Wolves, mole rats, and nyala: the struggle to conserve Ethiopia's highlands

Jeremy Hance
mongabay.com
November 20, 2012



Gaysay Grasslands in Bale Mountains National Park. Photo courtesy of the Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS).
Gaysay Grasslands in Bale Mountains National Park. Photo courtesy of the Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS).

There is a place in the world where wolves live almost entirely off mountain rodents, lions dwell in forests, and freshwater rolls downstream to 12 million people, but the place—Ethiopia's Bale Mountains National Park—remains imperiled by a lack of legal boundaries and encroachment by a growing human population.

"Much of the land in Africa above 3,000 meters has been altered or degraded to the point where it isn’t able to perform most of the ecosystem functions that it is designed to do. Bale, although under threat and already impacted to a degree by anthropogenic activities, is still able to perform its most important ecosystem functions, and as such ranks among only a handful of representative alpine ecosystems in Africa," Thadaigh Baggallay, project leader of the Bale Mountains Conservation Project with the Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS), told mongabay.com in a recent interview.

The Bale Mountains house a dozen mammals found no-where else--from mountain nyala (Tragelaphus buxtoni), a stunning antelope, to giant mole rats (Tachyoryctes macrocephalus), a big-toothed rodent. The mountains are also home to the enigmatic and endangered Ethiopian wolf (Canis simensis), a rusty-colored canid that likely split from the gray wolf three to four million years ago. Found scattered across Ethiopian highlands, the bulk of the wolf population remains in the Bale Mountains, yet remains hugely imperiled by rabies. Here, also, are rare lion and African wild dog populations that roam forests instead of savanna. But although Bale Mountains National Park has been established since 1969, the boundaries have never been legally defined, leaving much of the park easily open to pastoralists and farmers.

Thadaigh Baggallay on the right.  Photo courtesy of the Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS).
Thadaigh Baggallay on the right. Photo courtesy of the Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS).
"One of the greatest challenges for the Park has been the fact that it has never been legally gazetted. The boundary has always been a bone of contention, however Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority (EWCA) have just this week sent the final draft of the newly agreed boundary to the Ethiopian Council of Ministers, who we expect will endorse the new boundary in the coming weeks, and we will have a legally gazetted National Park (for us a significant achievement)," says Baggallay, whose organization has worked for over five years to finally gazette the park.

The struggle over the long haul, however, is balancing a booming human population—many of whom live in or near poverty—and the park's wildlife and ecosystem services, including forests and water sources.

"What we and the Park are currently doing [...] is to establish alternative livelihoods for people currently impacting the Parks resources. Many of these focus on conservation-compatible projects based on the provision of tourism services, however we are also establishing small enterprises around the production and distribution of fuel-saving stoves and the manufacture of biomass briquettes to reduce fuel wood use," says Baggallay.

In many ways, Bale Mountains National Park faces similar threats to parks across the developing world: encroachment, poverty, dearth in financing, and rising peril of climate change, which could impact montane regions far faster than lowland regions. Baggallay sees "positive changes" occurring in Bale Mountains, but much more needs to be done.



INTERVIEW WITH THADAIGH BAGGALLAY

Ethiopian wolves hunting rodents. Photo by: Martin Harvey.
Ethiopian wolves hunting rodents. Photo by: Martin Harvey.

Mongabay: What makes the Bale Mountains unique?

Thadaigh Baggallay: Part of what makes the Bale Mountains unique is that much of the land in Africa above 3,000 meters has been altered or degraded to the point where it isn’t able to perform most of the ecosystem functions that it is designed to do. Bale, although under threat and already impacted to a degree by anthropogenic activities, is still able to perform its most important ecosystem functions, and as such ranks among only a handful of representative alpine ecosystems in Africa. It is the largest unaltered landscape above 3000 meters in Africa (Bale represents just over 60% of all the afro-alpine areas in Africa), and therefore is unique in that almost all other similar areas in Africa have disappeared. It alone represents the only area of afroalpine left in Africa large enough to support natural ecosystem functioning.

Like many montane habitats, Bale also has many unique and endemic species. Mountains act like islands and are isolated from other ecosystems, and flora and fauna occurring in these systems adapt to the mountains unique climatic and zonal conditions, often specializing in niche exploitation and over time changing enough to become different species. This is evident in the Ethiopian highlands in general, and particularly in Bale, where at least 12 mammal species alone are endemic to the Bale massif (mountain nyala, Bale monkey, giant mole-rat, Stack’s hare, 8 other rodents).

Mongabay: What are some of the most notable animals found in the Bale Mountains National Park?

