The Magazine of Ethiopian Airlines

How Do You Save a National Park?

Preserving the beauty of Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains.

The sun begins dipping below the horizon, revealing hazy, horizontal smudges of sky and mountain, layered one behind the other in blue, grey and orange. Backlit trees march across a distant ridge while a pair of jackals crosses the flat terrain below Mount Kedadit. Before long, the sky will fill with constellations as a rich, deep blanket of smaller stars studs the blackness behind them.

This view is as breathtaking as when the surrounding cliffs and gorges were first recognized as Simien Mountains National Park in 1969. Sunset panoramas. Crisp air. Raw, wild beauty.

Yet even then, a closer look revealed a sobering deterioration: Willful deforestation was rapidly changing the landscape, and the Ethiopian wolf and walia ibex (an endemic mountain goat) were already endangered.

At the time, the man who would become the park’s first game warden — a Welshman named C.W. Nicol — had already been crisscrossing the mountain highlands on horseback for two years. Armed bandits and poachers threatened him and his team of rangers as they tried to prevent acres of forest from being slashed and burned by villagers in search of farming land. Other locals were damaging the land by allowing their livestock to overgraze within park boundaries. Food was becoming more and more scarce for wildlife.

In addition, Nicol and his rangers faced logistical challenges (lack of infrastructure such as roads or health care) and a dearth of government support for their job.

Although appointed by then-Emperor Haile Selassie himself, 27-year-old Nicol found his assignment close to impossible. “It was just over two years full of challenge, adventure, fights, struggles, new experiences — and almost overwhelming frustration and despair,” he recalled in his August 31, 2013, article in The Japan Times.

Finally, in October 1969, Nicol left the Simien Mountains and returned to his adopted country of Japan, convinced that all of his labors were in vain.

Nicol never expected that what he had fought so hard to protect would, in 1978, be recognized as one of the very first UNESCO World Heritage Sites for its natural beauty and endemic wildlife. Nor that, 18 years after that recognition, the park would appear on UNESCO’s endangered list. A continual battle to save the land. An unending heartache.

Ancient land

Ethiopia has long been considered the cradle of civilization, especially after the discovery of “Lucy” — a partial human skeleton more than 3 million years old. Far northwest of Lucy’s final resting place stand the Simien Mountains. Formed by prehistoric seismic activity that created its dramatic scenery, this formidable range served as a barrier to many potential invaders over the centuries. The country’s highest peak can be found here: Ras Dejen (as the locals call it), at 4,533 meters.

Despite the harsh climate of the high altitude, Ethiopians have long inhabited the 232 square kilometers that now encompass the country’s first national park. Even today, approximately 536 households live within the park boundaries, in six different villages — a growing population that puts greater and greater stress on the land and its resources.

As an example, festuca is a natural grassy habitat for rodents, which are the primary food of the endangered Ethiopian wolf. Therefore, authorities have forbidden the harvesting of festuca to thatch village homes within park boundaries; it’s more difficult to halt its depletion by overgrazing.

The less dependent the villagers are upon parkland for their livestock grazing and farming, the more sustainable their lifestyle and the future of the park itself.

In some areas, what was once thickly forested now more closely resembles a rocky moonscape. The surrounding communities’ dependence upon park resources has led to the loss of almost 97 percent of the original highland vegetation, according to the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority. Years of civil war and famine only added to the depletion (with civil war leading to the park’s closing for almost 17 years).

Today, Simien Mountains National Park might be facing an even more dismal future if not for the foresight of the Ethiopian government to save its national treasure. This time, expertise is being sought from what some might consider an unlikely source: the nation of Japan.

A weathered acacia tree watches the sun rise over the Geech plateau in Simien Mountains National Park. This ancient topography — the result of prehistoric volcanic activity — contains vertical cliff faces falling more than 1,000 meters.

Step by step

Formed in 1974, the Japan International Cooperation Agency offers strategic assistance to more than 100 countries worldwide. In 2011, JICA became involved in Simien Mountains National Park at Ethiopia’s request.*

That partnership — called Simien Community Tourism, or SIMCOT — focuses on reversing the park’s endangered status while benefiting the local population. The benefit to locals comes via sustainable tourism efforts that bring in income and thus reduce the community’s dependence on agriculture within the park. JICA started by forming a partnership with two Ethiopian public entities that protect and govern the national parks.† 

The key word is sustainable.

