By Mehari Girmay (PhD)
Tigray is a historic region in northern Ethiopia, located between 12°–15°N and 36°30’–40°30’E. The region has a diverse topography, with elevations ranging from 500 meters above sea level in the west to a high plateau of 3,954 meters above sea level in the south. The surface area of Tigray covers 50,079 km2 (19,336 sq mi), and temperatures can range from a minimum of 13.8°C to a maximum of 22.6°C.
The Tekeze and Gash (Mareb) rivers are the prominent river systems in the area. Tigray’s wildlife includes giant elephants in Western Tigray and the endemic Gelada Baboon in the highest mountains, as well as birds, small vertebrates, and a variety of plant species, ranging from tiny algae to towering indigenous trees.
Tigray has long suffered from land degradation and climate change-induced recurrent droughts and extreme weather variability. However, significant progress has been made in the last 30 years through ecosystem-based restoration and conservation efforts, resulting in vegetation coverage of approximately 14-15% of the Tigrayan ecosystem. In addition to the areas already restored or planted, the region boasts significant potential for additional vegetation growth. Some of the noteworthy areas include Hugumburda-Grat Kahsu forest, Desa’a forest, Hirmi woodland, Kafta-Sheraro national park, and Waldba Forest. This observational assessment aims to compare the status of vegetation and ecosystems before and after the war.
1. Hugumburda-Grat Khasu
Before the war
The Hugumburda-Grat Khasu forest is situated in the southern Tigray Zone and is a mountain range that extends from the top of Alamata town to Meswait town in the north. Located approximately 160 kilometres south of Mekelle, the regional capital, the forest covers an area of 17,800 hectares, with 438 hectares designated as plantation forest.
The forest is comprised of coniferous and broad-leaved trees, with elevations ranging from 1,600 to 3,000 meters above sea level. Dominant species in the forest include Juniperus procera, Olea europaea, Podocarpus falcatus, Millettia ferruginea, Croton macrostachyus, Celtis africana, Ekebergia capensis, Prunus africana, Cordia africana, and various Ficus species. The Hugumburda-Grat Khasu forest was designated a national forest priority area in 1981.
After the war
Eyewitness testimony and on-site visits have revealed that the jungle forest is currently under severe stress, with impacts coming from two main sources.
Firstly, the war that arrived in the forest area in November 2020 has had a significant impact. The forest was used for concealment, trenching, and strategic battling.
Secondly, there has been a lot of plant-logging, firing, charcoal production, and firewood collection in and around the forest, with the majority of these threats coming from residents outside the area and from invaders from neighbouring Amhara region. While residents in the surrounding area were also involved in these activities, the external threats have been more significant.
The deforestation activities have targeted trees for their timber and non-timber values. Based on personal visual estimates, almost half of the forest’s woody species are threatened due to the above factors.
Before the war
The Desa’a National Forest, which has a total area of 118,635 ha, spans Ethiopia’s Tigray and Afar regions. The majority of the forest is located in the eastern part of Tigray, specifically in the districts of Tsaeda Emba, Atsbi Wonbera, and Enderta. The forest ecosystem varies from flat to gentle hills and moderately steep slopes, with an altitude ranging from 1500 to 2500 meters above sea level.
The dominant species found in the forest include Juniperus procera, Erica arborea, Ekebergia sp, and Olea europea. Historical evidence suggests that the forest was once home to elephants and lions. A land use land cover study conducted by Hadgu Hishe et al. and FAO reported that approximately 57% of the Desa’a forest was covered by dense and sparse forest in 2017.
After the war
Despite previous efforts towards ecologically-based forest management such as plantation, enclosure, and restoration, the Desa’a forest, like the Hugumburda-Grat Khasu forest, has suffered significant damage due to the ongoing civil war in Tigray.
Reports from the Tigray Agricultural Bureau and experts indicate that the forest has been massively destroyed since the start of the conflict. Irresponsible forest over-exploitation by local inhabitants, browsing, and the impact of the war itself have all contributed to the resulting deforestation.
Various plants and their products have been found in the local market and around human settlements, and frequent forest fires have also been observed in and around the forest areas. It is estimated that around 40% of the natural forest in Desa’a has been lost.
3. Hirmi woodland
Before the war
Hirmi woodland vegetation is located in three districts (Tahtay Koraro, Medebay Zana, and Asgede Tsimbla) in the Northwest Zone of Tigray Regional State, Ethiopia. The vegetation is situated at 13⁰49’ – 14⁰04′ latitude and 38⁰14′ – 38⁰25′ longitude, with an elevation ranging between 1098-2002 m.a.s.l. The study area covers a total of 30,900 ha and is drained by two rivers, Hirmi and Keyhmeret, which flow through the woodland vegetation before joining the Tekeze River.
The remnant vegetation consists of different patches. The largest portion of the area, which has a moderate and steep slope, is covered by dense mixed species of Combretum and Terminalia, with occasional Acacia species. The lower altitude and flat slopes are mainly covered by Acacia and Ziziphus species.
