara River Basin. In the Serengeti National Park, the migration pattern of the Cape buffalo, similar to that of the wildebeest-zebra migration, is dependent on the fluctuation of rainfall each year. Generally, this journey begins in April when Cape buffalo depart their southern plains habitat to head north. This movement is triggered by the onset of heavy rain that floods the plains, reducing the Cape buffalo’s ability to graze. By May the herd is in the northwest Serengeti, where the dry season lasts through July and proximity to the equator allows rainfall to be more evenly distributed, allowing greater opportunities for foraging. Then, in August, the late dry season hits, causing the herd to move further north. On their venture north, they cross the Mara River into Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve. The Cape buffalo remain here enjoying green pastures until November, albeit subject to drought if there’s no rainfall. In December, usually the first rainfall comes which they sense as the onset of the rainy season. They then trek back into Tanzania’s southern plains for the wet season. From January to April, they graze there on plentiful, nutritious grasses.  

Syncerus-caffer-Masaai-Mara-Kenya.JPGHerd of Cape buffalo in Kenya’s Mara Conservancy (Creative Commons)

When Cape buffalo inhabit dry lands their reproductive success (also referred to as “recruitment ability”) decreases; but their body condition improves due to what seems to be a fat-storing mechanism that anticipates limited future resources. One benefit of Cape buffalo having to cope with drought is that when food supplies are reduced, they forage through peat layers in dried-up underground channels, releasing nutrients otherwise trapped below ground.

A current major concern for this species is that anthropogenic factors (human activity) causing climate change are expected to increase both water levels and drought, which could push the Cape buffalo outside of their protected areas. In 2017, the Serengeti experienced a drought that lasted over a year causing declines in populations of many species, including Cape buffalo. Drought also causes herds of cattle, goats and sheep outside to enter protected lands to graze, creating a competition for resources between wildlife, livestock and humans in both the Maasai Mara National Reserve and Serengeti National Park. If the Mara River – the only major river in the area – dries up, there would be few resources for ungulates. As well, when droughts end, there is always potential for flash-floods which deter herds from crossing rivers to find greener pastures.

Jones_120107_K_0640.jpgA lone Cape Buffalo bull in Kenya (© Alison M. Jones)

When water is scarce in the Serengeti, a decline of Cape buffalo leads to increased lion mortality. When Cape buffalo lack sufficient food due to drought, they become weak and must travel increased distances to quench their thirst. This leaves the herd fatigued, causing some members to fall behind and thus become more vulnerable to predation. Also, after a drought and the rains begin, Babesia-carrying ticks infect Cape buffalo. Infected buffalo become weak or die, allowing easy predation by lions. Unfortunately, their carcasses transfer babesiosis disease to lions. Alone, this disease is not fatal to the lion. However, babesiosis coupled with canine distemper virus (CDV) is lethal.

Babesiosis from Cape buffalo has caused two major declines in Serengeti lion populations. In 1994, a third of the lion population was lost due to this combination, killing over 1,000 lions.

Lions_taking_down_cape_buffalo.jpgLions taking down a Cape buffalo (Creative Commons)

On a smaller scale, in 2001 the Ngorongoro Crater lion population also lost about 100 lions due to this synchronization of disease. Craig Packer, a University of Minnesota biologist, stated, “Should drought occur in the future at the same time as lions are exposed to masses of Babesia-carrying ticks—and there is a synchronous CDV epidemic–lions will once again suffer very high mortality.” He also warns that extreme weather due to climate change puts species at greater risk to diseases not considered a major threat before.  Fortunately, mud-wallowing that Cape buffalo use to cool down their bodies is also an effective shield against infiltrating bugs and ticks once the mud dries.

Overall, Cape buffalo rely heavily on rainfall patterns; but climate change is disrupting traditional migratory patterns by raising water levels or causing drought. Both extremes present negative impacts to the Mara River Basin and the biodiversity that inhabits it.  

North America’s bison – a bovine counterpart to African Cape buffalo – historically occupied The Great Plains west of the Mississippi River. Early settlers recorded 10 to 60 million bison openly roaming the fields. Like Cape buffalo, bison also migrate in search of food. Their migration paths used to cover vast territory, thus paving the way for many current roads and railroads. A major threat to  bison – as with most species – has been habitat loss due to human infringement, as well as well-documented, extensive hunting by new settlers heading west. By 1889, only approximately 1,000 bison remained in North America.

