Hieroglyph of a Desert horned viper
(Cerastes cerastes), (Linnaeus, 1758)
The pharaohs knew their snakes very well and throughout their temples they showcased their knowledge by producing hieroglyphs of some of the most commonly encounter species such as the horned vipers, cobras and sand snakes.
August- November 2021
After spending some time in Slovakia over the summer (see the photos here) after leaving Thailand in July it was time for a new adventure. This time it would be a desert country in North Africa. My last visit to Egypt was when I was 14 years old so I was interested to return as an adult and try and find some wildlife. Kat and I didn’t manage to travel the country extensively apart from just over a week spent on the Red Sea coast and weekend drives to areas relatively close to Cairo. Egypt is certainly not a country known to attract wildlife photographers and naturalists and travel here is somewhat restricted for an independent (foreign) driver like myself. Prior to my arrival I had heard of stories of how difficult it is to try and navigate this country and that you need to be very cautious about where you choose to go and look for animals. This partly turned out to be true based on my later experiences. That being said, I did enjoy visiting a number of locations and in the end I managed to see most of the species I had targeted. The previously mentioned travel restrictions meant that it was not easy to visit some prime locations for reptiles, especially the Nile delta and parts of the Fayoum oasis where higher species densities are known to occur. More about that later..Driving around Egypt was a big challenge and often dangerous, especially at night. I consider myself a very experienced international driver but I had more close calls driving on the roads here in three months than I had in four years in Thailand.
Finding information on where to see various species in Egypt is also not easy. In fact, almost every species I saw here was a result of finding likely locations on Google Earth and stopping at other promising looking spots as I drove around. I was working long hours so on average I would only spend a few hours per week in the field, usually on a Friday which is a very quiet day for driving around compared to the rest of the week. Thanks to Sherif Baha El Din, Tarek Nagah , Georgina Cole and Ahmed Dakrouny who we enjoyed spending time with in the field while in Egypt.
Cairo and surroundings
The area where I would be working for the coming months was only recently converted from desert into a sort of mini city for the wealthier residents of Cairo. I traveled to both sides of this area during my stay and although not especially productive, I did find some interesting species. Firstly, an African chameleon (Chamaeleo africanus) found dying in the road near my school indicated that the species was present in this very urbanised area. A couple of searches after dark during the warmer nights of August and September revealed around half a dozen more chameleons living in the bushes which aligned the busy road and surrounding compounds. I also had another adult chameleon on the property of my school one afternoon, again in September. On the east side of Cairo was the Wadi Degla Protectorate which I visited a couple of times during the warmer months as it was much quieter then. Omnipresent species occurring there were the Egyptian fan-toed gecko (Ptyodactylus guttatus), Sinai agama (Pseudotrapelus sinaitus) and Bosc’s fringe-toed lizard (Acanthodactylus boskianus). I also found a Desert horned viper (Cerastes cerastes) just before dark during my first visit as well as an escaping Roger’s whip snake (Platyceps rogersi). The area was more rocky than sandy and it seemed that the majority of people who visit the wadi to camp leave all of their crap behind which was sad to see.
Closer to home on the west of the Nile I had found a patch of nearby desert which was within a 30 minute drive from my house. Upon arrival it turned out that the place was soon destined to be consumed by concrete like most of the desert surrounding the big city. However, we got to know the guard to the area and by paying him a little baksheesh, he would let us drive in and look around the remaining desert. There were several concrete traps by the side of the road once inside the area and over a couple of visits I rescued three Saharan sand vipers (Cerastes vipera) from two such holes. I also saw a Schokari sand racer (Psammophis schokari) trapped in another hole which I sadly could not reach. Later visits during the cooler months revealed lots of viper tracks inside the holes but I assumed the snakes had buried deeper into the sand as I could not find any viper despite their presence being clear from the fresh tracks. I did not feel especially safe in this area, as it is certainly not a place a foreigner would ever be seen. Therefore, I would only quickly go down into the holes, check for snakes and then drive out of the area. I certainly never felt confident enough to do a night search there.