The Bale Mountains vervet (Chlorocebus djamdjamensis) is listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List and remains one of Africa's least known primates. Photo courtesy of FZS.
The Bale Mountains vervet (Chlorocebus djamdjamensis) is listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List and remains one of Africa's least known primates. Photo courtesy of FZS.
Thadaigh Baggallay: Ethiopian wolves (see photo)—rarest canid in Africa, endemic to Ethiopia, ~70% of global population found in Bale Mountains National Park (see www.ethiopianwolf.org for more info on wolves). Sightings of Ethiopian wolves are very common, and a significant draw card for the Park.

Mountain nyala (see photo)—large, very impressive antelope endemic to the Bale mountains. Entire global population found in Bale. Numbers increasing and sightings guaranteed.

Giant mole-rat (see photo)—large (2 kilograms) mole-rat, easy to see, entire global population within the National Park.

Forest-dwelling lions (one of only 2 or 3 confirmed populations in Africa) and forest–dwelling African wild dog (rare but confirmed sightings in Park).

Golden eagle, Verraux’s eagle, Abyssinian long-eared owl, wattled crane all regularly seen in the Park, as well as 16 other birds endemic to Ethiopia, and regularly seen.

A number of other rare and endemic species occur, but above are probably the most notable for generalists.

Mongabay: What threats face the Ethiopian wolf?

Thadaigh Baggallay: Rabies from domestic dogs. As the number of people settling inside the national park increases, so too does the number of dogs and hence the risk of rabies. There have been three major rabies outbreaks in the park over the past two decades, 1991, 2003 and 2008/2009 destroying approximately 75% of the population each time. In addition to rabies, canine distemper is another disease that has severely affected the wolves in the past, with 60% of known wolves disappearing in 2005-2006 and approximately 100 wolves disappearing in 2010 as a result of this outbreak. There are efforts underway to vaccinate domestic dogs against rabies, and trials testing the effectiveness of oral vaccines on wolves--carried out by the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme (EWCP) (www.ethiopianwolf.org).

In addition to disease outbreaks, other threats include habitat loss and fragmentation, conflict with humans and hybridization with domestic dogs.

Mongabay: A recent study found that there is little flow between the disparate Ethiopian wolf populations. Has there been any discussion about how to deal with this issue?

Ethiopian wolf. Photo by: Delphin Ruche.
Ethiopian wolf. Photo by: Delphin Ruche.
Thadaigh Baggallay: There is a meta-population management plan which was completed in 2011. Conservation strategies to avoid genetic bottle-necks (conserving individual populations, avoiding major population crashes through disease mitigation measures, and conducting further research on meta-population genetics) are underway and a number of actors are working together to protect isolated populations, however there is as yet no comprehensive intervention dealing with disparate populations and dispersal of individuals. Most populations are separated by hundreds of kilometers of farmland.

For more information see the "Strategic Planning for Ethiopian Wolf Conservation" document, published by the IUCN Canid Specialist Group. It is on the IUCN website as well as the EWCP website.

Mongabay: Will you tell us about the relationship between the wolves and the giant mole rat?

Thadaigh Baggallay: In Bale, wolves feed almost exclusively on diurnal rodents of the alpine community (which account for 96% of their prey). Of these the giant mole rat makes up approximately 40% of their diet. Giant mole rats are therefore an important species for the wolves. Similarly, giant mole rats can have a major influence on shaping the ecosystem, and through their burrowing activity can negatively affect hydrological functioning, thus, the wolves also play an important role in regulating the mole rat population.

Mongabay: FZS has been working at Bale Mountains National Park. What have been the group's most important achievements?

Thadaigh Baggallay: FZS works in partnership with the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority (the government agency mandated to manage Ethiopia’s wildlife and National Parks), and simply put runs a park-support project, the Bale Mountains Conservation Project. Although our focus is on the National Park we also work with a number of local stakeholders around the National Park, and with established community groups, to link communities and conservation. As part of our project we have 5 programs, which are based partly or wholly within the Bale Mountains National Park: 1. Park Operations, 2. Ecological Management, 3. Sustainable Natural Resource Management, 4. Outreach & Awareness, and 5. Tourism Development and Management.

Our most important achievements to date have been

Mountain nyala (Tragelaphus buxtoni) is considered Endangered by the IUCN Red List. Photo by: Delphin Ruche.
Mountain nyala (Tragelaphus buxtoni) is considered Endangered by the IUCN Red List. Photo by: Delphin Ruche.
1. Completing (thru a participatory process) a General Management Plan for the National Park (2007-2017), which was endorsed by the Regional President.

