Alatish National Park, Ethiopia

Opinion:

Alatish National Park, Ethiopia

Alatish National Park (sometimes also written as Alatash) was founded in 2006. Lying approximately 970 km north of Addis Ababa, within an area set aside by Amhara Region in North Gondar Zone and bordering with Sudan's Dinder National Park. Alatish forms an integral part of Africa's 'Great Green Wall' that aims to surround the Sahara with a 8,000km long, 15km wide, wall of trees across the African continent – from Senegal in the west to Djibouti in the east. Known as the gatekeeper of the Sahara desert, Alatish forms the boundary between climate change and its creeping desertification of the Sahel in Sudan and the high mountains of the Simien.

Alatish is characterised by a flat sand and gravel soil on an undulating plain interrupted by valleys, streams, scattered hills and seasonal wetland. There are just a few hills in the East and North East of the park and the twin mountains of Amdog stand in its SW corner. This Arid / semi arid ecological zone has diverse and rich biological attributes. It supports lowland broad leafed deciduous woodlands and dry woodland savanna. Its riverine vegetation and seasonal wetlands lie along the Gelgo and Guang Rivers in the north. Alatish's other major rivers, including the Ayima (which becomes the Dinder River) Netieko, Beranta and Megenagna, all drain into Sudan and are important tributaries of the Nile. These rivers are home to 17 different species of fish.

Seasonal wetlands provide habitats for up to 400 species of birds, fish and other wildlife. Alatish is on the migratory route for elephants from Dinder National Park in the Sudan. A small population of (rare) Central African Lions, were found in 2016. Leopard are also present but wildlife requires water and food to thrive. Deforestation and poaching threaten the park which is sparsely populated by forest antelope (Greater and Lesser Kudu). This park requires urgent conservation measures to safeguard associated ecosystems and wildlife. History and lifestyles practiced by many diverse ethnic groups living around the park (Gumuz, Agew, Amhara, Felata communities) present potentially important tourist attractions. A Baobab tree at Omedla housed the former Emperor Haileselassie for seven days inside its stem on his return to Ethiopia after victory over the colonialist Fascist Italia in 1941. Emperor Tewodros, one of the most magnificent Ethiopian leaders, was born in Quara in 1818, located about 25 km from Gelegu and the headquarters of Alatish National Park. Attributes such as these suggest that the Park could be developed for Tourism, education and research but there are a number of barriers that would need to be overcome, not least concerns about the integrity of the overseeing Ministry. The Ethiopian Ministry of Culture and Tourism is the ministry responsible for researching, preserving, developing, and promoting the culture and tourist attractions of Ethiopia and its peoples. The mission of the ministry is to study, preserve, develop and promote the cultural wealth and the national tourism attractions of the nations, nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia. The Ministry publicizes the country's tourist attractions and encourages the development of tourist facilities. It licenses and supervises tourist facilities such as hotels and tour operators, and sets associated standards. The published vision of the ministry is to make Ethiopia one of the top five tourist destinations of Africa (in 2019!). There is clearly still much to be done; despite some creative accounting in tourist figures that apparently include overnight stays by air transit passengers, it is understood that Ethiopia is attracting just 0.9% of tourists in Africa. Legacy issues, including the promise but failure to pay the expenses of participants of an international beauty pageant organised by the Ministry, have severely damaged the image and reputation of both the Ministry and the country. Other barriers to community based wildlife and ecotourism include:

  • Country political and security risk

UK FCDO Ethiopia Travel Risk Map

- There are ongoing armed clashes in Tigray Regional State and a State of Emergency remains in place. While attacks are mostly related to inter-ethnic disputes and foreigners have not been targeted, attacks can occur at any time with significant risk of being caught up in violence.

- Terrorists are likely to try to carry out attacks in Ethiopia. Attacks could be indiscriminate, including in places visited by foreigners.