One day we visited Egypt’s leading naturalist, Sherif Baha El Din, who kindly showed us his long-term breeding project for the critically endangered Egyptian tortoise (Testudo kleinmanni). It was sad to learn about the demise of the tortoise but great to see such long-term conservation efforts taking place. A nocturnal search around his property also revealed the only amphibians we saw in Egypt, two Egyptian toads (Sclerophrys regularis). We did try to visit a location on the Mediterranean coast to search for the endangered tortoise. However upon arrival the place was full of random guys just sitting around. One then approached and said that if we wanted to walk around the area looking for reptiles then he had to come with us so I got fed up and left. Indeed one problem I found was being able to explore somewhere independently as someone often seemed to be present who would either say you couldn’t be there, or wanted money from you.
This was an area that I really enjoyed exploring partly because there were no issues with restrictions, checkpoints etc. This was largely because the area is very remote and there were no people around. I am referring to the Fayoum desert, not the Fayoum oasis which is completely different. Not only terms of habitats and species, but practicalities of being able to travel freely as a foreigner.
We visited the Fayoum desert several times at weekends as it was a perfect place to go for a walk and hopefully find some animals along the way. I did not have a big vehicle, but my Nissan Sunny managed to get us to several remote areas on dirt roads which were not too sandy. At other times I would just leave my car at the side of the tarmac road and walk off into the desert. The first time we visited this area was in August, when we met up with local naturalist Tarek. We spend the evening waiting to catch a glimpse of a rare sight in Egypt: the African golden wolf/jackal. No DNA work has been done on these animals in this part of Africa and there is a lot of debate whether or not they are indeed wolves or jackals. After some sitting and waiting we were treated to the sighting of several individuals. Thanks for your help Tarek!
Reptiles seen in this desert over several visits included the Changeable agama (Trapelus mutabilis), Fan-toed gecko (Ptyodactylus siphonorhina), Dune gecko (Stenodactylus petrii), Elegant gecko (Stenodactylus sthenodactylus) , and several Desert horned vipers (Cerastes cerastes). Another highlight of the area was the vast amount of fossils of prehistorical life which were seen almost everywhere.
This densely inhabited oasis was a big contrast to the nearby desert, in terms of its species richness but also the complications with exploring it. Out of the four attempts I made to visit this area, only two succeeded. The main problem encountered here was passing through the police checkpoint into the oasis. If we were identified as foreigners we would have to pull into the police station parking area and wait for a police car to escort us to our hotel. This really does not work for independent people like us who are looking for wildlife as we do not want to just go to the hotel and stay there. Anyway, during one visit the police escort was agonisingly slow and then a military truck also joined us. Therefore I decided to turn around and left the area to go home. Fortunately during my final attempt to explore this area things worked out very well, but not without some careful planning. Firstly, I entered the oasis after work when it was already dark in the hope that no one would notice my foreign face. This succeeded and I could reach my hotel in the west of the oasis without being bothered by the authorities, although a near head on collision with a truck driving with no head lights on kept me on my toes. This time I had also planned to meet some locals who would guide Kat and I around some habitats while we searched for snakes. Thanks to Ahmed and Mostafa we could finally explore the fertile cultivated fields which hold a far greater variety of reptiles compared to the nearby desert.
As I was driving to the oasis the previous evening, the guys had already found several Egyptian carpet vipers (Echis pyramidum) which was one of my main targets in the area. After photographing the vipers we went to some cultivated fields on the edge of the immense Qarun lake. Almost immediately we found an Egyptian cobra (Naja haje) which was followed by two more individuals, one of which was almost two metres long. Thanks to Ahmed and Mostafa for sharing their knowledge on locating these snakes, which can be quite easy to find in this area if the right searching technique is used. Another target species, the Theban sand boa (Eryx colubrinus) was also found in the area as well as an Egyptian sand snake (Psammophis sibilans). A great weekend overall! I was pleased that this fascinating region could finally be explored after the previous frustrations of visiting the oasis.
The third Egyptian cobra (Naja haje), this one a lighter individual than the other two
Red Sea coast
This area was one of the first that I explored when I arrived in Egypt in August. I had some time before my job started so I drove six hours or so to the coastal area of El Gouna. After exploring I noticed that most of the coastal desert here is severely damaged and after quite some time I eventually located a section of stony, coastal desert that was still natural. As daytime temperatures were above 35C I did all my searching for reptiles at night. The Elegant gecko (Stenodactylus stenodactylus) and the Fan-footed gecko (Ptyodactylus guttatus) were omnipresent and found each evening. I also saw the tracks of several Desert horned vipers (Cerastes cerastes) and after a surprisingly big effort I located a large female sitting in ambush in two very different locations over two nights. During the daytime it was nice to meet up with Georgina Cole who is an expat resident in El Gouna with a detailed knowledge of the bird life in the area.