Gelada baboons — more closely related to monkeys than baboons — are one of several species endemic to the Simien Mountains, including the walia ibex and Ethiopian wolf.

JICA recognizes that encouraging uncontrolled tourism would bring about long-term harm. Already, recent road improvements between the park and the city of Gondar have led to an escalation of traffic, with a resulting 50-percent increase in park tourism within the last year.

“If we do not control [tourism], then the culture, society and economy will be destroyed while all the business is taken over by big outside [organizations], and only a small [amount of] money will remain locally,” says Dr. Kiho Yaoita, deputy chief of the SIMCOT project and assistant professor at Hokkaido University, who specializes in heritage management and community development.

SIMCOT’s task might be considered overwhelming, yet the great dream is to see Simien Mountains National Park stand on its own feet rather than merely limp on, relying on international aid as it has in the past.

The foothills of the Simien Mountains awake to the rising sun.

SIMCOT began by systematically studying each aspect of the park: measuring, questioning, tracking.

For example, most tourists to the Simien Mountains (that number reached a record 18,000 in 2013) are trekkers who hire guides, scouts and cooks. So SIMCOT began offering extensive training to increase the quality of those services — such as how to cook European dishes even in a primitive campsite setting (as most trekkers are from Europe).

Soon, an old friend of the park was enlisted to add his expertise as well. In summer 2013, JICA and the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority contacted the park’s first game warden. After his years on horseback protecting the Simien Mountains, C.W. Nicol had turned his attention toward restoring a prime woodland area in Nagano, Japan.

Today, approximately 536 households live within the park boundaries, in six different villages — a growing population that puts greater and greater stress on the land and its resources.

It turns out that even though he’d never returned to the African continent, he had reserved a corner of his heart for Ethiopia. Intrigued by JICA’s plans, he offered his knowledge. Soon, five key players from the SIMCOT partnership had traveled to Japan to catch Nicol’s passion and learn from his conservation experience.

SIMCOT also had another ambitious plan for contributing to conservation in the park, even while connecting locals to tourism profits.

Connecting person-to-person

French, Germans and the British top Simien’s usual tourist list — hardy adventurers who are used to trekking and aren’t afraid of a bathroom-in-the-wild.

And hardiness is essential to Simien exploration. Facilities are sparse. Altitude hiking taxes the lungs. Temperature swings border on the extreme (more than 18°C by day, below freezing by night). But the beauty visible over every lip of rock startles even those gasping for air. Beauty of scenery, of course, but also the playful activity of gelada baboon families, the incredible 2.3- to 2.8-meter wingspan of the lammergeyer, the rare glimpses of springbok or walia ibex.

A rare walia ibex approaches a mountain stream amid a field of endemic tussock grass, found only within the Geech plateau.

And now, thanks to foresight and patient planning, those who venture into the Simien Mountains can also choose to learn a bit more about life in these beautiful surroundings by way of an “ecomuseum” that encompasses the entire park.

Unlike traditional museums, with ecomuseums “you see the original treasures at the original site,” explains Dr. Kiho.

In the Simien Mountains, the ecomuseum showcases the natural (stunning trekking routes and wildlife) as well as the cultural (heritage explorations that are directed by community members during village tours).

Via these tours, small groups of tourists can take a new turn down a rutted, hillside trail in order to see firsthand how life is lived on these highlands.

After months of research, SIMCOT project members chose two villages for the prototype. Like other communities within the park, neither Jona nor Argin has electricity, running water or cars. So a visit is no eye-candy experience of casual tourism; it’s the real thing, with an opportunity to meet beautiful, proud people and share in a slice of their lives.

The village of Argin (451 households) stretches down one slope before rising sharply up another — a swath of terraced farmland where acres of Erica arborea once covered the hillsides. After a 30-minute walk down a rocky, barely discernible path from the main road, guests spend the next few hours being invited into the cool darkness of thatched-roof homes. There they observe (and participate in) the making of local beer, the ritual of the coffee ceremony or the baking of injera (the traditional, spongy pancake that serves as the centerpiece of every Ethiopian meal).