- The UK Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office assess the travel risks as moderate and high especially along the border between the countries and in Tigray. This assessment is important as it provides guidance on insurable risk by the travel insurance market in London.

- There is a growing and very real risk of famine across Tigray and neighbouring provinces. Food is already in short supply. International Aid Agencies are being denied access; Farmers are being denied the ability to sow crops which would normally be harvested at the end of the growing season. What little food reserves were available have been stolen or used. This will place even greater strain on National Parks with wildlife being taken as bushmeat and refugees hiding in the bush cutting wood.

  • Stakeholders. There are reports of poor stakeholder engagement and cooperation.

  • Livelihoods and Land Use of communities within and adjacent to the park need to be fully understood.

  • Health. There is a high risk of malaria in Ethiopia below 2,000m with exception of Addis Ababa where the risk is low. The risk of Covid-19 and associated variants is high. Rabies is also prevalent.

  • Relationship with Sudan. Diplomatic relationships are strained due to the filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) without agreement of timescales by the downstream Nile basin countries (Sudan and Egypt).

  • Finance. The park has been largely neglected and is grossly under financed.

  • Scouts / Rangers. Only 31 Rangers (Scouts) are understood to be currently employed in the Park. It has been estimated that at least 100 are required to provide effective management. All need equipment and training.

  • Poaching. The levels of poaching, number of snares, traps and taking of wildlife for bushmeat is currently unknown. Felata pastrolists are understood to spend time with their herds in the park and are likely to shoot predators that threaten their cattle.

  • Application of Law. The law regarding access to and activities within the Park need to be set, clearly communicated and policed. There needs to be ready access to a judicial system that applies the law consistently.

  • Vetinary services. The status of vetinary services are not known but they are not thought to be in place. They will be required.

  • Key experts / advisors such as Wildlife, Flora and Fauna, Agriculture, Marketing, and community liaison required to develop strategy and for daily management of the Park are required. Some of these maybe available within academic institutions in Ethiopia`, otherwise international technical support will be required.

  • Accessibility. Roads into the parks are dirt and virtually inaccessible during the summer wet season. All season access is required and Rangers need to be able to travel efficiently around the park to conduct deterrent patrols and respond to reports of poaching. Tourist access would be greatly enhanced by a small properly licensed airstrip which could also be used to support medical evacuation if required.

  • Medical care. There is a lack of hospitals / clinics in the area. Malaria (and Covid-19) is prevalent. Rabies are also present in Ethiopia.

  • Accommodation. There is a lack of accommodation and associated services of a standard acceptable to tourists.

  • Power. There are no reliable power sources over than local generators. Solar mini grids could be established.

  • Telecommunications. Very poor or non existent telecommunications or internet connectivity.

  • Shops. A lack of shops, banks, cafe's and other retail outlets attractive to tourists.

  • Cross border tourism. There are clearly safari opportunities with Dinder NP. Cross border tourism would benefit both Ethiopia and Sudan.

And So ..........? Conservation measures are urgent and need to start as soon as possible. It would be easy to throw up your hands and just walk away when faced with such a daunting list of challenges. However with a clear vision, strategy, empowered leadership, finance, determination and commitment to implement a plan over a period of years, this National Park and its communities could be transformed to everybody's benefit. A vibrant community based wildlife ecotourism industry could be created here. Ethiopia would benefit through access to tourist dollars and its international reputation would be greatly enhanced. Cross border tourism with Sudan could become part of a wider effort to secure regional peace and improve relationships with Sudan. Wildlife would thrive and the overseeing Ministry's reputation could be rebuilt and greatly enhanced. A small but positive contribution could be made towards global warming through the protection of woodland and associated revenue earning carbon schemes. Foundation Five is now seeking allocations of commodities to sell from Ethiopia and to raise the finance required to support Alatish National Park. Can you help? Note: The above reflects an understanding of the current position in and around Alatish National Park based on a desktop review. Assumptions and conclusions merit validation 'on the ground'.