Challenges to Conservation and Protected Area Management
Ethiopia is exceptionally high in biodiversity but exceptionally low in capacity for biodiversity conservation or protected area management. Critically, there are over 80 million people in Ethiopia, 85% in rural areas, 80% in the highlands. The vast majority are almost completely dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods. Consequently, 97% of the original highland vegetation has already been lost in recent decades due to encroaching agriculture, grazing and settlement by agro-pastoral communities. Impoverished resource-dependent local populations are still increasing in Ethiopia, both within and adjacent to National Parks and other areas with high biodiversity value. Finally, montane ecosystems are the most vulnerable on the planet to climate change over the next 50-90 years. Implementing sustainable and climate-smart conservation for the benefit of biodiversity and people alike is of utmost importance.
Unfortunately, Ethiopia’s capacity for conservation management is one of the lowest in the world after decades of underinvestment by the international community and Government alike. The Ethiopian Wildlife Authority’s budget for protected areas is the third lowest globally (just 0.5% of the average) and is 3% of that considered necessary for effective management. However in recent years the link between the environment and poverty are becoming higher profile and this has elevated the environment up the political agenda and there is substantial increase in political will for biodiversity conservation. Even so, the legal framework for conservation is poor, with most National Parks still ungazetted and only an emerging framework for community-managed conservation areas. Whilst Ethiopian wildlife policy advocates the right for stakeholder participation in resource management, in reality there is little participation from local government or communities. Thus, the sector of society most dependent on natural resources has no ownership and little involvement in their management. Aside from SMNP, protected areas receive little income from tourism or other sources, thus monetary benefits to communities are also limited. Additionally, Government and community agencies are understaffed, undertrained, under-rewarded and have little experience and thus have low capacity for conservation or engagement with communities.
The situation in the Simien Mountains Ecosystem (SME)
The situation in the Simien Mountains Ecosystem (SME), with the Simien Mountains National Park (SMNP) currently typifies these issues. Nearly 4% of the park is under agricultural land and an estimated 436 households living within the park boundary. Local communities depend on the park’s grazing land and a recent 2012 dry season census suggest that livestock densities are about 3 times that recommended for such high altitudes, at 1.6 TLU (tropical livestock units) per hectare. This amounts to some 300,000 head of livestock, mostly sheep or goats. Although this settlement issue dates back to the time of the park’s creation and the 2008 boundary realignment removed most settlements, the use of natural resources is currently unsustainable. Resource degradation is evident with extensive soil erosion, poor yields and depauperate grassland diversity. Intrinsic population growth in these communities is accentuating the issue year on year, (for example the Gich population has increased four-fold in 40 years) and food insecurity is increasing in these already impoverished communities. Whilst tourism in the park has grown with around 17,000 visitors in 2012, and it is providing substantial benefits to local communities and the central treasury, the scale of its expansion is now threatening to degrade the resources on which a positive visitor experience depends.
That said, both commitment and capacity are steadily increasing to deal with the threats to the continued existence of the Simien Mountains World Heritage Site and additional partners are becoming involved to support an integrated approach to conservation management in the Simien Mountains.