ETHIOPIA: Interview with leading conservationist Stuart Williams
ADDIS ABABA, 18 Jun 2002 (IRIN) - Stuart Williams is a leading British conservationist spearheading the fight to save two of Ethiopia’s rarest animals, the Ethiopian Wolf and the Grevy Zebra, both of which face imminent extinction. Williams, who lives in the Bale Mountains, speaks of the importance of Ethiopia’s wildlife, the role of its national and protected parks, and how sustainable development within the country is intertwined with conservation efforts.
QUESTION: How significant is Ethiopia in terms of biodiversity?
ANSWER: Ethiopia harbours an astonishing diversity of plants and animals that are found nowhere else in the world. Ethiopia’s uniqueness is linked to two principal ‘centres of endemism’. These are the arid areas of the Horn of Africa and the highlands. In both areas, plants and animals have evolved to result in a suite of species found nowhere else on the globe. The fauna and flora, because it is unique, is therefore of international importance. When one delves into the less known groups of organisms, there are many that have yet to be described. Unlike other African countries, Ethiopia’s fauna and flora has not been thoroughly described – many species have yet to be discovered.
Q: Why is the environment important to Ethiopia – a country facing severe problems like extreme poverty and massive food insecurity?
A: The environment is central to the problems that Ethiopia faces today, more so, perhaps, in some areas than others. The rate of exploitation of the natural resources in the country is not sustainable. Without a significant consideration of alternatives and of how the expanding population is going to live in the future, there will be even more serious problems once the resources are depleted. Ethiopia may yet prove to be the test case of what happens when a human population overtakes the natural resources available to it.
Second and by extension, it is necessary to find alternatives to agricultural and livestock production that has been the focus of food security in the country to date – or at least diversify away from them. Clearly, the focus on the agricultural and livestock production sectors is problematic; already they do not provide for all the people in the country. The environment sector, I believe, offers the most viable sector for diversification to generate foreign revenue. Tourism is one, if not the only, industry with the potential for real growth in the next few years.
Q: How vital is the role played by the national parks in the country?
A: Their role in protecting some vestiges of the natural resources of this country cannot, I believe, be overemphasised. This is primarily linked with their international, national and regional importance for the biological diversity that they harbour...The areas covered by the national parks in Ethiopia are the very minimum required to protect some of the most important species. I believe that many of the long-term problems that the country faces – primarily food insecurity – are, in part, linked to the environment and the overexploitation of the natural resources. This is particularly true in the lowlands of the southeast of the country.
Q: What is the current situation of the parks?
A: At present, the overall picture of the national parks is poor. The government is not placing the environment –particularly protected areas – on its agenda and as a result the protected areas are chronically under funded. This has led to low staffing levels, and what staff there are, are poorly equipped and not at all motivated. The wildlife populations in all the parks have been and continue to be depleted as a result. Without a radical change in the management of wildlife in this country – thus, radically improving the management of the parks and ensuring that wildlife populations outside of protected areas can be sustained – the wildlife will cease to exist in meaningful numbers.
Q: What more can be done to improve conservation work in the country?
A: The environment – and not just the protected areas - needs to be moved onto the agenda from the highest levels including the federal and regional governments, and the donor community. National Parks and tourism should be included in the Poverty Reduction Strategy – which would include satisfying the precondition of facilitating external private investment in the tourism sector. Give recognition to the fact that there is a place for pristine places in Ethiopia – not only to attract tourists or to protect natural resources on which people are dependent, but also as part of the unique heritage of the country.
Much of the wildlife does exist outside of the protected areas. The wildlife – as with land – is owned by the government and not by local people. Empowering local communities by passing the legislation to allow them to own the resources in the area in which they live makes a lot of sense. Then attaching a value to the wildlife by showing that it can generate revenue.
Q: Are there any estimates on the loss of wildlife or plants etc that has occurred over the last 10–50 or 100 years?
A: The knowledge about the natural resources in Ethiopia is tiny. We know little of what there is out there, let alone what has or is disappearing. Although the analysis has not been formally done, Ethiopia sticks out as being one of the least explored countries in the world. The focus of what has been done has been on birds, a few large mammals and identification of the plants. Many species live close to extirpation in Ethiopia.
Q: What has caused this?
A: We can only make informed guesses at what has caused the depletion of wildlife populations in Ethiopia. Overall, the landscape is transformed by humans, directly or indirectly, and wildlife populations decline as a result. About a century ago, Ethiopia was the main trading route for ivory and possible rhino horn going to Asia. Thus, the elephant and rhino populations were depleted long ago. What has happened in the agricultural areas of the country will be debatable. The transformation of the land to agriculture has an obvious and irreversible effect on the wildlife.
Q: What role do the Bale Mountains play in Ethiopia?
A: Bale is the pearl of national parks in Ethiopia. It is 2,200 sq. km and includes the largest area of Afro-alpine habitat on the continent. The park is the source of perennial water for the critical arid lowlands to the east and southeast of the Bale massif – including the Ogaden and Somalia. The importance of this in terms of water catchments and river flow regulation cannot be underestimated but when badly managed can end up with a highland-lowland imbalance that results in loss of perennial water in the lowlands. Already there are seasonal water shortages resulting from bad management of the water flowing from the Bale Mountains catchment area.
The Bale massif also plays a crucial role in climate control in the region. The Herenna Forest, at the south of the park, is the second largest moist tropical forest remaining in Ethiopia. If the exploitation of Bale continues at its present rate, and it ceases to exist as a pristine area, more species of mammal will become extinct than any other place of an equivalent area in the world.
The park contains over half the global population of Ethiopian wolves (Canis simensis), which are found only in suitable Afro-alpine habitats in Ethiopia. With less than 500 remaining individuals, the Ethiopian wolf is the rarest canid in the world and is listed as critically endangered by the Species Survival Commission of the World Conservation Union. The park contains the largest population of the endemic mountain nyala (Tragelaphus buxtoni) – the 1,500 individuals are estimated to be approximately half the global population. The park contains the entire global population of the giant molerats (Tachyoryctes macrocephalus).
Q: What work are you carrying out in Bale Mountains?
A: Bale is the base for the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme (EWCP). The EWCP does anything that may have a positive impact on Ethiopian wolves, whether in the short- or long-term. This includes working to assist with the development and management of the Bale Mountains National Park and to promote tourism within the area. At present, we are in the process of trying to get the donor community to engage in Bale – first, to develop the park and second, to establish an endowment trust fund that will ensure the park’s management is financed in perpetuity.
Q: If things continue as they are now what will happen in Bale?
A: First, the second largest forest block in the country will disappear. This should be considered in the context that less than 3 percent of the country is forested – when less than 40 years ago, the country’s forest cover was about 25 percent. With the forest would go some of the only remaining wild genetic stock of coffee.
Second, the vegetation of the Afro-alpine area of the mountains will change through expansion of agriculture into the marginal lands and overgrazing by domestic livestock. Both of these will undermine the livelihoods of the people who are dependent on those resources and they will become chronically food insecure.