Jones_121024_TX_6814.jpgFarmed bison in Texas (© Alison M. Jones)

Due to recent conservation efforts, bison populations are rising; however, not to past numbers. Currently, they are found only in National Parks, refuges and farms. As of 2017, approximately 31,000 pure wild bison remain in 68 conservation herds. “Pure wild bison” are those not bred with cattle for domestication. However, only approximately 18,000 of the remaining population “function” as wild bison. This count excludes very small bison herds used for research, education and public viewing – or bison held in captivity waiting to be culled by protected areas such as Yellowstone National Park due to required limits.

Bison inhabiting the Mississippi River Basin, which drains throughout the Great Plains, have many positive impacts on its waterways and tributaries. Yellowstone Park, where the Yellowstone River drains into the Missouri-Mississippi River system, is the only place in North America where bison continue to freely roam as they used to. In Yellowstone, bison occupy the central and northern area of the park where they migrate by elevation, seasonally choosing food according to abundance, rather than quality. In the winter, they select lower elevations near thermal hot springs or rivers where there is less snow accumulation.

Bison positively affect water supplies when they wallow and paw at the ground. This results in intense soil compaction that creates soil depressions in grasslands. After many years, this soil depression tends to erode since bison don’t like to wallow on previously-created depressions. However, during the rainy season, wetland plants and vegetation grow in these wallows created by bison dust-bathing and trampling. For a short time many species enjoy these ephemeral pool habitats before they disappear in droughts or floods. Meanwhile bison wallows increase species diversity that would otherwise not be present in grasslands.

A_bison_wallow_is_a_shallow_depression_in_the_soil.jpgBison rolling around in a dry wallow (Creative Commons)

Bison have other positive impacts on water. As they trample through streams, they widen available habitat and alter water quality. Even after a bison dies, it can still contribute to the health of its ecosystem. Their carcasses are a nutritious food source for wolves, coyotes and crows. Studies suggest that bison carcasses take roughly seven years to fully decompose, during which time their remains release nutrients such as phosphorus and carbon into rivers. These nutrients sustain microbes, insects, fish and large scavengers of the area. A bison carcass can also provide sustenance for local fish since maggots, green algae and bacteria grow over their bones during decomposition. Bison carcasses also deposit nutrients into the soil which fertilizes plant regrowth.

Bison can negatively affect water resources, by decreasing native plant diversity due to overgrazing. However, they graze on only grass, which allows forbs (non-woody flowering plants) to flourish, adding biodiversity in grasslands. As well, when bison urinate, they deposit nitrogen into the soil, a key nutrient for grass growth and survival. Their urine also becomes a selectable marker allowing them to return to formerly-grazed pastures during the season. This constant reselection of grassland, allows combustion in ignored, non-grazed pastures, since fire tends to occur in tall grass with nitrogen loss. After fires, the bison are attracted to newly-burned watersheds because of C4-dominated grass which grows in dry environments. Bison select C4-dominated grassy areas because they have low plant diversity, unlike less-frequently burned sites where forbs are abundant. Thus, bison’s pasture preferences allow for more biodiversity, creating healthier watersheds.  

Jones_121024_TX_7314.jpgMural near of Native Americans on bison near Masterson, Texas (© Alison M. Jones)

Each of these two similar bovine species have significant, but different, relationships to water availability and quality within their river basins.  The African Cape buffalo migration is guided by water fluctuations. This could impact their future since anthropogenically-caused climate change could incur longer and more frequent droughts and increased flood-water levels to an extent that would drive Cape buffalo out of their protected habitats. In contrast, North American bison herds improve the health of waterways in the Mississippi River Basin in several ways. Nutrients from their decomposing carcasses add to the health of tributary streams and rivers; and their mud wallows support greater diversity of wetland and grassland flora.

Whether we look at watersheds in Africa or North America, it is clear that it is as important to study how biodiversity is affected by water availability, as how watershed water quality and quantity affects its biodiversity. Any changes to these ecosystems due to climate change could drastically affect the biodiversity and health of these watersheds.