In the nearby village of Jona, visitors learn about traditional hairdressing styles (see “Beauty on the Simien Mountains” below), watch a blacksmith at work or speak with a weaver whose loom was handmade by his grandfather. Tourists can even purchase some of the local weavings.

A villager native to the Simien Mountains sifts grain to make injera, a spongy pancake that’s central to Ethiopian cuisine. Though traditionally made solely of teff (a local grain) flour, the flatbread eaten in Ethiopia’s highlands is often made with barley or wheat.

As Azanaw Kefyalew, EWCA’s senior tourism expert, points out, “The income from the village tour goes directly to the [villagers’] pocket rather than back to the government.”

After all, the less dependent the villagers are upon parkland for their livestock grazing and their farming, the more sustainable their lifestyle and the future of the park itself.

Next steps to save a park

With village tours well underway, SIMCOT is continuing to expand the opportunities for Simien Mountains National Park’s preservation and growth — inviting Ethiopian and international tour operators to learn more about the village tour products, so that the park is high on their radar. The hope is that the success at this, the country’s flagship park, will then be replicated at other parks across Ethiopia.

Throughout the project (November 2011 – November 2014), SIMCOT has tracked and measured everything — to show growth as well as assess where more attention is needed. The Ethiopian government and communities in Simien will then assume leadership toward fully achieving the ecomuseum concept.

Still, no one is naively expecting a quick turnaround. Dr. Kiho predicts it will be more than a decade before this parkland is removed from UNESCO’s endangered list and northwestern Ethiopia is regarded as one of the continent’s top tourism destinations. But each day’s step forward offers hope.

Sunset falls on an overlook near the Chennek campsite. The land immediately beyond the escarpment lies outside of the park’s boundaries, and much has been terraced by local villages for farming.

Sunset on the mountain

When the long evening shadows disappear, the lingering warmth evaporates as if by a switch. With dusk comes cold at this altitude: 3,260 meters up on the escarpment of the mountains, where the Simien Lodge claims its stake as the continent’s highest hotel.

Inside the lodge, a buffet dinner is served to a mixture of tourists and scientists (the University of Michigan’s Gelada Research Project), plus one of Ethiopia’s prodigal sons.

Tomorrow, C.W. Nicol will spend his first day back in Simien Mountains National Park in 45 years. He’s already greeted old friends — 70- and 80-something men and women who served as rangers with him in the early, turbulent days. They arrived at his welcome ceremony wearing thick, cotton robes and leaning on canes, their lined faces breaking into smiles and tears as they embraced this man whom they last saw as an impetuous, determined 29-year-old.

Sitting down to dinner with the SIMCOT project team, Nicol talks honestly about how he long believed his years in the Simiens to be a waste. And how that perceived failure spurred his efforts to restore one of Japan’s woodland areas.

Giant lobelia flowers — found only in Ethiopia — are capable of growing 6 meters high when flowering, with vertical conical flowers equaling the height of their base.

It was August 2013 when a team from EWCA visited Japan to personally plead for Nicol’s help. The visit struck a deep, raw nerve (“It was like a dam burst inside me,” Nicol remembers) and began a long-awaited process of healing old scars — “scars left because I’d felt my efforts there had been in vain,” Nicol wrote for The Japan Times.

EWCA’s then-director general assured the now-74-year-old, “What you did and tried to do was not a failure — it was a road map for what we are trying to do now.”

“Back then,” Nicol continued, “I truly believed in a beautiful, sustainable national park in the northern mountains of Ethiopia. . . I wanted to help conserve the wildlife and the incredibly beautiful scenery, and to be of meaningful assistance to the proud and independent people of Ethiopia.”

“Maybe it’s not too late.”

Giant basalt columns and cliff faces formed by more than 70 million years of weather create a spectacular landscape.
* Other countries have also worked extensively in the Simien Mountains over the years — including the Frankfurt Zoological Society and the Austrian Development Project — and JICA recognizes those efforts as crucial precursors to it own.

† Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority and Amhara National Regional State Bureau of Culture, Tourism and Parks Development.