When you think of Tunisia, the first things that come to mind are dreamy beaches and breathtaking desert landscapes, steaming hot mint tea and popular holiday resorts such as Djerba and Hammamet. What few people expect is a unique region that surprises visitors with a fascinating variety of species. The Ichkeul National Park,one of the numerous national parks in the country, is a natural paradise for birds and animals covering an area of over 12,600 hectares in northern Tunisia, about 25 km southwest of the city of Bizerte.

The prevailing Mediterranean climate here, with rain showers in mild autumn and winter, makes the region one of the greenest in the north, which is why Lake Ichkeul, the last of what were once several freshwater lakes spread across North Africa, and the surrounding swamps count as one of the most important wetlands of the Mediterranean. The 511 meter-high limestone peak Jebel Ichkeul, one of the easternmost foothills of the Tell Atlas, also contributes to the extraordinary richness of the flora and fauna.

A variety of over 200 animal species such as wild boar, jackals, various wild cat species, bats,  and numerous reptiles and amphibians such as snakes, chameleons, turtles and frogs find excellent living conditions here. Above all, the water buffalo, which is rarely found in the wild today, has found a new home here. The lake itself is rich in numerous species of fish such as mullets and eels and is surrounded by more than 500 species of plants. Cyclamen, lilac and orchids, along with cacti and mastic bushes, transform the landscape into a blooming sea of flowers. Carob trees, olive trees and eucalyptus trees line the banks and thrive magnificently.

The national park attracts a large number of rare and fascinating migratory species. Every year the region becomes an important resting place for hundreds of thousands of endangered migratory birds such as ducks, geese, storks, coots and pink flamingos that have flown across the Mediterranean Sea from all over Europe, either foraging or building their nests. At peak times, almost 400,000 birds gather here, of which around 40 species remain to build their nests.

Depending on the season, the lake and surrounding wetlands change into either a freshwater or saltwater reservoir. This natural phenomenon is caused by a specific hydrological function based on a seasonal change in water levels and salinity. This is made possible by the connection between Lake Ichkeul and Lac de Bizerté, a saltwater lagoon fed by the Mediterranean Sea. The river Wadi Tinja connects the two bodies of water over a length of 5 kilometers and carries the water from one to the other. 

In Tunisia’s hot summers of Tunisia, when there is often no rain for months, the water level drops due to evaporation and the withdrawal of drinking water. The lake then covers about 89 square kilometers, with an average depth of about one meter. Due to the low level, millions of cubic meters of salt water can flow into the lake via the river and change the water quality. 

The salinity is highest between July and October. When the heavy rains in the nearby Mogod Mountains fill up the lake again in autumn, the level rises and the salt water is pushed back until a huge freshwater lake is formed once more, so that by the end of winter the lake has expanded by about 30 km2, flooding the area.

The government attaches great importance to preserving this extremely valuable area that is the habitat of many animals and plants, but at the same time, it has to think of the human population as the lake represents an enormously valuable resource for this rather dry part of the continent. Dams were built to provide drinking water and large pipes were laid to transport the water to nearby areas to irrigate potatoes, wheat and other crops. These measures, together with severe droughts, have significantly affected the ecological balance in recent years, effectively depriving the lake of its lifeblood. The natural habitat of waterfowl and wildlife was seriously affected as the water level dropped dangerously, and the lake began to become salty.

The national park, which has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1980, was then included in the Red List of World Heritage in Danger in 1996. Ten years later, thanks to intensive efforts, the ecosystem had stabilized again and could be removed from the list. The park is now managed by the Ministry of Agriculture of Tunisia and has technically sophisticated dams that not only control the water level but also store excess water from rainy years to be returned when needed.

The Ichkeul National Park is considered the only natural site in North Africa on the UNESCO World Heritage List and was established primarily to protect endangered bird life. The greatest danger today comes from pollution such as building rubble and household waste, as well as contamination from industry. Stricter measures need to be taken to one day welcome back the numbers of birds that made this once rich and diverse region famous far beyond its borders.   

The article was first published in Issue 18


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