The Mane Attraction
There are now fewer than 1,500 lions living in Ethiopia. The recent discovery of a population living in the north-west of the country throws the spotlight on their conservation
In the heart of Ethiopia’s Harenna Forest, Ziyad Kemal raises a piece of plastic drainpipe to his mouth, purses his lips and blows. The sound that reverberates through the lush Afromontane vegetation – a cross between a soft roar and a guttural woof – starts a family of alarmed giant forest hogs running for the dense undergrowth, while overhead a troop of black-and-white colobus monkeys sets up a chorus of chattering and barking. Across the dripping landscape, adrenaline-fuelled hearts beat a little faster.
Kemal’s impressively life-like efforts are staged, but the effect they generate is all too real. They may be secretive, but nothing brings the Harenna forest’s animal community to attention like the sound of a prowling black-maned lion.
“We hear these lions calling in the distance, and we often see their prints and scat, but we rarely see them,” says Kemal, who works as a guide in the nearby Bale Mountain Lodge. “There’s only one real road and a few trails running through the forest, so it’s hard to get to the places the lions usually frequent. I guess that’s why they stay there.”
It’s little surprise that Harenna’s black-maned lions are wary of humans. While they once represented former Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, and were immortalized in a song by reggae legend Bob Marley, today they have disappeared from much of Ethiopia, mirroring a decline across much of Africa. Over the course of the last century Africa’s lion population has declined by as much as 85%, and the cats have now disappeared from 26 countries altogether.
“The lion is still considered a national icon and an important element of Ethiopian culture and identity,” says Dr. Zelealem Tefera Ashenafi, country head of UK-headquartered conservation group the Born Free Foundation. “Yet the truth is an increasing human population, habitat destruction and growing livestock numbers mean this majestic animal now faces multiple challenges to its survival.”
Conservationists estimate there are now around 1,000 to 1,500 Ethiopian lions left in the wild. These can be found mainly in remote areas bordering South Sudan and Somalia, as well as in a scattering of national parks in the center and east of the country.
Lions are more adaptable than most people realize. While African lions typically prefer dry forest and savannah areas with thick bush and scrub, which offer sufficient cover for hunting, Ethiopia is home to several populations living in high altitude, Afromontane cloud forest. Their fur is thicker than savannah lions, due to the colder, damper environment, and scientists are still unsure whether they should be listed as a separate subspecies.
While the manes of male lions can display a huge variation (those in hot climates may have almost no mane at all), those from the Ethiopian highlands are typically dark and heavy.
“It has been proven that lions living in colder environments grow thicker, longer manes,” says Born Free’s Zelealem. “Female lions have also been shown to prefer males with darker manes, even when they’re short. Mane length may be an indication of the health of the lion, like mane color, but length is probably more closely related to temperature and climate.”
The 4,000 square-kilometer Harenna Forest is one of the largest in Ethiopia. Much of this falls within the boundaries of the Bale Mountains National Park, which is also famous for its population of endangered Ethiopian wolves. The cloud-wreathed landscape here is straight out of a Grimms’ fairy tale, with the gnarled limbs of giant heather and fig trees swathed in carpets of moss and wisps of beard-like lichen. This is the kind of place where you feel the trees come alive and start whispering to each other every night.
The Harenna Forest is currently thought to support around 50 lions, but Guy Levene, British owner of the popular Bale Mountain Lodge, believes the population may be significantly larger.
“This is a huge expanse of forest that has hardly been explored at all,” says the keen conservationist. “From the numbers of lions that we and our guests have encountered in the past, I would say there are probably more. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t under pressure and don’t need better protection.”
Cats in conflict
As the sun dips, shadows claw their way across the floor of the Harenna Forest. Overhead, high up in the lichen-draped trees, barrel-shaped structures glow as they catch the last rays of a golden twilight. Wedged between mighty forks, these strange contraptions resemble the cocoons of some giant insect. They are, in fact, bamboo beehives.
In the Bale Mountains, honey production is a pillar industry and those with many forest beehives have a high social standing. In the village of Rira, the main gateway to the Harenna Forest, the local honey is famous for its creamy texture and pale hazelnut color.
While honey production is a more-or-less sustainable activity, other activities carried out by communities such as Rira have a far more damaging impact on the Harenna Forest and its lion population. As with many of the other Ethiopian areas where lions exist, wildlife is threatened by excessive livestock grazing, firewood collection, agricultural expansion and wildfires.
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“There is increasing pressure on many areas of the park, including the forest,” says Aschalew Gashew, chief park warden of the Bale Mountains National Park. “There is a long tradition of raising livestock in Ethiopia, and the numbers of animals owned by local communities are increasing. We try to control grazing on park territory, but it isn’t easy.”
Ish Teshome Nedi, the headmaster at Rira primary school, says residents of the village have always lived in harmony with the forest – and its lions – but more needs to be done to improve environmental awareness and living conditions.
“The forest is our libsachininagursachin (clothing and bread),” says the well-respected teacher. “We don’t have a problem with the animals living there and we don’t hunt wild herbivores because we know these are the prey of the lions. But it would be good to see more investment in the village as a result of our efforts.”
Ethiopian lion conservation was given a welcome boost in late 2015 with the “discovery” of a lion population in the 2,600 square-kilometer Alatash National Park, in the northwest of the country. Led by Dr. Hans Bauer, a lion specialist with Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU), a small expedition managed to capture a picture of an Alatash lioness on a camera trap.
The Alatash protected area borders the larger, 7,000 square-kilometer Dinder National Park in Sudan. A little like the Harenna Forest, this entire transboundary ecosystem is remote and remains little explored. Far more research needs to be carried out, but Bauer estimates the lion population in Alatash may be around 50 animals, with up to 200 across the entire Alatash-Dinder area.
“The viability of such a small population (in Alatash) depends strongly on connectivity with the neighboring population in Dinder,” says the Dutchman. “The main threats are prey depletion, killing by nomadic herdsmen and agricultural encroachment. It would be great to see increased law enforcement in the park, coupled with implementation of the park management plan.”
Despite their confirmed presence in Alatash, today the future of Ethiopia’s lions hangs in the balance. More research and better protection is urgently required. This, coupled with the development of nature-based tourism, could see the country’s magnificent black-maned big cats yet stage a comeback.
“Countries such as Botswana, Kenya and Tanzania have shown that lions and other iconic wildlife can support thriving, sustainable tourism industries,” says Born Free’s Zelealem.
“As the forest lions of Harenna have shown, this is a resilient species. In Ethiopia we must find ways to relieve the pressure on these beautiful animals and give them enough space in which to thrive."
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