Bibliography:

Briske, David. Springer Series on Environmental Management, accessed June 19, 2018, via link.
van Wyk, Pieter. MalaMala Game Reserve Blog, accessed on June 19, 2018, via link.
Bennitt, Emily. Journal of Mammalogy, accessed on June 19, 2018, via link.
Wilcox, Bradford. Springer Series on Environmental Management, accessed June 19, 2018, via link.
Chardonnet, Philippe. Gnusletter, accessed on June 19, 2018, via link.
Defenders of Wildlife, accessed on June 20, 2018, via link.
Coppedge, Bryan R.
The American Midland Naturalist, accessed on June 20, 2018, via link.
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American Institute of Biological Sciences, accessed on June 20, 2018, via link.
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BioScience, accessed on June 25, 2018, via link.
Water Resources and Energy Management (WREM) International Inc., accessed on June 25, 2018, via link.
Defenders of Wildlife, accessed on June 26, 2018, via link.
Yellowstone National Park, accessed on June 26, 2018, via link.
Huffman, Brent. Ultimate Ungulate, accessed on June 26, 2018, via link.
Department of Primary Industries, accessed on July 9, 2018, via link.
Popescu, Adam. New Scientist, accessed on July 9, 2018, via link.
Hoagland, Mahlon B. Exploring the Way Life Works: The Science of Biology, accessed on July 9, 2018E, via link.
White, PJ. Yellowstone Association, accessed on July 9, 2018, via link.

The Great Giver: The Nile River

By Joannah Otis for No Water No Life (NWNL)

This is the 9th and final blog in the NWNL series on the Nile River in Egypt by NWNL Researcher Joannah Otis, a sophomore at Georgetown University. This essay addresses the human uses of the Nile River.  [NWNL expeditions have covered the Upper Nile, but due to current challenges for US photojournalists in Egypt and Sudan, NWNL is using literary and online resources to investigate the Lower Nile.]

The Nile River was vital to the lives and livelihoods of Ancient Egyptians and continues to play a significant role in modern Egyptian life. Egypt, as well as other countries in the Nile River Basin, rely entirely on this great river for fresh water. This reliance places great pressure on the river, especially Egypt’s extraction of the maximum amount of water it can according to international treaties.From aquaculture and fishing to drinking water and transport, Egypt uses the Nile for a wide variety of purposes. The Nile River also has considerable economic value since the Egyptian agriculture relies heavily on the Nile’s water. The human uses and values of the Nile River reflect its importance to the people who live along it.
Shaduf2

Illustration of a shaduf

A large portion of the water drawn from the Nile is for agriculture, a source of income for about 55% of the Egyptian population.2 In Ancient Egypt, farmers used a water-lifting device known as a “shaduf,” used to collect and disseminate water. This technology, developed around 1500 BCE, allowed farmers to irrigate their fields even during dry spells. It was so effective that the acreage of cultivable land expanded by 10-15%. Today, farmers use electric pumps and canals to transport water to their fields.3

Fish are a staple of the Egyptian diet and the fishing industry has thrived accordingly. However, unfortunately, overexploitation and high fishing pressures have stressed the natural fish populations. The river’s carrying capacity has been stretched to its limit and struggles to support the stocked fish. Such high stocking levels can result in poor water quality and an altered ecosystem.  To increase fish production, exotic species have been introduced to the Nile, but they have caused an imbalanced ecosystem and threatened native species. Illegal fishing continues to be a concern as well.4 

Compared to today, commercial fishing was of relative unimportance to the Ancient Egyptians. Although fish not consumed by the catcher were often sold for profit, trade of luxury goods and produce was a much more significant source of revenue. Nubia in particular was an important trading point as it provided ivory, slaves, incense, and gold, the riches that pharaohs and high society prized. Wadi al-Jarf was also a bustling trading town along the river. Since the Nile River flows to the north, boats could easily float downstream with their wares. At the same time, reliable southerly winds allowed vessels to sail upstream.5

Tile_from_the_palace_of_Ramesses_II;__Fish_in_a_Canal__MET_DT226146
Tile illustrating a fish in a canal c. 1279-1213 BCE Lower Egypt

For millions of years, the Nile River has continued steadily along its northward course. For thousands of years, it has given its people livelihoods and a precious source of water. Although excessive irrigation and overexploitation of fish threaten its flow, the Nile remains resilient. With proper care and environmental attention, the Nile can continue to thrive for years to come.

