Tunisia’s Lake Ichkeul offers vibrant ecosystem

On the mountain, the typical species are the booted eagle and the lanner falcon.
Sunday 24/03/2019
A general view of the Ichkeul Park.  (Nabiha Ben Mbarek)
A general view of the Ichkeul Park. (Nabiha Ben Mbarek)

LAKE LCHKEUL, Tunisia - Under a sunlit sky, the glittering waters of Lake Ichkeul reach for the edges of the surrounding hills, creating a habitat that hosts thousands of wildlife and plant species.

Located 25km from Tunisia’s popular Bizerte touristic zone, Ichkeul National Park is famous for its flora, birds and lake. Ichkeul is the last freshwater lake of a chain of lakes that stretches across North Africa.

The park, established in 1980, covers 126 sq.km and includes three ecosystems: a mountain 511 metres in elevation, its plains and the lake that covers 850 sq.km.

Green plains and a refreshing sight of the lake greet visitors entering the park. One can contemplate the diversity of the landscape full of various species of birds because the park is an important stopover for thousands of migratory birds. There are 40-60 species of birds in the lake and marshlands.

Lake Ichkeul is unique for its hydrological system. Its ecosystem depends on variations of water levels and salinity, which stem from the alternation of seasonal flows of freshwater from five rivers and sea water via the Tindja canal. Freshwater levels rise from October to March, which dilutes salinity levels of the lake. In the summer, the fresh water evaporates and seawater flows into the lake.

Not only is the park unique for the variation of its water salinity but it is famous for its bird population. Waterfowl and wading birds can be seen at the lake. The park has rare birds, which include the purple gallinule and the park’s most emblematic bird, the greylag goose.

On the mountain, the typical species are the booted eagle and the lanner falcon.

Yet the most impressive species of birds, one expert said, are the water birds, which are unique because of their variety.

Generally, the average number of water birds is 110,000-150,000 but “can reach 300,000 in a day,” said Claudia Feltrup-Azafzaf, executive director of Les Amis Des Oiseaux, the partner of Bird Life in Tunisia. “The most important species are coots and ducks.”

Feltrup-Azafzaf said there are endangered species, such as the white-headed duck, marbled teal, ferruginous duck and pochard. The emblem of the park, the greylag goose, has changed its migratory behaviour in the past 20 years and has become a rare sight in Tunisia.

The presence of birds in the park has fluctuated because of the salinity of the lake. Its hydrological system is essential for aquatic plants, a major source of food for the birds, to grow.

Potamogeton pectinatus, a major source of nourishment for birds that frequent the lake, does not grow if water salinity is high.

For the past 20 years, the construction of dams on rivers that flow fresh water into the lake has caused the salinity of water to rise, Feltrup-Azafzaf said.

“Because of droughts over the past few years, only about 20,000 birds came to the lake in the month of January,” she said.

Not only is the park an important ecological site, it is also a popular site for tourism and recreation for nature lovers. Mount Ichkeul covers 13.6 sq.km, providing opportunities for refreshing hikes.

More than 500 types of plant life have been recorded in the park. A visit in the spring would be the perfect time to reconnect with nature. Lilac proliferate, iris, cyclamen and others can be enjoyed during the blossoming spring.

Ichkeul Park shows evidence that it has been inhabited by man since antiquity. During pre-Roman times, it was used for hunting and fishing. The area is a hunting reserve, which includes a buffalo population that was re-introduced in 1720. The size of the herd, however, declined in 1957.

The Ichkeul National Park receives approximately 50,000 visitors each year and offers them whatever activities and attractions they can think of, such as hiking trails, guided excursions, an ecological museum, sightseeing and bird watching.

A grey heron spreads its wings while attempting to fly in Ichkeul.        (Nabiha Ben Mbarek)
A grey heron spreads its wings while attempting to fly in Ichkeul. (Nabiha Ben Mbarek)
Buffaloes of Ichkeul.  (Nabiha Ben Mbarek)
Buffaloes of Ichkeul. (Nabiha Ben Mbarek)
A gecko wanders on a rock at Ichkeul Park.     (UNESCO)
A gecko wanders on a rock at Ichkeul Park. (UNESCO)
24