An Update from Babile Elephant Sanctuary
The first thing that strikes you about Ethiopia is the sheer density of people. Addis Ababa is an incessantly expanding city, a frenetic, exhausting building site of concrete breeze-block shells and scaffolding, while across the dry Rift Valley and up in the Highlands, every inch of land has been divided up and parcelled out and farmed in a patchwork of terraces that follow the contours of the hills. Ethiopia ranks first in Africa and tenth in the world for number of livestock, and cows, goats and camels frequently break the landscape in meandering lines. It is a wonder that elephants survive here. Competition with livestock and land-use change caused by cultivation and encroachment represent significant threats to large herbivores.
The elephants in Babile Elephant Sanctuary, a national park specifically protected for its elephants, represent the most north-easterly population in the whole of Africa. They are known to have smaller than average tusks. Not that this has protected them from poaching, unfortunately.
The stench hits us before we cross the river. The fallen body of Killer who’d ratcheted up eight human deaths of his own in his lifetime, lay where his last breathe had taken him, vacant eye sockets looking out without expression; a thick leathery bag of bones, cracked soles on his feet. Shot in the leg and left to die a slow death, it is a sight that has become synonymous in elephant conservation circles; it is strangely cliché.
“What happened to his tusks?”
The scout gesticulates in the air, vaguely. “The local communities took them.”
Organized crime and sophisticated crime networks are causing a dramatic decline in elephant right across the continent. During a survey I implemented in a Cameroon rain forest in 2007, a site that had been traditionally important to this species, elephants were killed over the course of just a few months. Occasionally we’d come across their signs and once we heard one, but largely their centuries-old roads - worn smooth from use - and their “markets” where they’d dig for minerals, had fallen silent. Subsequent research estimated that over 60% of all forest elephants were killed within this decade. From 2010-2013 an astonishing 100,000 elephants fell victim, while half the elephant population in Mozambique has been lost in just five years. The statistics go on and on.
Elephants play a critical role in nutrient cycling and seed dispersal. Their influence on the vegetation affects the wildlife that co-exists with them. They trample vegetation, ensure patch heterogeneity and convert woodland to shrub land, opening the vegetation up, which indirectly improves the browse for other herbivores, facilitating predation by carnivores. Already the scouts have noticed a decrease in some species - lesser kudu, lion.
Later in our hotel in the historic town of Harar, a woman I’m talking with nods her head. “The answer lies in working with the communities.” She says. “You will have to work with the communities to stop the poaching.”
I stay quiet. In many ways she is right. Our project has helped to fund patrols and essential community meetings, which has led to community supported arrests and prosecution of those illegally exploiting the sanctuary. I am told that the poaching at Babile has decreased as a result, but the punishments for suspected ivory poaching and ivory possession are still wholly inadequate, unbelievably lenient compared to those meted out for other offenses. There is still a lot to do.
The social context is complex too and not easily understood during a short site visit. Entering the sanctuary, it is overrun by domestic livestock, despite its national park status. During the dry season Somali herdsmen purposely travel to the sanctuary to fatten their camels before they are sold in the nearby camel markets. Then they cross to Somaliland and are shipped to the Middle East. The sanctuary has become an open access resource. They contest and compete for land with Oromia farmers who’ve already settled large chunks in the north of the sanctuary. Farmers face a cycle of conflict with the elephants who head in their direction during the rains when the perennial rivers are fit to burst their banks. A perception prevails that farming is the greatest of the two evils but the herdsmen and their livestock are the most visible presence; the effect, all too apparent. Invasive species, including cacti are spreading as far as the eye can see and as a possible result of rising numbers of livestock and diminishing numbers of elephants, the acacia and grassland habitat is being gradually swallowed up by denser bush.
I turn away from the camel that’s browsing in front of me and turn to the scout. “So what is it that you do on patrol?” I am confused as to the overall objectives of patrolling, if not to prevent incursions from the burgeoning local human population.
“We raise awareness about the elephants and prevent the inhabitants from manufacturing charcoal.”
Behind the camel, a herd of cattle pass, followed by three herders, each carrying an AK-47. Babile is located close to the border with Somalia and there are tensions and militia groups, who are reportedly heavily armed. Removing the inhabitants requires careful handling and the support of the local communities but it will only come after a long and sustained effort.
I am happy at last when I have the opportunity to leave the vehicle and walk. Walking is the only means to see a place. We climb a steep, rocky hill in the heat of the afternoon. The valley unfurls in front of us, a ribbon of dense green acacia forest, following the empty riverbed below, the plateau that is Lion Mountain in the distance and the never-ending blue of the Ethiopian sky. The elephants are far south. They are waiting for the rains before they start to migrate north again, but even without them, it feels as if the sheer vastness of the landscape and the sense of space here, is worth protecting.