BirdLife: The Magazine September 2017 - Page 64

MEET THE PARTNER PARTNER PROFILE ETHIOPIA Liben Lark Heteromirafra archeri. Photo Paul F. Donald/RSPB 0 In this new feature, we shine a light on the (often untold) history of our Partners. And where better to begin than with an organisation that has survived war, famine and military coups to this year reach the big 5-0? A conservationist with Ethiopian Bushcrow Zavattariornis stresemanni. Photo Samuel Jones 2 Rosa Gleave “E thiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society (EWNHS) is celebrating its Golden Jubilee; a 50-year bitter journey of nature con- servation in Ethiopia”, declared CEO Mengistu Wondafrash, on the eve of EWNHS’ anniversary. “Bitter” and “golden” are two words that clash — yet this jarring juxtaposition is fitting of the journey this hardy and resilient organisation has endured, through years of political turmoil, con- flict and famine, to get to the present day. A land of contrasts itself, Ethiopia boasts a vast array of breathtakingly beautiful habitats, from desert and rainforest, to mountains and lakes. And it has the fauna to match. Thirty-one endemic species of mammal make their home in Ethiopia, as do more than 815 bird species, 17 of which are found nowhere else. Such riches need strong custodians, working within a strong organisation. Pioneers of environmentalism before anyone realised just how critical this role would become, 64 Blue Nile Falls, Ethiopia. Photo A. H. Kossowska/ Shutterstock 0 EWNHS MORE THAN 815 BIRD SPECIES MAKE THEIR HOME IN ETHIOPIA, 17 OF WHICH ARE FOUND NOWHERE ELSE EWNHS was set up as a small society by a group of expatriates in 1966. Little is known about the identities or motives of this group, which are now lost to history. “They didn’t leave behind any documents, which is a shame”, says Zewditu Tes- sema, CEPF Project Officer for EWNHS. Things started well for the group. Their Patron, the Ethiopian Emperor Hailie Selassie (famously regarded as a deity by the Rastafarian religion), re-named the fledgling organisation “Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society” — a title they bear to this day. Then things changed. Following the overthrow of the monarchy in 1974 by the military, the Marxist Derg era set in for the next 17 years. A civil war followed, leaving over a million dead. The country was viewed as too dangerous by many birders and most research ground to a halt. “We don’t have written records for this period”, says Tessema. “But we came to realise  that there  were efforts to  continue producing and BIRDLIFE • SEPTEMBER 2017 distributing Walia [a quasi-scientific journal] as well as continue activities for members.” This national-level disruption is mirrored in research efforts into one of Ethiopia’s rarest and most intriguing birds: the Critically Endangered Liben Lark Heteromirafra archeri. After being described in 1975, work on this bird went quiet. Then, a pocket of the species was re-discov- ered in the 1990s after birders began re-visiting the country, following yet another change in national powers: The Ethiopian People’s Revo- lutionary Democratic Front took control in 1991, ending a difficult era for bird study. Researchers discovered that the Liben Lark, found on a scrap of grassland within the Liben plains, had been previously reported as easily flushed from tussocks of long grass. By this time, the plain was heavily over-grazed, with grass nib- bled down to a just few centimetres. This not only affected the lark but threatened the livelihoods SEPTEMBER 2017 • BIRDLIFE DURING THE DERG ERA THE COUNTRY WAS VIEWED AS TOO DANGEROUS BY MANY BIRDERS AND RESEARCH GROUND TO A HALT of local pastoralists. When entrepreneurs threat- ened to convert the plains to cropland, EWNHS and BirdLife International swiftly worked together with funding from Birdfair to stop this happening — securing a foothold for the precarious species and preventing it from becoming mainland Afri- ca’s first modern-day avian extinction — for now. This isn’t the only bird where EWNHS and BirdLife have joined forces: they have also combined to research ecology and threats to the Ethiopian Bushcrow Zavattariornis stresemanni and White- tailed Swallow Hirundo megaensis — both coun- try endemics, and both globally threatened. In 2005, the group made one of its most signif- icant discoveries in the Bilacha wetlands near the Berg floodplain Important Bird & Biodiver- sity Area (IBA): a third breeding site for White- winged Flufftail Sarothrura ayresi, a Critically Endangered species that has been brought to the brink by the conversion of wetland habitat to agricultural use. Today, the main threats to Ethiopia’s nature echo those of other countries: their grasslands, forests and wetlands are under constant threat from industrial development. An expanding human and livestock population is degrading natu- ral resources such as the Liben Plain. Invasive species are finding their way into their ecosys- tems, such as the water hyacinth at the iconic Lake Tana, source of the Blue Nile. EWNHS will tackle these challenges head-on: lobbying their government on environmental policy, reaching out to the Ethiopian public, and with inclusive conservation projects led by local communi- ties. Protecting vultures and habitats, particularly their precious wetlands, and awareness raising are also firmly on their wish list for the future. Clearly a much-loved organisation, congratula- tions have flooded into Wondafrash and his team from across the BirdLife Partnership. Thomas Lehmberg from Dansk Ornitologisk Forening (BirdLife in Denmark) says: “EWNHS should be praised for the good work you have done. Your pragmatism is clear and to the point; when you call it “a 50-year bitter journey” — bird and nature conservation is certainly an uphill struggle.” PARTNER FACTSHEET Year formed: 1966 Number of employees: 15 Headquarters: Addis Ababa Number of Local Conservation Groups: Three (at Negelle, Berga and Abijata Sahlla) Learned from turning 50: “Conservation needs the utmost dedication and commitment” COUNTRY FACTFILE Area: 1,104,300 km 2 Population: 104.7 million Bird species: 818 Mammal species: 279 Rarest bird: Liben Lark Number of IBAs: 69 Main habitats: Desert, acacia scrub, Afromontane forest, rainforest, freshwater and saltwater lakes 65