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Saving the natural mainstay of the capital

Much of Addis Ababa is at an altitude of about 2,500 meters and one captivating feature of the city is that it is ringed by a chain of mountains reaching up to about 3,100 meters. At the northern outskirts of the city is the Entoto Natural Park – an environmental success story in the making. The Ethiopian Heritage Trust, a non-profit, non-governmental organization, is working actively to change part of the mountain to its old state, a natural park, writes Meheret-Selassie Mokonnen.

They call it “the lung of Addis Ababa”. And it does not take long for anyone who sets foot in the area to understand why. With the best panoramic view of the city, Mount Entoto is home to diverse flora and fauna. The taciturn, yet breathtaking Entoto Natural Park is part of the chain of mountains on the northern part of Addis.

The fresh air is therapeutic as one slowly let goes of the hustle and bustle of the city. This meditative site has a huge role in the city’s history as well.

The history goes back to over a century, when Emperor Menelik II chose to have his palace at the mountainous area when he moved to Addis Ababa from Ankober town. It was a strategic move considering the location and rich natural resources of the area.

Soon after the Menelik’s settlement, news spread that people were facing shortage of firewood. So Menelik had to search for a seed that would bear fruit within a short period of time from overseas. Australia’s Eucalyptus seemed to be the right answer and the seed was imported to Ethiopia. Bahir Zaf was the local name given to the plant that overtook Entoto and other parts of Ethiopia by storm.

As promised, Bahir Zaf grew in a few years’ time and people started to use it for building houses. In addition, selling the leaves became a source of income from countless families. Back then, little was known until it was discovered that the plant has a negative impact on the environment.

Bahir Zaf is considered to be a “selfish” variety in the plant world. No other plant can grow within a few radiuses since it absorbs all the underground water. Let alone trees, it is impossible to come across grassland wherever it is planted. Loosing other plant species and water resource wakened people to the hazards nature of the plant. As a result, destroying it became the only option.

Nonetheless, years after the incident, Bahir Zaf still stands proud in various parts of the country. Ethiopian Heritage Trust, a nonprofit organization, formed to protect natural and historical heritages of the country, took the initiative to change this reality. 22 years ago, the association began uprooting eucalypts and replacing it with indigenous seeds.

After reaching an agreement with the Addis Ababa City Administrative, the organization took over Entoto for one hundred years so as to cover 1,300 hectares with indigenous plants. Members of the association, in collaboration with public and private companies, students and volunteers, have been doing that for over a decade now.

In that regard, Mount Entoto has been evolving over the years and nowadays one can see indigenous plants such as Zigba, Tikur Enchet, Korch, Yehabesha Tsid, Yehabesha Girar, Wulkifa and Enbilbay instead of Bahir Zaf. According to Mulugeta Hirpo, head of Heritage Development and Preservation at the Ethiopian Heritage Trust, 500 hectares of the Entoto Natural Park is currently covered with Ethiopian-based florae.

While visiting Key Ber – one of the eight sites in the park – The Reporter witnessed various indigenous plants. 3,200 meters above sea level, the mountain is in a better condition as compared to the previous years. “Uprooting eucalyptus, which had an immense impact on the land, took years. There were no other types of trees as a result of its unfavorable nature. Birds and other animals fled from the park as well,” Mulugeta explains.

He says that the area was highly affected by soil erosion and it has always been exposed to flood. After planting indigenous florae and building a dam barrier that stops the flow of water, they managed to rehabilitate 13 ponds. Animals such as Yemenelik Dikula, Kerkero, Midakua and Gureza have now returned back in the park in search of shelter.

“The loss of natural habitat threatened the life of endemic birds and animals. Now that it is undergoing rehabilitation, they are coming back to the park,” he states. The fortunate condition has also abetted in the growth of seeds that have the nature of living underground for ages, only to grow out on their own.

The indigenous plants cover only one part of the park, whereas the other half is still widely populated with eucalyptus. The plant has been a source of income for many women who have no any other means to support their families. A complete destruction of the plant would mean endangering the livelihoods of many. Thus, Mulugeta suggests there ought to be another mechanism to sustain these households.

