Simen National Park (13° 11'N, 38° 04'E) is a World Heritage Site located in northern Ethiopia on the Amhara plateau in the western Simen Mountains, 120 kilometers (km) north-east of Gondar. The Park was one of the first sites to be inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1978. Massive erosion of the Ethiopian plateau has created one of the most spectacular landscapes in the world: jagged mountain peaks, deep valleys and precipices as deep as 1,500 meters (m). The park is the refuge of extremely rare species such as the Walia ibex, Simien wolf and the gelada baboon.
Threats to the Site
The World Heritage Committee placed the Park on the List of World Heritage in Danger in 1996 because of decline in the population of the Walia ibex due to human settlement, grazing and cultivation. But they are now said to number over 500 and to be on the increase. Other large mammals such as the Ethiopian wolf, bushbuck and bushpig have become extremely rare. Road construction has also increased pressures on the site.
Listing as World Heritage in Danger was not agreed by the state authorities. But the site's management was transferred from Addis Abeba to the Amhara region and in 2000, a regional representative promised increases in the budget and staff, discussions with local people, a committee for the Park's rehabilitation, cooperation with external donors, realignment of an encroaching road, resettlement of farmers, excision of villages and extension of the Park. Two IUCN-sponsored missions have recently monitored the site which is still listed as endangered.
Simen National Park (13° 11'N, 38° 04'E) is a World Heritage Site located in northern Ethiopia on the Amhara plateau in the western Simen Mountains, 120 km north-east of Gondar. The town of Adi Ark'ay lies to the north, Debark, on the Gondar-Asmara highway, to the south-west and Deresge to the south east.
Date and History of Establishment
- 1969: Established by Order No. 59 in the Negarit Gazeta 29(4): 6-8 (originally as 22,500 hectares);
- 1983: Boundary changes were proposed to exclude some cultivated land in Wazla Valley and to include Bwahit Mountain summit.
The area is 13,600 hectares (ha).
Government, in Begember province, Amhara region. Administered until 1996 by the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Organisation (EWCO) of the Ministry of Natural Resources Development and Environmental Protection and since 2000 by the Bureau of Agriculture of the Amharan National Regional State government.
The altitude ranges from 1,900 m to 4,430 m.
The Park is in the western part of the spectacularly rugged Simen Massif which includes the highest peak in Ethiopia, Ras Dashen Terara (4,624 m), which overlooks the Park. It lies on the northern edge of a vast undulating plateau dissected by forested rocky valleys. The massif was formed some 75 million years ago of igneous basalts which have eroded into deep gorges and sheer cliffs, some 1,500 m high and in the north escarpment, 35 km long. The plateau is bounded on the south and north-east by the deep valleys of tributaries of the Tekeze River, which drains to the Atbara, and is bisected north to south by the Mayshasha River, of which it is the principal catchment.
The mean annual rainfall is 1,550 millimeters (mm) falling in two wet seasons, from February to March, and July to September. It is said to have become much lower since the 1960s. Temperatures range from a minimum of -2.5°C - 4°C to a maximum of 11°C -18°C. Frosts may occur at night, and snow sometimes settles on the summit of Ras Dashen. During the day there are often drying winds.
The Simen Mountains are a part of the Afro-alpine center of diversity with high but unquantified levels of endemism (perhaps 5-10 species) due to past isolation by glaciation. The Park, on the margins of the Palaearctic biome, preserves a representative part of the Ethiopian Tropical Seasonal Highland biome and contains vegetation characteristic of each. The floristically rich vegetation grows in four belts related to altitude: Afromontane forest, Hypericum woodland, Afromontane grassland and alpine moorland. Species in the latter two biomes show xeromorphic adaptations to extreme high altitude conditions.
The rather species-poor forest below 3,000 m is mostly felled except in the gorges where some Syzygium guinense, Juniperus procera and Olea africana remain. Gorge sides and ridge tops support coarse grassland with thickets of Rumex nervosus, scattered Otostegia minucci, Thymus spp., Trifolium spp., Geranium arabicum, and the creepers Clematis simensis and Galium spurium. From 3,000 m to 3,800 m was once Erica arborea - Hypericum revolutum (tree heather/giant St.John's wort) heath-woodland but few trees remain since the area was cleared for growing cereals. From 3,800 m to the alpine zone is alpine grassland dominated by giant lobelia Lobelia rhynchopetalum with tree heather Erica arborea, Solanum sp., African rose Rosa abyssinica, yellow primrose Primula verticillata (a Palaearctic species), everlasting Helichrysum spp., lady's mantle Alchemilla sp.and Urtica sp. Lichens Usnea spp. drape the trees. This tufted grassland, formerly a rich mosaic, has been largely replaced by short-grass turf, erosion and stream pollution by cattle. Above it is alpine moorland with mosses of the Grimmiacea family.