Sources

Turnbull, March. “Africa’s Mighty Dribble.” Africa Geographic. April 2005.
2 El-Nahrawy, Mohamed, A. “Country Pasture/Forage Resource Profile: Egypt.” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 2011. Web.
Postel, Sandra. “Egypt’s Nile Valley Basin Irrigation.” WaterHistory.org. 1999. Web.
4 “The Environmental Resources of the Nile Basin.” p 57-98. Web.
The ancient Egyptian economy.” The Saylor Foundation. Web.
All photos used based on fair use of Creative Commons and Public Domain.

Water Issues Along Egypt’s Nile River

By Joannah Otis for No Water No Life

This is the 8th blog in our series on the Nile River in Egypt by NWNL Researcher Joannah Otis, sophomore at Georgetown University. This essay addresses some of today’s most pressing water issues in the Nile River Basin. [NWNL expeditions have covered the Upper Nile, but due to current challenges for US photojournalists in Egypt and Sudan, NWNL is using literary and online resources to investigate the Lower Nile.]

Over the past few years, water shortages, river pollution and saltwater intrusion have increasingly plagued Egypt. These issues are exacerbated by a population that’s grown by 41% since the early 1990’s.  In the next 50 years, the population is expected to double, yet Egypt has a very limited water supply. Egypt receives only 80 millimeters of rain per year, and so the Nile River provides 97% of its freshwater. This increasingly industrialized nation also faces a profusion of pollution in the Nile River coming from chemical runoff and industrial waste.1 As well, the Nile River Delta is experiencing saltwater intrusion due to its sinking northern corners.2 These three issues – among others – demand changes if Egypt and its Nile River are to continue to be healthy, functioning entities.


13_Nile_River_in_AswanThe Nile River near Aswan. Attribution: Sherif Ali Yousef

With one of the world’s lowest per capita water shares, Egypt barely meets its water needs today – and yet it also needs to prepare for millions of additional people in coming years. Only 6% of Egypt is arable agricultural land, with the rest being desert.  Inefficient water irrigation, uneven water distribution, and misuse of water resources have all contributed to Egypt’s current dire situation.The country faces a yearly water deficit of about 7 billion cubic meters. Its water comes from nonrenewable aquifers, meaning they cannot be recharged or reused once they are dry.

Despite these pressures, many farmers use an unproportionate amount of water by continuing to employ outdated and inefficient irrigation techniques. One of these is “basin irrigation,” where entire fields are flooded with water that evaporates or is later drained off. Ancient Egyptians used the same practice to water their crops, but then the population was much lower and as a result, water was more plentiful. The approximately 18,000 miles of canals supplying today’s farmers also contribute to water waste, because evaporation in the canals absorbs about 3 billion cubic meters of Nile River water per year.4

Env_contamination1.ifThe Pesticide Runoff Process
Attribution: Roy Bateman

Water pollution is particularly significant in the Nile River Delta where factories and industrial plants have sprung up. These companies often drain dangerous chemicals and hazardous materials into the river, causing fish and other aquatic wildlife to suffer. A large number of fish deaths, due to high levels of lead and ammonia, has been reported. Bacteria and metals in the water are particularly harmful. The agriculture sector also contributes to water pollution via pesticide and herbicide runoff.5 This toxic combination of pollutants has been known to cause liver disease and renal failure in humans.6

Saltwater intrusion is another large concern for the Nile River Delta, which is slowly sinking at a rate of 8 millimeters per year. This is an alarming amount since the Mediterranean Sea is rising about 3 millimeters per year and the Delta plain is only one meter above sea level. Although only the northern third of the delta is affected, saltwater intrusion could spell disaster for area crops if they do not adapt to soil with a high salinity.7  Further crop threats come from the lack of silt filtering downriver. This silt once provided enough nutrients to the fields that farmers did not have to apply synthetic fertilizers. With the construction of the Aswan High Dam, however, silt was blocked upstream and the Nile Delta suffers as a result.8

egypt_tmo_2014290_lrgAerial view of the Nile River Delta

The Nile River Basin is facing a plethora of largely human-driven issues from pollution to water overuse. In order to preserve the Nile River and its people, various steps are needed to protect its environs. Solutions include passing legislation to prevent industries from dumping hazardous waste, building more sewage treatment plants, and transferring silt downstream as natural fertilizer. Action is needed to save Egypt’s famous Nile, and it needs to be done with haste.

