By1992, the animal had been hunted almost to extinction in the Senkele Swayne’s Hartebeest Sanctuary, one of the last places where it’s found.
Traditional leaders banded together to convince their community to end the hunting of the hartebeest for food, on the grounds that it went against their age-old customs.
The Swayne’s hartebeest population has since rebounded, although threats to its survival remain, both from natural predation and from human activities.
SENKELE, Ethiopia — In the tall-grass woodland of the Great Rift Valley in southern Ethiopia lies the Senkele Swayne’s Hartebeest Sanctuary. The area has long been a home to the Swayne’s Hartebeest, an endemic subspecies of antelope known locally as Qorkey.
Named after H.G.C. Swayne (1860-1940), a British expeditionary who first identified the species in Somaliland in 1891, it would have become extinct due to disease and poaching if not for its habitat in Ethiopia.
Senkele Swayne’s Hartebeest Sanctuary (SSHS) was established in 1971 during the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie I. Today it rests on 58 square kilometers (22 square miles) of land shared between Oromia and the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples (SNNP) regions of the country, home largely to the Sidama people.
Records show that up until the start of the 1990s, there were more than 3,000 Swayne’s hartebeests (Alcelaphus buselaphus swaynei) in the wildlife sanctuary. But the situation was about to turn bleak for the long-faced, reddish-brown mammal that once flourished here.
The emperor was overthrown in 1974 by a military junta called the Derg. Many argue that despite the unsustainable dictatorial nature of the new regime, it was a relatively good time for protected areas in Ethiopia. During the 13 years the Derg was in power, it maintained control over the protected areas, including Senkele. Hunting activities and human settlements were strictly prohibited. As a result, the local people felt neglected and were unhappy about the measures.
Between the downfall of the Derg in 1987 and a transitional government coming to power in 1991, the country rode a wave of uncertainty that left the parks unattended and vulnerable to human intrusion.
“There was no linkage between the people and the reserve,” says Kabeto Edamo Wabe, the current traditional leader, or Aba Gada, of the Oromo people here. “Immediately after the government was removed, the people started taking revenge by hunting the Swayne’s hartebeest they found both in the sanctuary and outside.”
The animal was hunted for its meat to such an extent that slaughterhouses began to appear. In a period of less than a year between 1991 and 1992, the number of hartebeests plummeted from an estimated 3,500 animals to fewer than 70.
Wabe says the payback continued until his uncle, a religious leader and the Aba Gada at the time, Worena Jarra Jarso, gathered residents in the nearby town of Senbete one day and challenged them to think about the consequences if the Swayne’s hartebeest went extinct, asking: “Will the creator not question us?”
With no government body present to take responsibility, the Aba Gadas formed a committee and hired watchmen to look after the sanctuary.
“After that day, the hunting and death of the hartebeest was stopped,” Wabe says.
Who are the Aba Gadas?
Gada is a traditional governance system of the Oromo people in Ethiopia, who make up more than 34 percent of the country’s population. The Gada has been passed down from generation to generation for hundreds of years, and in 2016 it was inscribed on the representative list of UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Aba Gadas, the leaders of the Gada, are those who head the Oromo clans.
The system is well-structured. It consists of four parties — Oda Bultum, Oda Bisil, Oda Nebe and Oda Roba — with one leader at the top rotating every eight years.
Wabe, 56, is the ruler of the Oda Roba. He says the rules of the Gada dictate that wild animals and plants must be respected. He says it’s the same in all parts of the country, but the level of implementation may differ from place to place.
Hambentu is one of the 54 clans that make up the Oda Roba. It was this clan that played the major role both in the near-extinction and subsequent revival of the Swayne’s hartebeest.
“What makes Hambentu unique is that the penalty for killing one Swayne’s hartebeest [intentionally] is equal to that of killing one human being, which is a hundred cattle,” says Aba Gada Azmach Teshita Sammato Bullo, the leader of the Hambentu. The clan is itself made up of 28 sub-clans; after the meeting in Senbete in 1992, the clan adopted the Swayne’s hartebeest as its 29th member.
Bullo tells of how, three years ago, a man attempting to rescue his cattle from hyenas accidentally shot and killed a hartebeest. He was taken to court, but no tangible evidence was found and he was freed. Later, a four-stage investigation was carried out under the traditional Gada system until the man finally confessed to the killing. The leaders gathered and a ritual was made as per the rules of the system before he was forgiven.