A total of 21 mammals has been recorded, including seven endemic species. However, human disturbance and habitat alteration has reduced the range of habitats available to wild animals in the Park. The Walia ibex Capra walie (CR), nearly endemic to the Simen Mountains, has taken refuge on the cliffs of the northern escarpment and outside the Park. It was reduced to some 1-200 animals before its designation in 1968 but had revived before the 1985-1991 conflict. Since then it has become far more dispersed and wary. Numbers in 1989 were estimated at 400 individuals, decreasing to ~200 in 1996 but are now reported to be over 500. The Simen wolf Canis simensis simensis (CR), endemic to Ethiopia and the rarest canid in the world, is dependent on rodent prey in the decreasing extent of tufted grass habitat and now numbers less than 200, nearly all outside the Park, only about 40 having recently been seen within it. Other mammals include gelada baboon Theropithecus gelada (R), hamadryas baboon Papio hamadryas, anubis baboon Papio anubis, black and white vervet Corcopithecus aethiops, colobus monkey Colobus sp.,serval Felis serval, leopard Panthera pardus, caracal Felis caracal, wild cat F. silvestris, spotted hyena Crocuta crocuta, golden jackal Canis aureus, and several large herbivores including bushbuck Tragelaphus scriptus, bush duiker Sylvicapra grimmia, and klipspringer Oreotragus oreotragus also now retreating from the Park.
The 63 recorded bird species include 12 endemic to Ethiopia: wattled ibis Bostrychia carunculata, spot-billed plover Hoplopterus melanocephalus, whitecollared pigeon Columba albitorques, blackwinged lovebird Agopornis taranta, blackheaded forest oriole Oriolus menarche, whitewinged cliff-chat, Myrmicocichla melaena, Ruppell's chat Myrmicocichla semirufa, blackheaded siskin Serinus nigiceps, Abyssinian catbird Parophasma galinieri, Abyssinian longclaw Macronyx flavicollis, whitebilled starling Onychognathus albirostris and thickbilled raven Cornus crassirostris. There are 25 species of raptors including lammergeier Gypaetus barbatus and four other vultures.
The Simen region, surrounded by old cultural centers like Aksum, Lalibela and Gonder, has been inhabited by cultivators for at least 2,000 years. Erosion indicates that cultivation first started on the gentler slopes of the highland valleys but later extended onto steeper slopes. Simen is at the crossing of old trade routes and records of various local features were made in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Local Human Population
Originally some 2,500 Amhara people lived in the park, where the people are very poor but the conditions favor agriculture: 24% of the Park is under cultivation, most of it ever since gazettement of the Park in 1969 and grazing cannot be prohibited so long as there are local residents within the park. Eight communities have part or all of their lands within the Park, and its boundary cuts through most of the villages. In 1978-9 and 1985-6 the population was reduced by the forced relocation of approximately 1,800 people from the lower slopes of the northern escarpment. Following civil unrest in the 1980s and 1991, the villagers returned. There are over 30,000 people in 30 villages around the Park and four within it; and some 4,500 poor cereal farmers with perhaps as many herders, woodcutters and others. Over 60% of the area is under this pressure and the land is fast becoming seriously degraded. In 2003 the population was 11,000. An expanding refugee camp is adding to the problem.
Visitors and Visitor Facilities
Before the unrest, there were 100-200 international visitors annually and three simple camps, though access routes and facilities were poor, but the region was barred from visitation by war between 1983 and 1991. A road built to the park from Debark from the main road to Asmara has caused ugly erosion and facilitated peasant as well as tourist development. Returning tourism (700 in 1995) is already creating waste, cutting trees for firewood and disturbing the animals. The pressure might remain low owing to poor infrastructure and facilities but an increase in the numbers of local guides is planned and a comprehensive master plan to control the encroachment of investment facilities was recommended by Hürni & Stiefel in 2003.
Scientific Research and Facilities
Studies have been made of Walia ibex, habitat conservation, and the ecology of gelada baboon. A bibliography of research is given in Schaerer and Hürni. An in-depth study of the flora and fauna was conducted in 1996.
The park is valued particularly for its flora and fauna, which, due to extreme topography and altitudinal range, remain relatively intact. The park is the refuge for threatened animals such as gelada baboon, Simen fox and Walia ibex, a goat species endemic to Simen Mountains. The Simen Mountains also form an important part of the Tekeze River Basin which is used downstream for irrigation.