Sources

1 Dakkak, Amir. “Egypt’s Water Crisis – Recipe for Disaster.” EcoMENA. 22 July 2017. Web.
2 Theroux, Peter. “The Imperiled.” National Geographic Magazine. January 1997.
3 Kuo, Lily. “The Nile River Delta, once the bread basket of the world, may soon be uninhabitable.” Quartz Africa. 16 March 2017. Web.
4 Dakkak, Amir. “Egypt’s Water Crisis – Recipe for Disaster.” EcoMENA. 22 July 2017. Web.
5 Dakkak, Amir. “Egypt’s Water Crisis – Recipe for Disaster.” EcoMENA. 22 July 2017. Web.
6 Theroux, Peter. “The Imperiled.” National Geographic Magazine. January 1997.
7 Kuo, Lily. “The Nile River Delta, once the bread basket of the world, may soon be uninhabitable.” Quartz Africa. 16 March 2017. Web.
8World Wildlife Foundation. “Nile Delta flooded savanna.” October 3, 2017. Web.

Egyptian Irrigation Technology Through the Ages

By Joannah Otis, for No Water No Life (NWNL)

This is the 7th blog in the NWNL series on the Nile River in Egypt by NWNL Researcher Joannah Otis, a sophomore at Georgetown University. This essay addresses irrigation techniques used along the Nile River. [NWNL has completed documentary expeditions to the White and Blue Nile Rivers, but due to current challenges for photojournalists visiting Egypt and Sudan, NWNL is using literary and online resources to investigate the availability, quality and usage of the main stem of the Nile.]

For millennia, the Nile River has been vital to the livelihoods and lives of the Egyptian people. From agriculture and livestock to drinking and cleaning, Egypt relies on the Nile for almost all of its freshwater needs.1 Given the importance of this river, it has been necessary for the people living on its banks to understand and control its power. This necessity has manifested in the development and construction of technology designed to maximize agricultural outputs, both in present day Egypt and in Ancient Egypt.

800px-LevelBasinFloodIrrigationModern Basin Irrigation
Attribution: Jeff Vanuga

Beginning in 3000 BCE, irrigation systems became commonplace along the Nile River.Large, flat-bottomed basins and a series of canals were built to irrigate fields. Water was allowed to flow through the manmade ditches by way of simple gates. During the flooding season, water was directed onto the fields so the rich silt carried by the river’s flow could be adequately deposited. Flood water generally laid on the fields for forty to sixty days until is was drained off and sent on its way towards the Mediterranean.3 The earliest depiction of basin irrigation, and therefore the earliest evidence of it, dates from 3,100 BCE in a stone relief that shows one of the final predynastic kings digging a ditch in a grid network with a hoe. Today, one can still see canals snaking along the flanks of the Nile as farmers continue to utilize ancient irrigation techniques.4

Kairo_Nilometer_BW_1Cairo Nilometer
Attribution: Berthold Werner

In an attempt to regulate water distribution and calculate crop taxes, the Ancient Egyptians developed a structure known as the nilometer to measure flood waters. This stone well accessed via limestone steps was engraved with marks that officials used to determine taxation. Two of the best preserved nilometers are located in Cairo and on Elephantine Island at Aswan, although about two dozen have been found in total. The Cairo nilometer is composed of a large pit extending below the Nile’s water level with three tunnels connecting it to the river. Forty-five steps lead down to the well to allow for easy reading, which was determined by marks on a marble octagonal column with a corinthian capital in the center of the structure. Water levels were consistently recorded at this nilometer between 622 CE and 1845 CE.5 The Elephantine Island nilometer was also actively used to record water levels and was likely part of a temple complex dedicated to Hapi, the God of Nile flooding.6 Today, water distribution is regulated by the Aswan High Dam, which was officially opened in 1971.7

Elephantine Island Nilometer
Attribution: Olaf Tausch

The Nile River has been the lifeline of Egypt for thousands of years. In spite of modern technology and irrigation developments, it continues to have a life of its own. Just as the Ancient Egyptians worshipped its powers, so should we respect its ecosystems and natural tendencies because the success of the Nile River Basin is contingent on the health of the mighty Nile River.