Bullo, 45, currently works as a scout for the sanctuary, which falls under the purview of the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority (EWCA). He was awarded the African Rangers Award in 2018 for his efforts to bridge the gap between the community and the sanctuary administration. The award was organized by the Alibaba Foundation and the Paradise Foundation, a Chinese environmental conservation organization.
Many of the locals say they’re happy about the sanctuary’s existence, but as in the reign of the Derg, facilities such as health care centers and access to safe drinking water remain out of reach. The sanctuary owes its existence to both the Aba Gadas and the community surrounding it, and in return they expect the government to provide for their basic needs.
A bright future for the sanctuary
Senekele Swayne’s Hartebeest Sanctuary is one of the few wildlife sanctuaries in Ethiopia. Compared to Babile, a sanctuary for elephants, or other national parks in the country, it enjoys arguably a stronger community commitment and offers perhaps an even brighter future for the Swayne’s hartebeest.
To ensure the protection efforts are sustainable, the sanctuary administration has taken various measures, including permitting locals to harvest dried grass that the animals no longer need, in order to support themselves. They harvest the grass almost like crops, and it goes to 57 community groups, comprising an estimated 10,000 people, who use it to build houses, make ornaments or sell for profit.
According to the Aba Gadas, people are slowly but surely understanding the importance of the sanctuary, and the site’s popularity in the community is increasing accordingly.
Desta Bedaso, the chief warden of Senekele Swayne’s Hartebeest Sanctuary, recalls an incident when a herd of Swayne’s hartebeest traveled several kilometers outside of the sanctuary’s borders in search of water. The locals who noticed the animals grazing freely over the fields far away either informed the authorities or put them on horse-drawn wagons and returned them to the sanctuary.
“What are the chances of people finding and then returning an edible animal?” Bedaso asks, amused.
He adds that not a single hartebeest was harmed during the political unrest that broke out in 2016, which saw a local government administration office burned down and people start to occupy more land inside the sanctuary.
Yet despite the hopeful situation, the hartebeest population remains at risk due to predators and illegal livestock grazing. To boost the number, the sanctuary administration has ordered 24-hour ranger patrols to protect newborn calves from hyenas and wolves.
Between January and May 2018 alone, 88 Swayne’s hartebeest calves were born, setting a near 30-year record. An estimated 850 hartebeest now live in the sanctuary.
“Protecting Swayne’s hartebeest is protecting their environment,” Bedaso says. “Protecting their environment means protecting the 36 mammals and 191 bird species” that also call the sanctuary home. Bedaso says he believes the protection of the hartebeest, a keystone species, has had a positive impact on the rest of the sanctuary’s wildlife.
But not all wild animals are equally desired, at least just now. According to Bedaso, a study by the EWCA says 14 hyenas and six wolves must be removed from the habitat each year over the next decade to stabilize the populations of endemic species.
Southern Ethiopia enjoys a year-round tourism trade, and the Senkele Swayne’s Hartebeest Sanctuary occupies a strategic location as a gateway to the Omo valley and other popular attractions in the region. But with no proper facilities and an entrance fee of just $2 for tourists, the sanctuary makes less than $9,000 per year.
Human encroachment into the sanctuary is another problem. Although not as bad as in other reserves or national parks in Ethiopia, the sanctuary’s borders remain porous. The site initially spanned 220 square kilometers (85 square miles), but over the years lost 74 percent of its land to illegal settlements. A new demarcation approved by the government four years ago stemmed this loss, and the construction of a gravel road over 90 percent of the sanctuary’s perimeter has also discouraged people from further settlement.
A more serious problem is the seasonal livestock grazing, when pastoralists bring up to 30,000 head cattle into the sanctuary. That forces the hartebeest to compete for food and run the risk of contracting diseases from the cattle.
Banner image: Aba Gada Kabeto Edamo Wabe(r), leader of the Oda Roba and Aba Gada Azmach Teshita, Sammato Bullo (l) leader of the Hambentu clan pose for a portrait inside Senekele Swayne’s Hartebeest Sanctuary. Photo by Maheder Haileselassie Tadese.
Maheder Haileselassie Tadese is an award-winning freelance photographer and journalist based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. More of her work can be found here.
Source Moñga Bay