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Forest fires threaten rare species in Ethiopia

Forest fires threaten rare species in Ethiopia

Wildfires and an invasive population threaten grasslands that are home to some of the world's rarest species.

Conservationist Getachew Assefa points across the valley. "It started near the fog there, from the most spectacular point of view," he says. “Almost the entire meadow was burned. All that plateau and the sheer cliff there.

Six months after wildfires burned this part of Ethiopia's Simien Mountains, the scars are healing: heather and grass have re-carpeted the top of the hill, illuminated by the yellow daisies that bloom after the long rains. On the near side of the valley are fields of barley, undulating in the wind.

The scene is bucolic. But, as Assefa explains, these mountainous grasslands and the rare wildlife they harbor are threatened.

Two fires broke out earlier this year that ravaged one of the oldest natural UNESCO World Heritage sites and destroyed, at least temporarily, the habitat of some of the world's rarest species: the copper-coated Ethiopian wolf and the mountain goat, a goat found nowhere else on earth.

Few doubt the cause of the fires. The park's wolf monitors, which include Assefa, saw two men setting fire to the bushes through binoculars, although they could not confirm their identities.

"They did it in five areas, on purpose," he says. The blaze raged on for several days, and it took thousands of locals, including a nearby soccer club, eventually assisted by a team of Israeli firefighters, to control the flames. Around the same time, the Bale Mountains, in the south of the country, were also affected by wildfires that lasted more than 20 days and that the experts attributed to the human invasion in the park.

Incidents like these shed light on the pressures that threaten Ethiopia's fragile wildlife and delicate ecosystems - accelerating competition for resources as human population increases, political instability, global warming, and mass tourism.

"We are in a crisis situation," says Greta Iori, Ethiopian technical adviser for the Society for Wildlife Conservation, who fears that the country's endemic species are close to extinction. "We are awash in trouble when it comes to wildlife."

For a country with few minerals or natural resources like oil, assets like these are an important source of national income. According to the World Bank, "natural capital", including forests and agricultural land, represents 40% of Ethiopia's total wealth.

But the parks are in terrible shape. In the Omo National Park in the extreme south of Ethiopia, near the Kenyan border, the government is building sugar factories and vast irrigated plantations. Awash National Park, the oldest in the country, is divided in two by the eastern railway and highway to Djibouti. Abijatta-Shalla, south of Addis Ababa, is home to a soda ash factory.

Meanwhile, ethnic unrest in eastern Ethiopia has had a huge impact on the Babile Elephant Sanctuary, one of the most important elephant ranges in the country. According to Iori, a large number of new human settlements have appeared within its borders since 2017.

The elephant population is under extreme pressure due to a "heightened and unavoidable human-elephant conflict," says the adviser. A population of around 500 could be decimated "in the blink of an eye" through poaching, with park staff scrambling to secure the sanctuary.

"2019 has been brutal with an incredible increase in elephant killings," he says, adding: "It's like we've already lost in Babile, and it's heartbreaking."

At the national level, conservation efforts have been hampered in recent years by civil unrest and political transition following the appointment of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in 2018.

"In general, Ethiopia has never been a large hotspot for trafficking poaching, but since law and order have collapsed, we have seen an increase in opportunistic poaching and subsequent trafficking," says Iori. "The police and the army are busy with other things, and the risk of getting caught is low."

In the Simien Mountains, the problems are less advanced and the park is better managed. But similar dynamics are present. When political protests broke out in 2016, the park was the target of popular anger, with locals breaking bans against logging and grazing livestock. "Everyone was rushing to get their share," Assefa recalls. "We lost two of the best wolf habitats."

Today, park authorities still struggle to enforce local laws designed to protect the natural environment.

“There is a big conflict between the unemployed youth and the park administration,” Assefa explains. He believes that this year's fires were started by locals disgusted by the strong crackdown by the authorities against cattle grazing within the park's perimeters.

Setegn, a local farmer whose home is beyond the park, admits that he grazes his animals within the boundary marked by the main road. "The park administration said we can't cross the road, they say we won't get any benefit from tourism unless we graze on the right hand side," he says. "But it is very difficult. There is no survival for us without livestock ”.

Others interviewed by The Guardian expressed the same concerns, saying their income had been severely affected by the restrictions.

The barley fields to the left of the trail are another sign of human encroachment and the waning authority of the park management, notes Nick Crane, the British owner of Simien Mountain Lodge. "They invade slowly, imperceptibly, so it's hardly noticeable," he says.

According to Abebaw Azanaw, the park keeper, there are about 130 households around the edges of the park.

Relocating them would be costly and could lead to renewed conflict. In 2016, the entire town of Gichi, about 500 households located on the scarp where the fire started, chose to move to a new settlement near the town of Debark, which cost the government an average of $ 17,000 (£ 14,000) per family. The compensation was considerable, but many complained of the lack of electricity in their new homes upon arrival and the lack of work. Some threatened to return to the park.

“We learned from Gichi that it is very difficult to resettle people from the park,” Assefa says.

The root of the problem is common in many developing countries when it comes to conservation: how to strike the right balance between the resource demands of local residents and the need to protect the natural environment for future generations.

Promoting tourism is part of the answer, should it mean higher jobs and income for locals, but only if it's managed well.

In 2015, the Ethiopian Ministry of Culture and Tourism announced that it intended to triple foreign visitors to more than 2.5 million by 2020.

But for John Watkin, who worked in the Simien Mountains as the Africa Wildlife Foundation's senior technical advisor from 2018 to 2019, “uncontrolled tourism” is the most serious threat to the park's wildlife.

“The infrastructure of the park is simply not set up for a large number of tourists. Tourism is always looking for a hot new destination, and Ethiopia is. But unless it's done right, it will cause serious problems, ”he says.

For Crane, one answer is to raise the park's price for foreign visitors, to try to limit the number that come to the Simien Mountains each year.

Meanwhile, Watkin suggests that Ethiopia consider alternative conservation approaches that allow communities to take ownership of the process, moving away from the prevailing state-led “fortress conservation” model. He points to examples in Kenya and Tanzania, where local communities run eco-lodges and tourism businesses while ensuring landscape protection. "They are 20 to 30 years ahead of Ethiopia on this," he says.

Such approaches could allow Ethiopia to square the circle between conservation and development.

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