Sources

1 Holmes, Martha; Maxwell, Gavin; Scoones, Tim. Nile. BBC Books. 2004.
“Nile River.” The Ancient Near East: An Encyclopedia for Students, edited by Ronald Wallenfels and Jack M. Sasson, vol. 3, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2000, pp. 137-138. World History in Context.
“Ancient Irrigation.” University of California Davis. 1999. Web. Accessed 16 October 2017.
4 Postel, Sandra. “Egypt’s Nile Valley Basin Irrigation.” WaterHistory.org. 1999. Web. Accessed 16 October 2017.
5 “The Nilometer in Cairo.” WaterHistory.org. Web. Accessed 16 October 2017.
6 Miller, Mark. “Ancient structure that measured the Nile for tax purposes uncovered in Egypt.” Ancient-Origins.net. 20 May 2016. Web. Accessed 16 October 2017.
7 Caputo, Robert. “Journey up the Nile.” National Geographic. p 582. May 1985.

 

The Forgotten Forests of Egypt

By Joannah Otis for NWNL

This is the sixth of our blog series on the Nile River in Egypt by NWNL Researcher Joannah Otis, sophomore at Georgetown University. Following her blogs on the Nile in Ancient Egypt, this essay addresses the importance of trees and indigenous flora to Ancient Egyptians. [NWNL has completed documentary expeditions to the White and Blue Nile Rivers, but due to current challenges for photojournalists visiting Egypt and Sudan, NWNL is using literary and online resources to investigate the availability, quality and usage of the main stem of the Nile.]

2nd blog 2Willow Tree

Trees played a symbolic role in early Egyptian life as they were associated with both Ra, the sun god, and Osiris, god of the afterlife. Sycamore trees were thought to stand at the gates of heaven while the persea tree was considered a sacred plant. According to ancient myths, the willow tree protected Osiris’s body after he was killed by his brother Set. These trees and others served as physical manifestations of the gods that Egyptians worshipped. Their importance speaks to the dependence this civilization had on the indigenous flora of the Nile River Basin.1

Historic records indicate that Ancient Egypt developed a forest management system in the 11th century CE, but later tree harvesting eliminated much of these forests. This, along with the gradual transition to a dryer climate in Egypt, spelled the demise of the sacred persea tree.2  Sometimes referred to as the ished tree, it was first grown and worshipped in Heliopolis during the Old Kingdom, but later spread its roots in Memphis and Edfu. It is a small evergreen tree with yellow fruit that grew throughout Upper Egypt. Egyptians held that the tree was protected by Ra in the form of a cat and closely associated it with the rising run.3 The persea was believed to hold the divine plan within its fruit, which would give eternal life and knowledge of destiny to those who ate it. To the Egyptians, the tree’s trunk represented the world pillar around which the heavens revolved. It was also considered a symbol of resurrection and many used its branches in funerary bouquets. The persea tree no longer grows in Africa, likely because the climate is dryer today than it was in the time of the Ancient Egyptians.4

EGDP007693Persea fruit pendant from Upper Egypt c. 1390-1353 BCE

 

The willow tree has grown in Egypt since prehistoric times and is usually found in wet environments or near water. Today, its timber is used for carving small items, but centuries ago, its branches were strung together to form garlands for the gods. Willow leaf garlands in the shape of crowns have also been found in the tombs of pharaohs, including Ahmose I, Amenhotep I, and Tutankhamen, to align them with Osiris.5 After being murdered by his brother Set, Osiris’s body was placed into a coffin and thrown into the Nile River. Around this coffin, a willow tree sprang up to protect the godly body. Towns with groves of willow trees were believed to house one of the dismembered parts of Osiris and thus became sacred spaces.6

Although of lesser importance, the sycamore tree was also considered a sacred plant. It was generally thought of in relation to the goddesses Nut, Hathor, and Isis who were sometimes depicted reaching out from the tree to offer provisions to the deceased. As a result, sycamores were often planted near graves or used to make coffins so the dead could return to the mother tree goddess.7 Other significant trees include the Tamarisk, which was sacred to Wepwawet, and the Acacia tree, which was associated with Horus.8 Each of these trees contribute to the great biodiversity of the Nile River Basin and served religious purposes for the Ancient Egyptian people.

