By Steven Brend
In Eastern Ethiopia, the Babile Elephant Sanctuary (BES) covers an area of almost 7,000km2. It is one of the largest protected areas in the country and was established specifically to protect the resident elephant population there, which it is believed, because of years of isolation, may be a distinct sub-species. Certainly, the Babile elephant population is the most north-easterly on the continent. The Sanctuary itself is spectacular: huge gorges giving way to open plains and rocky outcrops, meandering river beds which offer permanent water and, in the south and the east, a drier almost-desert like landscape.
Unfortunately, all is not well in the Sanctuary. It is divided between two regions (the Ethiopian equivalent of states or provinces), Oromia and Ethiopia Somali Region. There is some communal tension between the two groups which is sharpened because both are establishing permanent settlements inside the protected area. Somali’s tend to be semi-nomadic pastoralists but even their encampments are becoming more and more permanent and the number of livestock is increasing, leading to over-grazing and vegetation changes within BES. The Oromia people are establishing farms along some of the waterways, which is likely to give rise to more human-elephant conflict in the future. Already the elephants are under pressure because of both the competition with camels and goats, but also because of poaching: at least 44 elephants were killed in 2012-2103. Such losses – possibly 25% of the population – are clearly unsustainable. It is no overstatement to say that Babile’s elephants risk being wiped out within a few years.
All is not lost, though. The BES is managed by the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority (EWCA). EWCA is in turn being supported by the Elephant Crisis Fund (established by Save the Elephants & the Wildlife Conservation Network) and the Born Free Foundation. Together these two groups are funding the implementation of an “Emergency Action Plan for the Babile Elephant Sanctuary”. Operations began at the start of the year and are already having obvious results:
• Patrols now operate 24 hours a day – thanks to new supplies of field equipment, food and logistics
• A census of the elephants has been conducted – more than 200 individuals were counted and the survey, being on foot, likely did not find every herd
• A notorious poacher, who had escaped from prison, was re-arrested by EWCA Game Scouts
• Stakeholder meetings, aiming to engage the local communities, have started
There are no quick solutions to problems as acute as those faced in Babile. It is likely to take years to even stabilize the situation, but that is a challenge that just has to be accepted. The good news is that the sharp downward-trend may be slowing, providing the breathing space to enact longer-term measures. The initial successes were made possible by Save the Elephants’ interest and support. For that, we are all very grateful.