Ethiopia - A Hunter’s Perspective
by Peter Flack
I really like Ethiopia. Over the last 10 years, I have hunted there on three occasions for a month at a time and have booked to go back again next year. I have hunted in the Omo Valley in the south west, north to the Sala River, east to the Kubsa and Kaka Mountains, and further east to the Munessa Forest, Bale Mountains and Danakil Desert. During this time, I have regularly contributed both financially and otherwise to conservation NGOs and efforts in the country. I am not, however, an expert on the country but more of an interested and sympathetic spectator and these are my impressions of hunting and conservation there.
Ethiopia intrigues me. It is the third most heavily populated country in Africa – 70 million people in total – and therein lays one of the biggest problems for both hunting and conservation. But more about that later.
Ethiopians speak mainly Amharic, with 268, or is it 284 letters, in its alphabet - a language spoken nowhere else. Ethiopia follows a Julian calendar which has 13 months. According to this, the year is 1997, although it will become 1998 on 11 September. Their clock is also different to ours and midday, which almost everywhere else in the world is 12:00 p.m., is 6:00a.m. there. Ethiopia is a landlocked, high, 9000 foot plateau, ruled by Tigreans, but also includes low lying savannah and desert as well as Arabic and Bantu peoples predominantly around the edges of the plateau. It is also home to some of the most interesting and sought after game animals in Africa.
The mountain nyala, introduced to the western world by Major Buxton in 1908, ranks along with bongo and Lord Derby’s eland as one of the top three trophy animals in Africa. Other indigenous animals include Swayne’s hartebeest, walia (cousin of the Nubian ibex), the wild ass, Rothschild’s giraffe, Grevy’s zebra and Simien fox (now renamed Ethiopian wolf by many NGOs to assist in their fund raising efforts as it was found difficult to raise money for the conservation of a fox or a jackal, its former name), all endangered animals whose fates are presided over by the Ethiopian Wildlife Department (“EWD”) with, at best , benign neglect and, at worst, a criminal refusal to do anything meaningful to preserve or conserve these magnificent animals.
Other game includes incredible animals such as Nile lechwe, Nile buffalo, Nile, Abyssinian and Menelik’s bushbucks, white-eared kob, Abyssinian kudu, lesser kudu, giant forest hog, northern gerenuk, tiang, Beisa oryx, Soemmerring’s gazelle and many varieties of dik dik, to name but a few.
This is just one of the factors that make hunting and conservation in Ethiopia so intriguing to someone from Southern Africa. Gone are the ubiquitous impala and wildebeest, to be replaced by animals which, although they seem familiar, are different, interesting and exotic.
Hunting is limited in Ethiopia. There are a total of four outfitters and 15 professional hunters, presided over by Nassos Roussos, one of the doyens of African hunting. According to professional hunters in the country, on paper, the framework and guidelines which govern hunting are thorough and well thought out. One of them said to me, “I truly believe that Ethiopia has one of the better systems in Africa.” My impression is that these hunting laws and regulations are strictly enforced and, with both a national and regional game guard along on a safari, no-one so much as tries to buck the system. In addition, quotas for hunted game are conservative, adjusted regularly and hunters pay in advance for licences and there is no refund if the game is not taken.
There are complaints, however, that the EWD does not have the necessary expertise, experience, equipment, personnel or structures to administer such a complex system. When you add to these problems the pervasive corruption and mind numbing bureaucracy prevalent in government, it is clear that the EWD is not helping to expand hunting or conservation in the country. And, when it does do something, it is often to abdicate its responsibilities to one or more NGOs. As Paul Theroux pointed out in his book, Dark Star Safari, many experts are coming to realize that, other than swan around the country in their expensive, new 4x4s, these NGOs often achieve little or nothing other than give governments an excuse for not doing what they themselves should do.
It is instructive that Roussos’s company, Ethiopian Rift Valley Safaris, which has a 35 year lease over part of the Omo Valley, 15 years of which are left to run, in a recent aerial survey, was found to have far more game than the neighbouring Omo and Mago National Parks.
In the same area, a quick check of the record books will show that trophy quality continues to improve – a sure sign that the conservation of game is good and that hunting pressure is light. To the extent that there is any pressure, it comes from the hundreds of Hamar and Bume tribesmen who are allowed to illegally invade the hunting concession with their thousands of cattle, sheep and goats which, in turn, convert vast areas of the Omo Valley into a dust bowl denuded of everything other than a few dik dik and lots of cow dung.
This is a common fact of life in Ethiopia - the game is in the hunting areas and the parks are home to people, cattle, sheep and goats. On a six hour drive through Mago National Park, which most people visit only to see the Mursi people – the women of whom still wear elaborate discs through their lips – I counted a grand total of 15 dik diks, nine warthogs and three hartebeests. In Bale National Park, it is easy to be misled by the many mountain nyala seen on the main road through the park and around park head quarters. The reality, away from this small oasis, is the same as Mago – people, cattle, sheep and goats and no game. To compound matters, there is strong evidence to suggest that much of the livestock belongs to the park officials and employees.