I next returned to this area in October when I had some free time, this time several hours further south to the Marsa Alam area and then onto the Wadi El Gemal National Park. The first evening exploring this area would choose to be eventful in a way that I had not anticipated. Usually I research carefully any location I visit and after sufficient investigation I deemed it safe to enter a small valley located near the main road. Kat and I went for a hike in the evening when it was cooler as we normally would do in hot weather. After a few hours we started to hike back out of the valley just as it was going dark and we then used torches to make our way back to the car. As we began to see the lights of the road in the distance I suddenly heard the cocking of machine guns and a few seconds later a number of hidden figures emerged from the darkness who started shouting. As the men approached they aimed their machine guns at Kat and myself at which point I shouted to them that I was English and a “tourist”. Once it became apparent that these men finally realised that we were foreigners the tone of the scene changed completely. They approached, lowered their guns and began apologising and they even asked for a selfie with us. I explained that we were looking for animals and they allowed us to return to the car and leave the area. I have no idea if these men came close to opening fire, but in such darkness an accident could have easily happened. It was certainly a very serious situation for a brief moment. I was disappointed that my instincts for choosing a safe location for a walk had proven to be completely wrong and after this encounter I became a lot more cautious of where I went. Occasionally I may disregard my own safety but I was especially annoyed with myself for putting Kat into such a situation. Of course, I do not blame these men for this incident as they turned out to be military personnel who have a very difficult job to do patrolling this area which is relatively close to the border with Sudan. Fortunately we were able to put this behind us very quickly and had a very enjoyable few days in the Red Sea area.
The next day we started to target some species in the Wadi El Gemal National Park with our wonderful guide Mahmod. This turned out to be the best day I had during my months in Egypt. Being a local Bedouin, Madmod knows these wadis inside out and thanks to him I was able to see one of my number one targets. The Hume’s tawny owl (Strix hadorami) is a wadi specialist owl species that I would not have found myself without the local help. We were able to observe one individual one night in a silent valley together with a European scops owl (Otus scops) and a cute Lesser Egyptian jerboa (Jaculus jaculus). By day this area also turned out to be quite productive. In a number of different wadis we saw the Ocellated dabb lizard (Uromastyx ocellata), numerous Spiny agamas (Agama spinosa), Egyptian fan-toed gecko (Ptyodactylus hasselquistii). Interestingly the dabb lizards were quite difficult to find compared to other countries where I have seen these lizards and they seemed to occur in quite low densities. The day ended with a large Desert horned viper (Cerastes cerastes) sitting in ambush under a tree in a sandy section of the National Park. This animal was the only hornless individual we saw during our time in Egypt.
Kat’s underwater photos
Overall despite the very limited time I had to explore Egypt I was pleased that I found most of my main targets. Sometimes traveling around this country was a bit complicated but it is a fascinating country with welcoming people and an interesting herpetofauna which were more than worth the extra effort. I would happily return one day to explore the southern part of the country and the Sinai peninsula which I was not able to visit this time around.
Egyptian toad (Bufo regularis)
Egyptian tortoise (Testudo kleinmanni)
Green turtle (Chelonia mydas)
African chamaeleon (Chamaeleo africanus)
Sinai fan-toed gecko (Ptyodactylus guttatus)
Egyptian fan-toed gecko (Ptyodactylus siphonorhina)
Turkish gecko (Hemidactylus turcicus)
Elegant gecko (Stenodactylus sthenodactylus)
Dune gecko (Stenodactylus petrii)
Bosc’s fringe-toed lizard (Acanthodactylus boskianus)
Long-footed lizard (Acanthodactylus longipes)
Ocellated dabb lizard (Uromastyx ocellata)
Changeable agama (Trapelus mutabilis)
Sinai agama (Pseudotrapelus sinaitus)
Theban sand boa (Eryx colubrinus)
Roger’s whip snake (Platyceps rogersi)
Schokari sand racer (Psammophis schokari)
Egyptian sand snake (Psammophis sibilans)
Saharan sand viper (Cerastes vipera)
Desert horned viper (Cerastes cerastes)
Egyptian carpet viper (Echis pyramidum)
Egyptian cobra (Naja haje)