Addis Ababa — Ethiopia may not be known internationally for its wildlife, unlike neighbouring Kenya, but the government has launched a plan both to protect and promote wildlife areas, while helping tackle climate change at the same time.
From the men's national football team, the "Waliyas" - named after a native gazelle species - to birr notes, stamps and local car brands, wildlife is increasingly seen as an integral part of the country's heritage, and not just a source of tourist income.
To keep it safe, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism and the state-backed Ethiopian Wildlife and Conservation Authority established a National Taskforce on Protected Areas and Wildlife Management in May, in cooperation with local NGO consortium Population, Health and Environment Ethiopia (PHE) and the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Forestry.
These areas are suffering from the activities of humans who use their resources illegally in some cases, as well as drought and other climate impacts, leading to deforestation and degradation.
The taskforce will implement the Strategic Climate Institution Program (SCIP), backed by funding from the UK, Norwegian and Danish governments. This aims to tackle climate change risks for protected areas, as well as problems caused by communities who depend on their resources.
The SCIP aims to monitor wildlife habitat conditions, strengthen biodiversity conservation, explore related income opportunities, and promote traditional ways of managing conflicts over natural resources.
The programme has begun in two national parks: Awash National Park, one of Ethiopia's oldest, and Semien National Park, which is home to the iconic waliya.
Hiwot Workageghehu, an environmental officer with PHE, said these protected areas are vulnerable to drought, which is reducing vegetation cover and affecting local precipitation and temperatures.
"The (parks) make a valuable input to fighting against climate change through the composition of their flora and fauna, which supports proper functioning of the ecosystem," Workageghehu said. For example, the parks' vegetation has a high capacity to store carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas.
According to Ethiopia's Climate Resistant Green Economy (CRGE) plan, the country hopes to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2025, and the carbon sink function of protected areas has a significant part to play in this.
HUMAN, LIVESTOCK THREATS
Ethiopia has 22 national parks, two wildlife sanctuaries, five wildlife reserves, 10 community reserve areas, 21 controlled hunting areas and four biosphere reserves, according to government data.
Protected areas cover about 14 percent of Ethiopia's landmass, according to PHE, and host 35 endemic mammal species and 16 native bird species. That makes them an important part of the country's environmental protection efforts.
But climate risks aren't the only threat to these areas. The activities of humans living here and their animals are an additional concern.
"Human and cattle habitation are another problem as they lead to illegal extraction of the flora and fauna... and the danger of pathogen transmission," Workageghehu said. Diseases can be spread from humans to wild animals, and from domestic animals to wild animals, she added.
Nonetheless, protected areas don't necessarily have to exclude humans and domestic animals - especially given Ethiopia's sizeable population of more than 90 million, which suggests the need for a mechanism that can accommodate both people and wildlife, Workageghehu explained.
"With this taskforce, we hope to give regulated access to the community to the reserve areas," she said. But it must be done in a way that is sustainable, she stressed. That would allow natural resources to be used for the benefit of local people who also feel a duty to protect them, creating mutual interdependence.
Godana Sefero, a senior official at the Yabelo wildlife sanctuary, one of Ethiopia's newest protected areas located some 540 km south of the capital Addis Ababa, says a lack of tourist infrastructure here has led his team to welcome in local cattle herders.
The 2,500 square km park is home to three indigenous birds: the Ethiopian bush crow known as kaka, the white-tailed swallow, and the bright, crested turaco. Overall, the sanctuary has about 280 different bird species and 40 mammals.
But there is a lack of key infrastructure such as lodgings for tourists and even a perimeter fence. So the sanctuary has found a way to make use of those more usually considered as interlopers.
Sefero says the sanctuary allows in only herders who keep pure borena breed cattle in an effort to preserve the genetic makeup of the sturdy animals.
The pastoralists are encouraged to use their livestock as a way of weeding out invasive shrubs that threaten the local flora, and to cut down the plants themselves.
But Sefero admits this isn't a long-term plan, as the sanctuary was established with the express hope of protecting the birds and wild animals that were being hunted for food and traditional medicine, and whose skins were even used for decorative purposes.
Work is underway to upgrade the wildlife sanctuary to a national park. When that happens, management will be transferred from the regional to federal authorities, making funding available for delineating the boundary, among other things.
Both Sefero and Gemechu Dalu, a local who sometimes works as a tourist guide, agree the sanctuary's future depends on it being able to generate enough revenue to pay for its upkeep.
"As well as the absence of lodges to accommodate prospective tourists, it's difficult to visit by car, as there are no paved roads," Dalu said. Presently it attracts the occasional passerby as it is located on the road to Kenya, including NGO workers in the area and tourists on their way to better-known tourist spots in southern Ethiopia.
But Dalu believes that, despite its remoteness, Yabelo's proximity to tourist power house Kenya and its similar fauna and flora could attract tourists who would usually opt for Ethiopia's southern neighbour.
The government is aiming to turn Ethiopia into one of Africa's top five tourist destinations by the end of 2020, and hopes to earn $3 billion dollars from tourism in the final year of its Growth and Transformation Plan which ends in 2015.
It is also working on a new post-2015 plan, in which tourism income would be divided between the federal and local governments, with a proportion benefiting the local population in the form of social services.
Meanwhile, Sefero and his colleagues are educating local people in how to preserve and cherish their natural wealth, with an eye to a better future for the Yabelo sanctuary.
"The local community has the ultimate responsibility and stake in protecting the sanctuary, and so they have to be convinced of its benefit," Sefero said.
E.G. Woldegebriel is a journalist based in Addis Ababa with an interest in environmental issues.