Updated: Nov 21, 2022
As soon as you meet Dr. Irina Springuel, you are aware of her passion for the desert environment. When asked how she became interested in desert plants she quips “I simply like the desert”. Unfailingly humble about her incredible career, she has had a significant impact on the desert environment and is now raising awareness of the importance of conserving and planting native desert flora and educating the public with her desert garden.
Dr. Irina Springuel
Here at RED SEA PROJECT™, we have a very special relationship with Irina. Her work ethic and commitment to conservation through awareness and education is very similar to our own and we would like to spread the message of her work and let you know how you can get involved. Dr. Irina has so many incredible stories and life achievements, that it makes it very difficult to sum them up in a brief article, but I will strive to do her amazing life justice before discussing her current mission.
In the words of Dr. Irina "the Bedouins call the desert Sea without water bahr bela ma, so we are in the same boat".
First and foremost, Dr. Irina is a professor in plant ecology, and known famously as an expert in desert botany. She graduated from Leningrad University after gaining her BSc in Geobotany, in what was then the Soviet Union. She then moved to Egypt to continue her postgraduate studies, completing an MSc and PhD in Ecology at Assiut University. Her instrumental research on the First Cataract Islands near Aswan during her PhD led to their declaration as a protected area in 1986, then later in 1989, helping to establish another conservation area in the Aswan Governorate to conserve these unique habitats. When Irina first moved to Egypt, the culture there was not an easy one for a woman to pursue a career in science - and nor did she speak the language. These challenges however did not deter her from following her passion: a passion which has allowed her to build her incredibly successful career, making huge strives towards protecting desert ecosystems and the important botanic species that live there.
The Desert Garden
Since the publication of her books ‘WADI ALLAQI Biosphere Reserve’ in 1997 and ‘Desert Garden: A practical Guide’ in 2006, her recognition in the world of desert botany has grown significantly. Beyond her research, involvement in projects associated with the University of Aswan have revealed another layer of the kindness and care that she holds for not only nature, but the people around her as well. If asked, Irina will tell you that she considers her investment into her students her biggest achievement; not her conservation efforts, nor the books or countless publications that she has written. She has educated, supervised, nurtured, and supported many as they have grown from young children to excellent MSc and PhD students, some of whom now have their own conservation organisations. These students are now spread across Egypt and the Middle East, working and drawing attention towards protecting the fragile desert environment.
You can purchase your own copy of Dr. Irina’s book ‘Desert Garden: A practical Guide’ Here.
Our research assistants Omar and Elsa, helping Dr. Irina to organise and digitalise her seedbank
Not only is her body of work and achievements as a professor very impressive, but she has also been instrumental in a variety of conservation and sustainable development work within Egypt. Many of her achievements and contributions go beyond her field of study, stories that she shares very humbly, almost unaware of the importance of the projects she has been involved in and the extent to which her impact has changed the lives of many people across the world. Her involvement with the university of Aswan as an academic mentor allowed students to develop not only academically but broadened their visions through cultural exchanges; also co-founding the Unit of Environmental Studies and development at South Valley University, which was recognised by the UNESCO Chairs Programme.
Irina’s research in Wadi Allaqi really is one of a kind, with her story taking place in the remote southern part of the Arabian (Nubian) desert, where until recently, it was untouched by anthropogenic development. During the shifting seasons, she noted the changes in and uses of the desert landscape which led to her pioneering experiments in irrigation techniques. During her time in Wadi Allaqi, Irina noted that the habitat had deteriorated due to anthropogenic factors such as gold mining. So, she set about restoring the habitat. This led to Wadi Allaqi being recognised as a biosphere reserve in 1993. Not only did Irina work to restore the habitat, but she also formed close bonds with the Bedouin communities that resided in the area. Irina noticed that the Bedouin children took an interest in the research teams books and papers but were unable to read. So initially, Irina and her husband began to give classes to the children, later setting up schools within the Bedouin community who otherwise, would not have access to education.
Field visit with Dr. Irina
The project aimed to protect desert areas used by Bedouin tribes, enabling them to continue their traditional pastoral lifestyle. This attracted global attention and drew the interest of Princess Diana. The British Council in Egypt had supported the project from its beginning. It was arranged that Aswan University be one of the stops during Princess Diana’s visit to Egypt in 1992. Irina was asked to deliver a presentation on her work, which left such an impact on the Princess that after the presentation Diana thanked Irina personally, later sending a letter of thanks for the presentation and all that Irina and her team had achieved.
During her time working as a professor, Irina forged a path for women to be able to travel and work in the desert area. Also encouraging, supporting, and nurturing the desires of women to enter the world of science, both of which had previously been prohibited. She also trained and educated many young botanists in Egypt’s deserts, spreading her knowledge, and continuing to increase awareness of the importance of desert life.
After many conversations with Dr Irina, it is easy to share in her disappointment at the lack of attention given to the desert environment. The term ‘charismatic species’ is well known in the conservation field, but it seems almost discriminating that the biggest, cutest, or well-known species are deemed the worthiest of conservation and protection. Since when did life become valuable simply for being easy to see? Life in the desert isn’t obvious. It is not a scene often featured on the news, or on advertisement for donations or protection. In fact, it is often seen as a barren and hostile environment, perhaps that is why the decline of desert plants in Egypt has gone largely unnoticed. However, whilst life in the desert may not be obvious, if you look closely, you’ll find an exceptionally rich and diverse ecosystem that is well worth conserving.
Even in retirement, Irina continues the work that she cherishes so dearly, choosing to remain in Egypt with her desert gardens. Showing just how much she believes in the work that she has dedicated so many years of her life to. When asked, she said that she couldn’t imagine doing anything else, she enjoys being busy and continuing to unlock the secrets of the desert. Irina’s current project is her desert garden at Wadi Sabarah Lodge. This is aimed to be used as a resource for education, research, and the conservation of desert plant species, including many that are culturally significant, useful, and threatened. Her garden provides a myriad of educational purposes for researchers and the public, as there is a large collection of desert plants found in one location. With her work here providing a template and inspiration for other hotels and resorts to be able to conserve the native plants that are threatened across Egypt, and across other desert nations too. All the information on how to grow your own desert garden can be found in her book ‘Desert Garden: A practical Guide’.
For further reading on Dr Irina’s work, you can find a collection of her publications on her ResearchGate page. Here
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