On the website of African Parks, which has taken over the management of Nech Sar National Park, they note the current problems they are facing. Other than the removal of illegal settlers, which is the government’s problem, they complain about over-fishing on Lake Chamo, illegal cutting of timber and that the following game species have become extinct in the park, namely, lion, elephant, buffalo, Grevy’s zebra, African wild dog, cheetah, Beisa oryx, lesser kudu, gerenuk, eland and Rothschild’s giraffe.
After my third visit to Ethiopia I could not help myself. I wrote a very polite letter to the EWD, merely pointing out the positive effects that hunting has had on game populations in societies as diverse as the U.S.A. and South Africa and how this has been achieved. So much of Ethiopian wildlife could benefit from such an approach. For example, how much do you think someone would pay at an auction for a walia licence? The EWD is notoriously short of resources and uses this as an excuse to explain its snail like progress in taking decisions. I estimate that over 250000 U.S. Dollars would be generated by such an auction which would go a long way to prevent the poaching of Africa’s only indigenous goat species, particularly if the proceeds were shared with the local community. I am still waiting for a reply to my letter.
The Transvaal Museum wrote three letters to the EWD re- questing permission to be allowed to collect one specimen each of certain animals for their museum. They offered to pay for the privilege. It took nearly a year before they received a reply – a curt refusal.
Wildlife was originally managed in a separate ministry but was then down graded to an organisation. Now it is a mere department in the Ministry of Agriculture. This is a clear indication of the lack of importance the government attaches to the country’s wild life and its conservation. One senior official of a conservation NGO puts it this way, “When it comes to general conservation in Ethiopia, in particular in regard to protected areas such as National Parks and Wildlife Reserves, the EWD and Regional Wildlife Departments are failing miserably. There is not a single national park that is not overrun by humans and livestock. The infrastructure of these parks is appalling and law enforcement is non-existent. It’s a real tragedy.”
Personally I find this surprising as Ethiopia can readily see the successful effects of sustainable utilization on its doorstep in Tanzania. So why does it virtually ignore its own fantastic wildlife assets? Two reasons, I think. Firstly, the Ethiopians are an extremely proud nation and suffer more than most from the, “not invented here” syndrome. As one highly experienced, hands on, Ethiopian conservationist puts it, “They would rather see a species become extinct than be seen to copy another country’s successful approach to its conservation.” Tough words I know but I have experienced the same attitude at first hand from Ethiopian bureaucrats.
Secondly, imagine a large company where the CEO, Board of Directors, all senior and most middle managers and supervisors have been systematically removed over a 20 year period. Would you invest in the company? Would you accept a job in the company? Would you expect it to do anything other than fail at what it attempted, at least until it replaced the lost leader ship and management with qualified people? Of course not. But that is exactly what happened to Ethiopia as a country under the corrupt, brutal, Stalinist regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam, now Mr Mugabe’s guest in Harare. He and his cohorts forced children to inform on their parents, friends on one another, and killed or forced out of the country many of the intelligentsia. It is not for nothing that Mr. Zenawi and members of his cabinet went to business school shortly after coming to power.
But all is not doom and gloom on the Ethiopian hunting and conservation front. African Parks, under the visionary leadership of Paul von Vlissengen, has been allowed to negotiate a long lease of Nech Sar National Park near Arba Minch in the south west of the country. ERVS, assisted by the regional government and a loose group of individual hunters, was given limited permission, after extensive research, to open hunting in Gambella for Nile lechwe and white-eared kob, animals that no-one has been able to hunt legally for 33 years. Only the outbreak of inter-tribal violence has stopped these hunts and the start of the re- construction of Gambella National Park which has existed in name only for many years.
It is a sad fact of life that Africa often seems to specialize only in procreation, recreation and destruction. The people of Gambella Province seem to have taken the destruction aspect a step further and effectively destroyed the reconstruction of their own park before it even began.
The EWD does seem more amenable and receptive to open hunting in regions if a sound case can be made, albeit moving incredibly slowly in the process. For example, the process to open hunting for Nile lechwe and white eared kob in Gambella took nearly five years to effect and, instead of leading the process, all the hard work was done by the regional government and private individuals.
In conclusion, there is much that can be done to advance the conservation of wildlife in Ethiopia by using hunting as a tool. Until the government, however, ascribes a higher priority to the wonderful flora and fauna that exists in the country, the selfsame flora and fauna will continue to decline across the board and become extinct(as it already has in Nech Sar National Park), other than in the few areas where the strictly controlled hunting concessions exist.