Gebel Elba

Year of compilation: 2001

Site description
The Gebel Elba area encompasses a cluster of coastal mountains overlooking the Red Sea, immediately to the north of the political border with Sudan. Most prominent are Gebel Elba (1,435 m), Gebel Shellal (1,409 m), Gebel Shendib (1,911 m) and Gebel Shendodai (1,526 m). These are the southernmost of the Egypt’s Red Sea mountains. A 25 km wide coastal plain separates the mountains from the Red Sea coast to the north and east. To the west lie the bleak sand-plains and hills of the Eastern Desert. A network of numerous small, deeply cut wadis drain the mountains into several major wadis, which flow towards the Red Sea or the Nile valley. The most important of these are Wadi Akwamtra, Wadi Aideib and Wadi Serimtai.

Gebel Elba itself enjoys higher precipitation than any of the other mountains in the region, even the higher ones, primarily because of its closeness to the sea and its favourable position in the face of moisture-laden north-easterly winds. Average annual rainfall in the region is less than 50 mm, although orographic precipitation on Gebel Elba itself amounts to as much as 400 mm. The summit of Gebel Elba is a ‘mist oasis’ where a considerable part of the precipitation is contributed in the form of dew or mist and clouds, which often shroud the mountaintop. Aridity increases notably from the north-east to the south-west.

The relative abundance of moisture, which is some of the highest in Egypt, allows a diverse flora to exist. Some 458 species of plants are known from Gebel Elba. Ferns, mosses and succulents are fairly common in the mist-zone at higher altitudes, where trees of Acacia, Moringa and Dracaena are dominant. At lower altitudes, in mountain wadis and foothills, there is dense parkland, dominated by Acacia and Delonix. The density of this vegetation is particularly high in the northern and north-east regions of Gebel Elba. This mid-altitude zone has the greatest biotic diversity. The undulating coastal plain is interspersed with shallow wadis and covered with scattered bushes and trees dominated by Acacia and Balanites. Saltmarsh vegetation and mangroves fringe long stretches of the coast.

Key biodiversity
See Box and Table 2 for key species. Because of the abundance of moisture, altitudinal effects and geographic position, Gebel Elba supports a rich biodiversity unparalleled in any other, similar, desert habitat in Egypt. Many Afrotropical elements have their northern limits at Elba, including several avian species. Some 41 bird species are known or thought to breed in the immediate vicinity of Elba. Of the Sahara–Sindian biome-restricted species, Turdoides fulvus is not represented in any other IBA in Egypt. Terathopius ecaudatus, Oena capensis, Caprimulgus nubicus, Eremopterix nigriceps, Nectarinia habessinica, Sylvia leucomelaena, Rhodophoneus cruentus, Lonchura cantans and Passer luteus are Afrotropical species that, in Egypt, are largely confined to Gebel Elba. Other species, such as Struthio camelus and Torgos tracheliotos, which have disappeared from most of their former North African/Middle Eastern range, can still be found in the Gebel Elba area, although they have both been greatly reduced in number during the past decade. The area also holds breeding populations of several birds of prey that are rare, or have sharply declined, throughout the remainder of their range in Egypt: Gypaetus barbatus, Neophron percnopterus, Aquila verreauxii and Hieraaetus fasciatus.

Non-bird biodiversity: Flora: Biscutella elbensis is endemic to Gebel Elba (Boulos 1995). Several other plant species, rare elsewhere in Egypt, are also found here. Reptiles: Ophisops elbaensis was thought to be endemic, but has been found recently in south-west Arabia. Mammals: Vulpes rueppelli (DD) is fairly common. If Panthera pardus still exists, it is very rare. Gazella dorcas (VU) and Capra nubiana (EN) are declining, but are still found in small numbers, while Ammotragus lervia (VU) is, apparently, still present in very small numbers.

Pressure/threats to key biodiversity
Gebel Elba is part of the Elba National Park, which was declared by Prime Ministerial Decree 450/1986, adjusted by Prime Ministerial Decree 1186/1986 and Prime Ministerial Decree 642/1995. The total area of the Elba National Park is 3,560,000 ha. Hunting is perhaps the most serious threat that birds and other wildlife face in the Gebel Elba region. Hunters, either well-to-do Egyptians, Gulf Arabs or military personnel, tend to shoot vast numbers of animals in an indiscriminate, uncontrolled manner, which has particularly devastated gazelle populations. Among birds, the larger species are usually the most affected, particularly Struthio camelus and large birds of prey such as Torgos tracheliotos. Increased disturbance by hunters, military personnel and development activities, especially in the coastal zone, is driving wildlife further inland towards more arid and less favourable habitats.

Initiatives are underway to settle the local Bishari, transforming these traditional communities and their ways of life. Local Bisharin Bedouins have traditionally produced charcoal made solely of dead Acacia trees and branches. According to tribal laws it was forbidden to cut living trees. However, in recent years these laws have been increasingly overlooked, because of the growing demand for charcoal in the Nile valley, and the growing financial needs of the local people. Today, green trees are often felled to be turned into charcoal. This, combined with the severe grazing pressure, is working to reduce the vegetation cover, so increasing the aridity of the region.

The area from Berenice south is currently closed to visitors, except those with permission. Most recently, the area between Marsa Alam and Shalateen has been opened to tourists. If large-scale tourism were to take place at Gebel Elba itself, it would be highly detrimental to this relatively untouched wilderness.

Recommended citation
BirdLife International (2023) Important Bird Areas factsheet: Gebel Elba. Downloaded from on 23/03/2023.