Although the words biodiversity and development often seem to make a bad pair, people and birds continue to thrive together in Ethiopia’s Rift Valley, sharing the benefits of this rich landscape and shaping each other’s fortunes. This co-evolution and cohabitation is central to the biocultural diversity of the region. And wise and respectful stewardship of the Rift’s natural bounty ensures that such inter-species relationships will continue to anchor the area’s ecological health.
Birds and a Healthy Rift
Ethiopia is in the midst of a remarkable economic transformation of the kind that all too often spells disaster for nature. The shallow, eutrophic Lake Hawassa, on whose shores the beautiful regional capital of Hawassa is booming, is the type of place particularly vulnerable to the ravages of poorly managed development.
Water extraction, overfishing, insufficiently treated sewage, and agricultural runoff often drain and pollute such bodies of water. This has been the fate of lakes up and down the Rift Valley, most famously Kenya’s Lake Naivasha.
And yet Lake Hawassa remains generally healthy. It brims with fish and is home to an extraordinary number and diversity of birds, from the diminutive Malachite Kingfisher to the glorious African Fish Eagle.
The lake is fringed with thousands of giant fig trees of various species that have been preserved over generations, even as the lakefront has been developed as a prime tourism and residential locale. These trees sustain monkeys and birds alike, including great flocks of the magnificent Silvery-Cheeked Hornbill which, as in Nairobi, are proving to adapt well to a suburban landscape. Leaving the giant fig trees intact has not only maintained the famed beauty of the area, but is helping secure its biodiversity. Ato Wondifraw Endeshan, the developer of the Lewi Resort on the Hawassa lake shore (and now other properties across the country), described succinctly his philosophy of maintaining the area’s natural heritage: “Instead of cutting a fig tree, we instead cut the building!”. He also collaborates with a local NGO to keep the shoreline clear of garbage, ensured that his facility has a totally sealed sewage system, and is looking at other ways to collaborate with the city to maintain lake water quality.
While there are concerns about mercury build-up in Lake Hawassa, the government and Ethiopian scientific community are diligently working to characterize and resolve the problem. And the government is also expanding sewage treatment for the growing city of 700,000, as there are worrying signs of increasing pollution.
Birds and Humans Thriving Together
Many bird species in Ethiopia live very intimately with people; and indeed the communities of this region do not traditionally eat or even threaten birds. African Sacred Ibis and Hadada Ibis forage confidently among the people, goats, and houses on the shoreline. The typically shy Hamerkop allow people in Ethiopia to approach within a few feet, and their giant messy nests (that in turn support many other species) are allowed to grace the plush resorts where weekenders from Addis Ababa relax. Even the noisy Egyptian Geese assert themselves without risk.
Most of the bird species that humans depend on continue to thrive as Ethiopia develops. In particular, many of the species that consume what humans throw away are flourishing.
Hawassa and Ethiopia’s other booming towns such as Arba Minch and Ziway are all home to colonies of Marabou Storks, which roost on the crowns of the flat-topped acacias that line the neatly cobbled or tarred streets. Stately from a distance and grizzled-with-a-hint-of-festering from close by, the Marabou leave no fish head or other offal behind, helping to keep cities and villages clean.
The snappy Black Kite is also a champion forager with the gall to snatch food straight out of the hands of people. Butchers slaughtering livestock must post a guard with a stick nearby to ward off the scavengers. This thieving behavior gives rise to the bird’s Amharic name, chilfit, which similarly applies to loitering and pilfering humans. But even if the Kites can be a menace, no community would seek to harm or control them.
Birds Facing Threats
Despite Rift Valley communities’ welcoming attitude, the stresses of development are threatening some of the birds that provide important services to local peoples.
The Honeyguide cooperates with honey hunters to find and open wild bees’ nests, and various Oxpecker species travel with pastoralist herds, picking them clean of ticks and other ecto-parasites. Both these species and their relationships are threatened throughout the Rift Valley by insecticide and acaricide use (cattle dipping), forest destruction, and other dimensions of modernization.
The vultures that efficiently remove dead dogs, roadkill, carcasses and waste are disappearing, threatened on a global scale by such dangers as the overuse of banned antibiotics in livestock.
Vultures are a crucial component of Ethiopia’s public health system, as their clean-up of carcasses keeps down the spread of diseases such as rabies, anthrax, and bubonic plague. Removing carcasses and refuse in other ways than relying on vultures is often prohibitively expensive and impractical, especially in dry environments, making the spread of disease all but inevitable.
Such large, soaring fliers are the only birds that can survive entirely on scavenging, making them “absolutely unique creatures and one of the pinnacles of evolution,” according to distinguished ornithologist and Christensen Fund grantee Dr. Cagan Sekercioglu, of the Turkey-based conservation group Kuzey Doga. “Not only do vultures provide crucial services,” says Dr. Sekercioglu, who has worked in Ethiopia since 2006, “but they are some of the most majestic creatures in existence.”
A Promising Future
While many of Ethiopia’s bird species do face danger, the country continues to rely upon and respect its rich and valuable biocultural diversity even as it charts its transformational development path. The intimate relationships that have evolved between human communities and the natural world in the Rift Valley can help ensure the continued health and abundance of both its people and its nature.