Because of its biological importance, the Park has been the focus of much conservation activity; WWF has since its inception provided support through many projects. A detailed management plan was prepared in 1986 to preserve and rehabilitate its habitats, endemic flora, fauna and watershed values and to promote its educational, scientific and tourist uses. The plan and zoning were not implemented due to civil unrest. Until the conflict the [[wildlife was protected by evicting the people, a much resented policy which continues to influence local people against the Park. Since the subsequent increase in human use of the area this policy was superseded by the need to manage the Park in cooperation with its inhabitants. But the central government's exclusion of local communities from Park planning or management decisions, and its apparent concern for the wildlife of the Park rather than the claims of its inhabitants fueled opposition to its policy. The park was placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger in 1996 because of the effects of agricultural encroachment and the construction of an access road on the ibex and other wildlife and previously undisturbed Erica-Hypericum forest. This listing was not approved by the authorities despite long discussion
In 1996, a meeting with stakeholders to update management planning focussed on road construction, local awareness, funding of studies, donor programs for sustainable use of the surroundings, reducing impacts by relocating people, and improving management of the Park and area. In 2000 the Park's management was transferred from the central authorities to the Amharan National Regional State authorities. An IUCN-WHC mission in 2000 recommended realignment of the road through the Park and the voluntary relocation of four villages. That year a regional representative promised increases in the Park's budget and staff, discussions with local people, a committee for the Park's rehabilitation, cooperation with donors, realignment of the road, relocation of farmers, excision of villages and extension to include nearby reserves. It was suggested that local and foreign tourists be encouraged to see the situation in the Park for themselves and the beautiful country which is being degraded.
A report by an IUCN-WHC mission in 2001 recommended the exclusion of boundary villages, inclusion of two nearby wildlife reserves, a reduction of the number of people inhabiting the Park and better conservation of the enlarged ibex and wolf populations. Building on the above, a mission in 2003 by Hürni & Stiefel went to observe and consult locally on the state of conservation and World Heritage status of the Park, the threats to it and the progress of proposed rehabilitation and protective measures; 17 Walya ibex and one Simen wolf were seen. It reported that the ibex population had increased due to improved management by the Amharan authorities, through good funding by the state and donors, an increase in staff and equipment, by regulation of the use of Park resources and by an integrated approach to solving site problems. If the recommendations of these missions were implemented, the site could be removed from the Danger list. This would entail negotiation with the surrounding villagers, and definition and gazetting of new boundaries. Two further reserves were recommended for inclusion after study and negotiation. The voluntary relocation of villages was opposed but might occur if adequately compensated, perhaps through the GEF. Realignment of the existing road through the site with revegetation of its former bed, a short tunnel under the wildlife corridor on Mt. Bwahit and reintroduction of ibex to areas they formerly occupied might all be done if funding were sought from the GEF on the grounds of the global importance of the area's biodiversity and ecosystems.
Ethiopia's highlands are among the most densely populated agricultural areas in Africa, and wildlife habitats and populations in the park have been fragmented by extensive development: road construction, wide deforestation and grass burning, agriculture, firewood collecting, hunting and domestic livestock. Wardening of the Park had to cease in 1977 and by 1980 it was estimated that 1,000 ha of forest had already been cleared. Several species might become locally extinct even if the Park were fully protected. Those species most likely to be affected are the carnivores, notably serval, leopard and Simen wolf, and larger ungulates of the lower Afromontane areas. A further risk is that of hybridization between Walia ibex and free-ranging domestic goats. During the years of civil unrest in the 1980s, the Park buildings and equipment were completely destroyed and the management was severely constrained by lack of finance.
Subsequently, human utilization has increased significantly and much of the Park's infrastructure was destroyed in the recent past. The Park has come under increased pressure from cultivation, sometimes on very steep slopes, also by wood and grass cutting and livestock grazing. An expanding refugee camp is being fueled by the very sparse Erica arborea trees and its inhabitants should be resettled outside the Park, but the authorities in charge are at the moment too concerned for the people to question their impact on the Park's resources. 24% of the Park is under cultivation, most of it ever since gazettement of the Park in 1969 and grazing cannot be prohibited so long as there are local residents within the park. The grazing around streamside areas has affected water quality and increased sediment load from eroded banks. Some 60% of grassland habitats surveyed in 1996 were considered to be heavily grazed, 25% seriously overgrazed, and only 15% is in a natural state. This has led to severe erosion and changes in the ecosystem. Observations of the Simen wolf have become increasingly rare since much of the habitat of its chief prey, the mole rat, has come under cultivation. The Walia ibex population has dispersed and its range has decreased; large areas of former habitat have been abandoned, and sightings have been made only in the most remote and inaccessible areas. Bushbuck and bush pig populations have also become extremely sparse due to trapping. A road has been built from Debarik to the park, entering from the west and extending for 45 km through the Park. This has aggravated erosion and ecological damage to the highlands and made access easier for increasing numbers of peasant farmers. The population and its livestock within the Park is still expanding by 2% per year.
In 1993 staff numbered 24, comprising one Assistant warden, 23 Wildlife Scouts, one storeman, one cashier and one driver, all based at Debarik.
Between 1968 and 1984 several projects were funded by the WHC. US$70,000 was granted from UNESCO via UNDP to rebuild infrastructure in 1996, and grants totaling US$30,000 from Austrian Aid, GEF and the government were made available for use in projects in the near future.
IUCN Management Category
- II National Park
- Natural World Heritage Site, inscribed in 1978. Natural Criteria iii, iv
- Listed as World Heritage in Danger in 1996 due to heavy settlement and the declining Walia ibex population.
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