In March 2015, a research collaboration led by the RSPB and the Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society, in partnership with SOS Sahel, MMU, Birdlife International and Coventry University were successfully awarded a Darwin Initiative research grant to conduct new poverty alleviation-biodiversity conservation research in Ethiopia. The aim of this new partnership is to enhance the livelihoods and food security for thousands of Borana pastoralists across the Liben Plain, near Negele in southern Ethiopia. Through sustainable management practices that integrate biodiversity into Ethiopian rangeland habitat restoration, this research will also prevent mainland Africa’s first bird extinction – the Critically Endangered Liben Lark.

The Liben Plain of Ethiopia – threats and biodiversity

Grasslands are among the world’s most threatened and least protected ecosystems. Many have been converted for agriculture with many grassland dependent species now globally threatened. Sustainable pastoralism is perhaps the only system that allows both people and grassland biodiversity to flourish. The rangelands of southern Ethiopia were once some of the most productive globally and home to a wealth of endemic taxa. These rangelands have declined greatly in area and quality. The Liben Plain, a designated Important Bird Area (IBA) and part of the South Ethiopian Highlands Endemic Bird Area is one of the few remaining fragments of open grassland surviving in this region. The Plain supports around10,000 pastoralists and unique agro-biodiversity including dozens of grass species and the Boran cattle. The Plain is also home to one of only two surviving populations of Liben Lark Heteromirafra archeri. Poverty and drought have led to overgrazing, soil erosion, scrub encroachment, and the conversion of grassland to crops, with just 7,500 ha of degraded grassland remaining. Consequently, the Liben Lark is listed as Critically Endangered and is likely to become mainland Africa’s first bird extinction.
Continued grassland degradation is causing pastoralists to suffer from declining livestock productivity, reduced income and increasing food insecurity. This results in poor child nutrition and increased drought vulnerability. During the dry season, cattle now produce barely enough milk to support their calves, with almost no surplus for people. Consequently, in most households at this time of year children are given sugar mixed into water in place of milk. Driven by the declining fortunes of pastoralism, some pastoralists are turning to cultivation, which is unsustainable due to unpredictable rainfall and poor soils.

Pastoralism and kallos

Pastoralism is potentially the most effective system for managing dry grasslands, combining sustainable resource management with poverty alleviation. Whilst pastoralism supports millions of Ethiopians, it is in long-term decline in the country. Recognising this, all levels of government are now moving towards restoring pastoralism, as it is a highly effective system for reducing poverty and increasing climate change resilience for people in dry grassland environments. Using Participatory Rangeland Management techniques established by project partner SOS Sahel (an international development NGO working in several African countries), local people will be supported to create communally managed grassland reserves (‘kallos’) across the Plain improving the quality and extent of native grasslands. Communal kallos are communally managed under a set of customary pastoralist by-laws and self-regulated by pastoralist communities. Enclosed communal kallos are a recent development in Borana rangeland management and have gained rapid support in response to increasing grassland degradation and droughts. Enclosed kallos can provide the pastoralist population of the Liben Plain with access to fodder in the long dry season, so that cows produce milk for human consumption as well as for calves. This will increase food security and lead to improvements in health and nutrition, increased survival, health and productivity, and sale value of cattle.
Dr Huw Lloyd, of the CEB research Group will be working with the RSPB’s principal conservation scientist Dr Paul Donald and RSPB Species Recovery Officer Alice Ward-Francis. Together they will be responsible for examining
the response of Liben Lark population and other grassland biodiversity to the strategic citing and management of communal kallos over the three-year duration of the project.