Babille Elephant Sanctuary also known as the Harar Wildlife Sanctuary is a protected area in Harari Zone of Eastern Ethiopia. Encompassing 6,982 km2 (2,696 sq mi), the sanctuary embraces the valleys of the Erer, Daketa, and Fafen as well as the Gobele and Borale rivers; all are tributaries of the Shabelle River. The Sanctuary was originally gazetted protect a supposed elephant sub-species, Loxodonta africana oleansie, but recent DNA tests showed that it is the regular African Elephant. Nonetheless, it is the most Northeastern population Elephant populations and with about 400 animals the largest and most visible herd of the about 1000 animals remaining in Ethiopia and the population has been slowly increasing over the last decade.
The sanctuary elevations range from 1000 to 1750 meters above sea level, with the lowest elevations in the southern part of the protected area. However, large parts of the park’s lowlands have shrub and tree savannah, which is often very dense with both shrubs and cactus bushes. In the highlands, along with the slopes of the ravines, one often finds a very interesting dwarf Euphorbia, while the more commonly found Euphorbia trees grow native on the plateau of the reserve.
The vast and spectacular reserve comprising wide gorges flanked by open plains, rocky outcrops, meandering river beds and, in the south and the east, a drier almost-desert like landscape. Babile is home to Africa’s most north-easterly population of elephants, which some authorities assign to a unique race Loxodonta africana orleansi, endemic to the Horn of Africa. The sanctuary also provides refuge to thin populations of the localized black-maned Abyssinian lion and greyhound-like cheetah, along with various antelope (including greater and lesser kudu), endemic Salvadori’s serin. It believed to have 300 elephants, the second largest Elephant Sanctuary in Ethiopia and suspected to be genetically distinct. Other mammals living in the park include the Hamadryas Baboon, Papio hamadryas, Menelik’s bushbuck, Soemmerring’s Gazelle, and greater and lesser kudu. The bird list of 227 species includes the endemic Salvadori’s serine. Of the reptiles, noteworthy are enormous tortoises and other animals.
Elephants used to be widespread in the Horn of Africa but in the early 20th century – almost certainly driven by poaching – their range began to shrink and their numbers decline. In northern Somalia, the last elephant was killed in 1928. Babile Elephant Sanctuary, a national park established in 1970 to specifically to protect the most northeasterly ranging population of elephants on the continent, is over 7,000 km2; plenty of room, one would think to effectively safeguard such a wide-ranging species.
But Babile Elephant Sanctuary faces a myriad challenge. There might be a lot of land for elephants but this means a lot of lands to protect from outside pressures and over the last few decades, conflict, famine and inadequate enforcement have led to human in-migration and settlement, land conversion, some hunting and elephant poaching. The issue of human pressure on a protected area, in a country, ranked 13th in the world for its human population, is a significant one. Most importantly there is no quick fix.
Areas of this size, with this magnitude of threat require an annual budget of hundreds of thousands of dollars – even millions – and a generous time frame in which to gain the trust of the local communities so that the authorities can work together with them to reduce pressure on wildlife and the habitat on which they depend. Support from the local communities is vital but tragically as in-migration has spiraled out of control and the settled human population within the Babile sanctuary has soared, so have incidents of human-elephant conflict.
Farms are constructed in the path of the elephants’ migratory routes. Crops and livelihood are destroyed; sometimes human lives too; elephants that are persecuted see humans as the enemy and are, all too often, aggressive. Their traditional migratory routes out of the sanctuary are becoming increasingly blocked, shrinking their range. In the long-term, the challenge will be how elephants can persist in human-dominated environments, where human actions erode deeper into the African wilderness.
There will be little point considering long-term threats to elephants if the short-term threats are not addressed first. The number one cause of their decline is poaching for the illegal ivory trade. The last official population estimate of 325 elephants is over a decade old, but at least 100 of these have been poached within the last three years, although the true extent of the killing will only be known with time.
Until recently, prior to raising funds, the work of rangers at the sanctuary was chronically underfunded and as a result, management was weak, offering little or no deterrent to elephant poachers. Born Free is focusing its support on monitoring and protection efforts. In partnership with the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority, and with the support of Save the Elephants, the Rangers have received badly needed training, the elephants are being monitored and poaching incidents are starting to be investigated.
On a day-to-day basis, it is these actions that we believe will reduce poaching pressure. Most importantly, the migration of elephants up the valleys during the rains has enabled the now more mobile rangers to count them and therefore gather critical information on their population status.
There are always deep-rooted causes of ivory poaching – poverty in rural society and increased global demand and international trade – but these are challenging issues to address, and at least in the former case, arguably impossible to eradicate entirely. Therefore, unless steps are taken on the ground to protect elephants, the impetus to poach will remain.