2. Completing (again through a participatory process which included >2000 hours of community meetings) a newly agreed boundary for the National Park. One of the greatest challenges for the Park has been the fact that it has never been legally gazetted. The boundary has always been a bone of contention, however EWCA have just this week sent the final draft of the newly agreed boundary to the Ethiopian Council of Ministers, who we expect will endorse the new boundary in the coming weeks, and we will have a legally gazetted National Park (for us a significant achievement).

3. Establishing and supporting four community-based organizations (we are in the process of establishing seven more) who are implementing participatory forest management programs, and who for the first time have legal rights and responsibilities for managing the forests in which they live. This has created a new awareness of the importance of conservation, has provided some security for forest-dwelling people around the National Park, and has built a link between some communities and National Park managers.

4. Developing guidelines for Protected Area Business Planning in Ethiopia, as well as Ecological & Threat monitoring for Protected Areas in Ethiopia (contributing to scaling up of successful activities in Bale to the National level).

5. Contributing significantly to the scientific knowledge base for Bale—collecting and analyzing data for decision making.

6. Building the capacity of Park managers to a level where they can begin to be excited about their work, and committed to the conservation of the National Park.

None of our work would be possible without contributions from the EU. They are currently funding 75% of the project and are making a significant contribution to Protected Area management and conservation in Ethiopia.

Mongabay: The status of the park remains murky. What could be done to change this?

Thadaigh Baggallay: In order to change the Parks "murky" status it would have to be legally gazetted and become a formally agreed National Park. We are 95% of the way there, having undertaken a five year long participatory process of re-negotiating the entire Park boundary with the 26 villages around the Park. The final boundary description has just this week been completed and the EWCA will submit this to the Ministry of Culture & Tourism on Thursday 22nd November. The Ministry will submit this to the Ethiopian Council of Ministers for ratification, at which point the status of the Park will no longer be murky, but will have the formal status of a National Park, and the boundary will be demarcated. Bale will then join the only two other formally gazetted Nat parks in Ethiopia (other two being Simien Mountains and Awash).

Mongabay: How do you balance local people needs and the wildlife in the park?

The wattled crane (Bugeranus carunculatus) is listed as Vulnerable. Photo by: Delphin Ruche.
The wattled crane (Bugeranus carunculatus) is listed as Vulnerable. Photo by: Delphin Ruche.
Thadaigh Baggallay: If I could answer this question I would be the most sought after person in conservation I feel. All being said this is probably the ultimate question for us and almost all other threatened areas in the world. As human population grows this problem becomes more acute and more difficult to address, and we all know human populations are, almost without exception, growing rapidly, and this is particularly true for Ethiopia.

A calculated answer might be that the Park would demonstrate to local people that the services the Park provides (especially around water) far outweigh any of the short term benefits people may receive from cutting fuel wood and construction material and planting crops. A shared understanding would lead to a change in behavior and a reduction in negative impacts on the Park. This answer though does not count for the fact that the population living in and around the National Park is growing and land available for grazing and crop production is becoming limited. People are not in a position to take on board discussion around what may (will) happen in 5-10 years time when they believe it is their right to have land now. The need for individual land/livelihoods supersedes the desire to protect a communal resource, even when the community at large recognizes, and has articulated as much, the significant and rapid loss of available ground water, and that people are traveling further and spending more time collecting fire-wood etc.

A number of studies have shown that the Bale Mountains, with the National Park at its heart, provide water to ~12 million downstream users, many of which are in the food-insecure lowlands of Ethiopia and Somalia. This is demonstrable and is directly related to the needs of the people, to say nothing of climate change adaptation and mitigation, helping to meet the countries CBD requirements, the carbon sequestration associated with 1,000 square kilometers of forest in the Park etc.

What we and the Park are currently doing in an attempt to balance the needs of people and the wildlife is to establish alternative livelihoods for people currently impacting the Parks resources. Many of these focus on conservation-compatible projects based on the provision of tourism services, however we are also establishing small enterprises around the production and distribution of fuel-saving stoves and the manufacture of biomass briquettes to reduce fuel wood use.

Mongabay: Has a strict conservation zone been established in the park? If so, has it been respected?

Thadaigh Baggallay: Not yet, this will be the first step after gazettement.

Mongabay: Has the government both local and federal put more resources into protecting the park?

