Bale Mountains Biodiversity

The Murulle Foundation has been supporting research and community development projects in the Bale Mountains since 2001, primarily in Bale Mountains National Park and several Controlled Hunting Areas on the eastern slopes. One of Africa’s largest and least studied ranges, the Bale Mountains are internationally recognized for their high incidence of endemism and biodiversity. Listed as a potential World Heritage site, UNESCO estimated that more species would go extinct if the biodiversity of the Bale Mountains were lost than any other area of equivalent size on the globe. For example, 26% of the mammals found in the Bale Mountains are endemic, including the largest remaining populations of mountain nyala (Tragelaphus buxtoni) and the Ethiopian wolf (Canis simensis). Additionally, more than 1,300 species of flowering plants are found in the region; of these, 163 are known endemics to Ethiopia, 23 are found only in the Bale Mountains, and at least 400 are used for medicinal purposes. The large assemblages of flora and fauna in the Bale Mountains can be attributed to the compilation of unique ecosystems that occur along altitudinal gradients. The dominant systems are the Afro-alpine (> 3,700 meters a.s.l.), sub-alpine and ericaceous (3,200 to 3,700 meters a.s.l), upper Afro-montane forests (2,300 to 3,250 meters a.s.l.), and lower Afro-montane woodlands (1,500 to 2,300 meters a.s.l.). Within these systems are a number of smaller floral communities that are equally unique (Figure 1).

The Bale Mountains are particularly important as a source of water. Moisture from the Indian Ocean reaches the southeastern slopes of the Bale Mountains as precipitation, charging more than 40 perennial streams, four major rivers, more than two dozen alpine lakes and numerous springs that provide water to more than 12 million people throughout Ethiopia and Somalia. Moisture produced also nourishes the Harenna Forest on the southern escarpment, one of the few tropical cloud forests found in East Africa. Although the Harenna Forest remains largely intact, it is extremely vulnerable to new human settlements and climate change.

There is a clear need to understand how biodiversity relates to the social-ecological systems in the Ethiopian highlands and how the loss of biodiversity will impact the ecosystem services provided. The focus of TMF’s support in the Bale Mountains has been to improve the understanding of these complex relationships, and to identify key environmental characteristics that support ecosystem processes, functions, and services. In the Bale Mountains, biodiversity is under threat from at least two drivers: increasing human encroachment and climate change. Human encroachment includes relatively minor impacts to the landscape (such as harvesting honey) to more significant landscape modifications (such as clearing forests for agriculture). All of these incursions affect biodiversity to some degree. Humans have co-evolved with these landscapes, and their provision of ecosystem services has both positive and/or negative consequences for the region’s biodiversity. However, the rapid growth of human populations in the region has resulted in unsustainable demand for natural resources, and the degradation and reduction of these ecosystems have already reached a critical threshold in many areas.

The impacts of climate change in the Bale Mountains are also being observed. For example, some of the people in the area are heavily reliant on the cultivation of barley and other grains. Because of traditional and inefficient farming practices, it is critical that climate patterns (e.g., rainy and dry seasons) are distinct and predictable. The Bale Mountains have two rainy seasons (April-May and July-September) and an extended dry season (October-March) that are conducive to the agriculture practiced in the region. In recent years, slight variations in rainfall patterns have had devastating effects. During the dry season in 2010/2011, it rained for nearly two weeks causing mold and fungus to proliferate on much of the harvest. During the start of the 2010 rainy season, the rains began as predicted, but unexpectedly stopped for 3-4 weeks resulting in the large-scale die-offs of seedlings (referred to as a “green famine” by media reports). Preliminary analyses based on predicted climate change suggest that much of Ethiopia, including the Bale Mountains, will experience dramatic modifications to rainfall patterns impacting both food security and ecosystem processes. The findings suggest that future climate will inhibit barley production for much of Ethiopia, while being more conducive to other crops that are not traditionally cultivated in the region. Future climate scenarios do not predict significantly more or less annual rainfall for the Bale Mountains but rather a loss of seasonality. This would have serious implications to rural farmers that depend on predictable climate patterns, while the effects on biodiversity and ecosystem processes are not known.

The Murulle Foundation supports holistic and integrative approaches that not only focus on biodiversity in the Bale Mountains but also highlight strategies that may be replicated across mountain systems worldwide. Broad-scale research that is embedded with multiple fine-scale studies provides a deeper understanding of the complex relationships between social-ecological systems and highlights areas that are most vulnerable to agents of global change. The importance in strengthening resilience of social-ecological systems cannot be overemphasized, and TMF strongly believes that this is best achieved by maintaining and protecting biodiversity.

TMF has supported the following research related to Biodiversity in the Bale Mountains:

Luizza, M., H. Young, C. Kuroiwa, P. Evangelista, A. Worede, R. Bussman, A. Weimer (2013). Local knowledge of plants and their uses among women in the Bale Mountains, Ethiopia. Ethnobotany Research and Applications.

Evangelista, P., J. Norman, P. Swartzinski and N. Young (2012). Modeling habitat quality of the mountain nyala (Tragelaphus buxtoni) in the Bale Mountains, Ethiopia. Current Zoology 58(4):525-535.

Bussmann, R.W., P. Swartzinski, A. Worede and P. Evangelista (2011).  Plant use and disease perception in Odo-Bulu and Demaro, Bale Region, Ethiopia. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 7(28).

Malcolm, J and P. Evangelista (2011) Observations on the status of the mountain nyala: 2000-2005, In Special Edition on the Bale Mountains, Walia; Journal of the Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society: 39-52.

Evangelista, P., R., Engeman and L. Tallents. (2009). Testing a passive tracking index for monitoring the endangered Ethiopian wolf. Integrative Zoology 4:172-178.

Evangelista, P., J. Norman III., L. Behanu, S. Kumar and N. Alley. (2008). Predicting habitat suitability for the endemic mountain nyala (Tragelaphus buxtoni) in Ethiopia. Wildlife Research 35:409-416.

Evangelista, P. Swartzinski and B. Waltermire. (2007). A profile of the mountain nyala (Tragelaphus buxtoni). African Indaba 5(2) – Special Report. 48pp.

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