He stresses, “Entoto, often referred to as the ‘lung’ of Addis Ababa, needs protection. It is the backbone of the city as it provides clean air and water.” Many say that Addis, which is gradually becoming a concrete jungle, is indeed in need of such natural recreational sites. The city administration has been criticized for lack of proper preservation of parks in the capital including Entoto Park, Hamel 19 Park, Yeka Park, Bole Park and others.

Deforestation has been one of the major problems in Ethiopian natural sites, and the hills of Entoto have been on the list of areas that are strongly affected. Ethiopian forest populace has decreased from 80 percent to four percent in the past years and later on increased to 13 percent. In the case of Entoto, the problem extends to illegal settlement and boarder conflicts too.

According to Ethiopian Heritage Trust board president Likae Kahinat Abayneh Abera, they are currently quarreling over a plot of land that is on the border of Addis Ababa and the Oromia Regional State.

“We have asked to continue working on the part of the park that the region took from us. Since our work has never been restricted to one area or a specific region, we are waiting for their response,” he told The Reporter.

He also stresses that they cannot access their office and parts of the park where they used to process seeds. Such squabbles disrupt the conservation procedure compromising the natural resources. While waiting for a reply from the region and city administration, they are on the verge of building a new hub, despite budget constraints.

Questions related to border arise from various sides including adjacent churches and individuals who have been living in the area for years. Most of these people own pets that continued to impend on the preserved area. The population growth has resulted in habitat destruction through livestock grazing.

Mulugeta says that as long as there is no alternative means for fuel and construction, people will keep exploiting the natural resource. People who are using the pond as a water resource and those visiting the park for recreation are hardly concerned about keeping the area clean. In this regard, the association has a plan to find resettlement areas for the community to reduce contamination.

Around Entoto churches including Saint Mary and Saint Raguel are among the sites frequently visited by tourists. Visitors enjoy the view from the hills and lots of reviews have been written about the area on tourism websites. Therefore, protecting the natural resource of the park in turn secures revenue from tourism.

According to a research, Species Composition, Relative Abundance and Distribution of the Avian Fauna of Entoto Natural Park and Escarpment, by Kalkidan Esayas and Afework Bekele from Department of Natural Science of Gambella Teachers’ Education and Health Science College, 124 avian species belonging to 14 orders and 44 families were identified in the area.

The research reveals that Entoto is one of the important bird areas (IBAs) in Ethiopia. In addition, Entoto and its surroundings have high elevation with a diverse flora and fauna. “This biodiversity has been affected as a result of various natural and anthropogenic threats. This increases the threat for avian species from time to time,” it reads.

It is indicated that the area is unique as the foothills of the mountain consists of volcanic rocks, reddish rhyolite, trachyte, ignimbrites, tuffs, welded tuffs and black obsidian. Moreover, amid the birds residing in the park, five of them are endemic to Ethiopia while 11 are shared between Ethiopia and Eritrea, which will be in grave danger if the vegetation layer decreases. “If the vegetation layer increases the number of available niches for birds also increases and so does the diversity of avian species,” the researchers indicate.

In the research, it is also indicated besides birds, there are also other mammals. In that regard, the Entoto Natural Park can serve as an important biodiversity center. Conversely, the long history of eucalyptus plantation, settlement, deforestation and erosion has left a negative imprint.

Over the years, deforestation of watersheds has resulted in loss of genetic resources, flooding and wood scarcity. Illegal settlements in the park enabled people to have easy access to enter and collect fuel wood. “Therefore, protection of the area is mandatory for wildlife conservation especially for birds to enrich their diversity, abundance and to maintain the natural ecological balance of the area,” it is recommended.

In a world where global warming is the number one concern, many countries are striving to rehabilitate their natural resources. For most of these countries, the restoration process is taking a long period of time bearing in mind the extent of the damage.

Henceforward, in the Ethiopian context the question remains, how far will concerned bodies go to protect the existing natural resources of the country before reaching the desperate point as the rest of the globe?