2nd blog 3Model of a Porch and Garden with Sycamore Trees from Upper Egypt c. 1981-1975 BCE

Sources

1 “Tree (nehet).” EgyptianMyths.net. Web.
2“Country Report – Egypt.” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Web.
3“Ancient Egyptian Plants: The Persea Tree.” reshafim.org. 2002. Web.
4 “The Tree of Life.” LandOfPyramids.org. 2015. Web.
5“Ancient Egyptian Plants: The Willow.” reshafim.org. 2002. Web.
6Witcombe, Christopher. “Trees and the Sacred.” Sweet Briar College. Web.
7Witcombe, Christopher. “Trees and the Sacred.” Sweet Briar College. Web.
8“Tree (nehet).” EgyptianMyths.net. Web.
All photos used based on fair use of Creative Commons and Public Domain.

Nile River Flora

By Joannah Otis for No Water No Life (NWNL)

This is the 5th blog in the NWNL series on the Nile River in Egypt by NWNL Researcher Joannah Otis, a sophomore at Georgetown University. This essay addresses the history and uses of the most prevalent types of flora growing in the Nile River Basin. [NWNL has completed documentary expeditions to the White and Blue Nile Rivers, but due to current challenges for photojournalists visiting Egypt and Sudan, NWNL is using literary and online resources to investigate the availability, quality and usage of the main stem of the Nile.]

The Nile River is home to thousands of species of flora, many of which were vital to the livelihoods of Ancient Egyptians. Aside from growing crops for consumption, Egyptians have long grown plants like cotton, papyrus, and flax for commercial purposes. The diversity and extent of plant life in Egypt is a tribute to the Nile River’s incredible life-giving capacity.

Egyptian cotton is perhaps the most well-known plant product to emerge from the African continent, although the modern variety was not cultivated in Egypt until 1821 when ruler Mohamed Ali Pasha discovered that his country’s climate was perfect for growing cotton. It should be noted, however, that the native variety (G. herbaceum) was first cultivated by Pliny in first century CE Nubia. By 1869, cotton production had expanded significantly to meet the demands of European textile factors in the wake of the American Civil War. Both the completion of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the completion of the Aswan High Dam in 1970 benefitted the cotton trade. While the canal made trade easier and more accessible, the dam protected the cotton from flooding and allowed for the expansion of its cultivation by providing regular irrigation. Today, Egypt remains a significant exporter of cotton to countries all over the world.1

800px-Cotton_field_kv17Cotton Field
Attribution: Kimberly Vardeman

In Ancient Egypt, the linen made from flax was a universal fabric that every citizen wore regardless of class. Linen is still grown in Egypt, although it is no longer the sole clothing material worn. Considered to be a symbol of purity and divine light, linen was a sacred cloth used to mummify the dead. It was also used to make sails and as a form of payment. The earliest example of Egyptian linen dates from 4500 BCE. Towards the end of the Egyptian civilization, the government established linen production centers staffed by slave laborers. Since everyone wore linen, class was differentiated by the fineness of the weave and the number of layers worn; the more important the person, the finer the weave and the more layers they wore. Flax was not only a source of wealth, but also a signifier of it.2

Although papyrus no longer populates the banks of Egypt’s Nile River due to human overexploitation, it was once a plentiful crop that served several purposes for the Ancient Egyptians. Papyrus thrives in shallow fresh water or water-saturated areas, so the Nile Delta marshes and low-lying areas of the Nile Valley were home to dense thickets of the plant. It was harvested to make skiffs used for hunting, pilgrimages, local transport, and funerals as well as to make writing surfaces. This early form of paper was created under heavy pressure from layers of pith found inside the stalk. Fortunately, Egypt’s dry climate has preserved many early papyrus documents, which indicate that the surface was used for letters, legal texts, religious narratives, illustrations, contracts, and administrative documents. The earliest of these dates from c. 2500 BCE and was discovered at Wadi el-Jarf, a Red Sea port. A blank roll of papyrus dating from c. 2900 BCE was also found in the tomb of a high official named Hemaka. These preserved papyri are significant because the surface was often erased and reused several times.3 The cultivation and use of papyrus for writing material ceased in the 9th century CE when paper from other plant fibers became more popular.4