The hilly part of the northern and northwestern part of the woodland vegetation is predominantly covered by Olea europaea, Acacia abyssinica, and Croton macrostachyus. The land use land cover dynamics of Hirmi indicate that about 45.7% of the dryland ecosystem is covered by dense trees to sparse shrubs, accompanied by various types of grass.
After the war
Before the war, Hirmi was a protected area with limited human and animal intervention, and was recognized as one of the potential vegetation areas. However, since November 2020, Hirmi, along with other forest areas, was transformed into a military training center and camp for over two years.
Studies in 2020 recorded more than 171 plant species in the woodland ecosystem, but the area’s ecosystem and wildlife diversity have been severely degraded due to the war. During its use as a military camp, plants and plant products were used as a firewood source, trenching, and shading. As a result, only a few forest patches remain in sloping and inaccessible areas. It is estimated that more than half of the Hirmi woodland has been deforested.
4. Kafta-Sheraro national park
Before the war
Kafta-Sheraro National Park, located in western Tigray, is a vast conservation area covering 500,000 hectares between 14°05′–14°27′ N and 36°42′–37°39′ E. Eritrea borders the park to the north, Sheraro to the east, Wolkite to the south, and Humera to the west. The elevation within the park ranges from 550 meters above sea level on the edge of the Tekeze River to 1800 meters above sea level on the highlands of Kafta. The agro-climatic zone is identified as Qolla, with a semi-arid inclination.
Kafta-Sheraro is the only national park in Tigray and is one of the few high biodiversity parks in East Africa. Originally known as Shire Wildlife, it was founded 50 years ago by Raesi Mengesha Seyoum, the then-ruler of the Tigray province. In 2007, it was officially recognized as a national park and is now governed by the Ethiopia Wildlife Conservation Authority.
The park’s vegetation includes Acacia-Commiphora, Combretum-Terminalia, Dry Evergreen Montane Woodlands, and Riparian Types. Kafta-Sheraro is home to a diverse array of wildlife, including lions, leopards, caracals, aardvarks, greater kudus, roans antelopes, red-fronted gazelles, hyenas, crocodiles, cheetahs, and red-necked ostriches.
After the war
Despite being a designated national park with diverse flora and fauna, Kafta-Sheraro National Park faced serious threats from various factors, including invasion from Eritrea. The central and northern regions of the park have been completely deforested and deprived of wildlife due to the Eritrean invasion. There have been reports of elephants being taken to Eritrea and being killed for their ivory.
Another threat to the park comes from Amhara expansionists who are aware that the territory belongs to Tigray. The destruction of natural resources and infrastructure has been used as a weapon of war by these people since the conflict began. The invaders have engaged in irresponsible actions, such as transporting plant products and live animals to the Amhara Regional State.
The war has also impacted the park as it was used as a battleground, leading to the removal and killing of many wild animals.
Lastly, residents around the area have been forced to engage in the irresponsible use of natural resources due to the dire and often life-threatening situation caused by the war. They have been using and selling plant products to generate meagre income, which is further deteriorating the ecosystem.
5. Waldba Forest
Before the war
Waldba Natural Forest is located in the Tselemti Woreda of Tigray, between 13o 73’ 16’’-13o 80’6’’N 37o 92’ 18’’-37o 95’29’’ E at an altitude of 1118 m a.s.l. It is bordered by the Tekeze, Zarima, and Ensaya Rivers. The major kebele nearby is May Teklit in Tselemti district. The minimum and maximum rainfall in the area are 1003.7mm and 1307.6mm/year, respectively, while the temperature ranges from 26.8°C to 38.6°C.
Waldba forest has Kola agroecology and is mainly composed of economically important trees such as Boswellia papyryfera, Acacia senegal, Oxythenthera abyssinica, and Sterculata. Although Waldba natural forest is one of the potential forest areas, the existing biodiversity and wildlife have not been well studied. The largest monastery in Ethiopia is also situated in this forest ecosystem.
Despite the pre-existing anthropogenic impacts on the forest, the negative effects have worsened significantly since the beginning of the war. The exact extent of the war’s impact is difficult to determine accurately. Accessing the area and deploying a team of experts is challenging because it is under the invaders. The monks who once lived there have either fled or been killed due to threats from the vigilante group known as Fano, making it challenging to gather information about the current damage.
The Tigray genocide has had devastating consequences for human lives and the ecosystem that had been preserved and restored for half a century. The war has resulted in the destruction of a significant amount of biodiversity and its habitats, either by the invading forces or by the local inhabitants. The invaders’ goal in exploiting natural resources, especially plant resources, was to use them as a weapon. Conversely, due to the near-total blockade of all basic goods and services, irresponsible exploitation and logging of plants and other natural resources have become a sheer necessity.
Tigray’s potential ecosystem for vegetation is currently under severe threat, and unless immediate action is taken, the abundant species will become sparse, and the rare and sparse species may become extinct. This will have a significant local and global impact on biodiversity. Therefore, conservation action should be carried out as soon as feasible by comparing previous and existing baseline information on forest ecosystems to save both humans and wildlife.