Harenna Forest in Bale Mountains National Park. Photo by: Delphin Ruche.
Harenna Forest in Bale Mountains National Park. Photo by: Delphin Ruche.
Thadaigh Baggallay: The Federal government represented by the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority, have in the last three years significantly increased resources and support for protecting the National Park. They have increased the number of staff by almost 200% over the past three years, are providing much more support to Park management staff, especially in terms of planning and monitoring, and have increased the technical capacity within the EWCA, and made this support available to Park managers. The park is still massively underfunded, however positive changes have taken place. Local government however has changed little over the last five years, and do not put any resources into the Park, and in many cases actively hinder Park activities.

Mongabay: What needs to happen in the future to sustain Bale Mountains National Park?

Thadaigh Baggallay: There is a long list—but briefly.

The Fed government needs to continue to increase support to Parks, and recognize their potential contribution to National Economy, and at the same time work hard to garner support for Parks from local government. Capacity within Park management and support staff needs to continue to be built, in particular around understanding of the law and law enforcement.

People living inside the most sensitive areas of the National Park (many of whom have moved in within the last five years), need to be relocated.

Mongabay: How could climate change impact Bale Mountains National Park?

Thadaigh Baggallay: Mountains are amongst the most vulnerable environments to climate change since slight changes in climatic conditions can lead to changes in altitudinal zonation across ecosystems.

This can lead to rare plants and animals struggling to survive over increasingly limited ranges and can lead to mountain people, already amongst the worlds’ poorest citizens, facing even greater hardships as food and fuel grow scarce. The Ethiopian highlands make up 70-80% of the land above 3,000 meters on the African continent. Approximately 60 million people live in the Ethiopian highlands of which 85% are farmers and pastoralists.

Tawny eagle (Aquila rapax) is considered Least Concern. Photo by: Delphin Ruche.</td>
Tawny eagle (Aquila rapax) is considered Least Concern. Photo by: Delphin Ruche.
The Bale Mountains, located in the Ethiopian highlands houses the most important protected area in Ethiopia, the Bale Mountains National Park (BMNP), which houses a number of rare plants and animals and is a very important watershed for million of downstream users, particularly in the most food insecure areas of Ethiopia. As a result, the BMNP is particularly vulnerable to the negative impacts of climate change on flora, fauna and indeed people depending on the parks resources. Elevated atmospheric CO2 concentration affects global temperatures and temporal and spatial precipitation which in turn affects the distribution and ecology of species and influences watersheds by altering the frequency of floods and droughts. As a result, the occurrence of soil erosion and landslides will increase and irrigation will be affected making life increasingly difficult for subsistence farmers and other local and downstream users, such as those relying on cash crops.

A number of surveys have been carried out in different communities in the Bale Mountains to try and determine exactly how climate change is already affecting their daily lives. Interestingly, urban-dwellers rated climate change impacts as less of a problem compared to rural communities who rated the problem as extremely high. Problems identified where: increase in floods and droughts leading to failed crops and disease, a reduction in surface water availability, forcing people to travel further to find water for livestock and domestic animals and a reduction in water quality for household use. This supports the notion that those depending on natural resources are facing bigger problems as a result of climate change then those who live in towns (even rural towns) and therefore the conservation of natural resources such as in the BMNP is a critical component of climate change mitigation.



The giant mole rat (Tachyoryctes macrocephalus) is considered Endangered. Photo by: Martin Harvey.
The giant mole rat (Tachyoryctes macrocephalus) is considered Endangered. Photo by: Martin Harvey.



Settlers in Bale Mountains National Park. Photo courtesy of FZS.
Settlers in Bale Mountains National Park. Photo courtesy of FZS.



Lions in Harenna Forest. Photo by: John Mason.
Lions in Harenna Forest. The lion (Panthera leo) is considered Vulnerable. Photo by: John Mason.



The Abyssinian hare (Lepus habessinicus) is considered Least Concern. Photo by: Hakan Pohlstrand.
The Abyssinian hare (Lepus habessinicus) is considered Least Concern. Photo by: Hakan Pohlstrand.



Sanetti Plateau. Photo courtesy of FZS.
Sanetti Plateau. Photo courtesy of FZS.



Mountain nyala. Photo by: Delphin Ruche.
Mountain nyala. Photo by: Delphin Ruche.



The Abyssinian owl (Asio abyssinicus) is considered Least Concern. Photo by: Delphin Ruche.
The Abyssinian owl (Asio abyssinicus) is considered Least Concern. Photo by: Delphin Ruche.



Mountain nyala. Photo by: Delphin Ruche.
Mountain nyala. Photo by: Delphin Ruche.













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CITATION:
Jeremy Hance
mongabay.com (November 20, 2012).

Wolves, mole rats, and nyala: the struggle to conserve Ethiopia's highlands.

http://news.mongabay.com/2012/1120-hance-bale-interview.html