Environmental Restoration in Ethiopia – The Return of a “Thing With Feathers”

My B.C.M. classmates and I were sitting on a panoramic hilltop in the New Forest National Park, peering over the endless greenery while Dr Paul Jepson was nearing the end of his talk on the centuries of plunder that this landscape had endured. But how could the natural wealth we were seeing with our eyes be so at odds with the stories of extraction entering our ears?

“The key word here,” he concluded, “is resilience”.

Acres Down in New Forest National Park. Courtesy of Jim Champion - https://www.flickr.com/photos/treehouse1977/
Acres Down in New Forest National Park. Courtesy of Jim Champion – https://www.flickr.com/photos/treehouse1977/

Every day we environmentalists are pounded with sombre prophecies and laments, yet my experiences as a biodiversity surveyor for an NGO in Ethiopia bestowed an unforgettable lesson. When I arrived in the rural landscape northwest of Addis Ababa, despite my convictions to remain positive, there was no denying the decimation. To cook and keep warm, rural villagers are forced to axe every morsel of wood for miles, and as a result, there’s been an ecological exodus of ludicrous proportions with forest cover plummeting from 40% to 11% over recent decades. Seeing those crumbling hills, stripped and eroded, was eerily akin to watching a corpse.

Four years ago, the NGO Hope Ethiopia had begun reforesting a modest 2-hectare patch of land in attempts to summon back the wildlife once home here.  It was my job to survey the project’s progress.

At 5am I made my way into the meagre woodland, right in time for the dawn chorus. Serenaded by a symphony of African lullabies, I saw birds with laughably long tails three-times the size of their bodies. One species had a stylish punk-like Mohican while another was adorned with fluorescent-red circles on its cheeks. I watched kingfisher partners aerially dance along the river in a dawn salutation, and yellow breasted bee-eaters careening through the forests with predatory acrobatics. This was not the decimated ecosystem I had read about.

By noon I’d moved onto surveying the butterflies in the adjacent grassland and watched them bask in the midday sun. I looked back towards the forest and noticed I was being watched…

At first I thought it was a giant bird monster  – I guess I was still in ‘twitcher’ mode. It stared back at me for two seconds, and then vanished. This was no bird; it was a wild monkey! But how on earth is it surviving in this minuscule lump of trees enveloped by an interminable dustscape of lost life?

Stunned by some kind of Houdini magic trick, I dashed after it through the forest to capture it on camera. I searched and searched, but nothing. I had this fervent inkling that it was still watching me as I fumbled and stumbled around roots and shoots with a clunky camera in my hand. In comparison to this veteran escape artist, I felt like a pathetically inferior monkey, having lost millennia of forest-bound instinct, forgotten from a night too many mollycoddled in concrete cots. I imagined this magician marvel of nature looking down from above, thinking: “What on earth is wrong with this monkey?”

I left Ethiopia humbled not only by my undeveloped senses, but also the unconquerable potential for nature to rejuvenate. Though it has been argued that restored woodlands – termed ‘secondary forests’ – can pale in comparison with ancient forests, in many cases they are quintessential for the survival of a species or ecosystem. Thanks to only four years of planting, birds are voyaging home after years of exile. I suspect that when Emily Dickinson wrote that ‘hope is a thing with feathers’, it was never meant so literally, and yet, no matter how dire the environmental challenges we face, this testimony to nature’s ability bounce back, this ‘resilience’, can bring a smile to any conservationist’s face.

Red-Cheeked Cordon Bleu (by Marcus Nield)
African Paradise Flycatcher
African Paradise Flycatcher (by Marcus Nield)

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