799px-Cyperus_papyrus_(Kafue_River)Papyrus thicket
Attribution: Hans Hillewaert

Papyrus also played a significant role in the Ancient Egyptian religion as the marshes where it grew were considered fertile areas containing the seeds of creation. According to Egyptian myth, the goddess Isis hid her son in the papyrus thickets of Lower Egypt after her brother Seth murdered her husband Osiris. This infant, Horus, was raised amongst the papyrus by the goddess Hathor who was depicted as a cow emerging from papyrus thickets and was worshipped in the Shaking of the Papyrus ritual. Wadjet, the protector goddess of Lower Egypt, was similarly shown carrying a scepter made of papyrus. The ceilings of temples and tombs were often supported by columns whose capitals resembled the tops of papyrus plants. To the Ancient Egyptians, papyrus thickets were symbolic of chaos surrounding and threatening their world as the tickets often hid dangerous creatures such as hippos and crocodiles. Nonetheless, papyrus played an indispensable role in early Egypt.5

Papyrus marsh c. 1427-1400 Upper Egypt

Aside from flax, cotton, and papyrus, Ancient Egyptians grew numerous other crops. These included barley, fava beans, lentils, lettuce, peas, onions, cucumbers, melons, radishes, emmer, wheat, barley, wheat, leeks, grapes, chickpeas, dill, and sesame. Present-day Egyptians continue to harvest these crops with the exception of emmer, which was not grown after the Roman Period, and barley, which also declined after the Roman Period as a result of the popularity of wine over beer. The wide variety of flora found in Egypt speaks to the lushness of the Nile River Basin.6

07.230.34Inlay depicting a bunch of grapes c. 1479-1458 BCE Egypt

Sources:

1 “History of Egyptian Cotton.” Cotton Egypt Association. Web.
2 “Flax in Ancient Egypt” North Dakota State University. 2007. Web
3 Kamrin, Janice. “Papyrus in Ancient Egypt.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Web
4 “Egyptian Papyrus.” Egyptain-papyrus.co.uk. Web
5Kamrin, Janice. “Papyrus in Ancient Egypt.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Web.
6“Agriculture and horticulture in acient Egypt.” Reshafim.org. 2000. Web.
All photos used based on fair use of Creative Commons and Public Domain.

 

NWNL “Pool of Books” 2017

NWNL has compiled a list of new and old favorite books about water issues and our case-study watersheds for your reference for gifts and for the New Year. Many of the authors and publishers are personal friends of NWNL. All of them are worth reading. The links provided below go to Amazon Smile, where a portion of all purchases go to an organization of the buyers choice. Please help support NWNL by selecting the International League of Conservation Photographers to donate to.

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Global:

Rainforest by Lewis Blackwell (2014)

Replenish: The Virtuous Cycle of Water and Prosperity by Sandra Postel (2017)

Water from teNeues Publishing (2008)

North America:

The Salish Sea: Jewel of the Pacific Northwest by Audrey Della Benedict & Joseph K. Gaydos (2015)

Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman: Conservation Heroes of the American Heartland by Miriam Horn (2016)

The Last Prairie: A Sandhills Journal by Stephen R. Jones (2006)

Yellowstone Migration by Joe Riis (2017)

Sage Spirit: The American West at a Crossroads by Dave Showalter (2015)

Heartbeats in the Muck: The History, Sea Life, and Environment of New York Harbor by John Waldman (2013)

East Africa:

Serengeti Shall Not Die by Bernhard & Michael Grzimek (1973)

Turkana: Lenya’s Nomads of the Jade Sea by Nigel Pavitt (1997)

To the Heart of the Nile: Lady Florence Baker and the Exploration of Central Africa by Pat Shipman (2004)

India:

A River Runs Again: India’s Natural World in Crisis, from the Barren Cliffs of Rajasthan to the Farmlands of Karnataka by Meera Subramanian (2015)