Mountain Nyala Conservation
The Saint Louis Zoo WildCare Institute's Center for Conservation in the Horn of Africa has a commitment of protecting endangered African antelope like the mountain nyala, Tragelaphus buxtoni. This elusive antelope lives in the Bale Mountain region of Ethiopia and is one of the largest antelope, standing over 4 feet at the shoulder. Males carry a set of curled horns similar to those of the lesser kudu (on the Saint Louis Zoo logo). This secretive antelope spends much of its time browsing in dense thickets of highland forests. It is so elusive that it was the last of the large ungulates to be discovered in 1910 and thus little is known of this species.
Threats to Mountain Nyala
This mighty antelope is now gone from many parts of its former range, mainly due to human activities. Presently, Bale Mountain National Park is home to the majority of remaining mountain nyala. The mountain nyala is considered endangered. There are probably fewer than 2,500 animals remaining in the wild population which is endemic to the southeast highlands of Ethiopia. A number of factors contribute to the mountain nyala's population decline, including habitat loss and habitat fragmentation, direct disturbance by humans and livestock grazing and hunting. Little protection is afforded the species, despite the protected status. No management plan or conservation program has been developed for the mountain nyala and little is known of its natural history or biology. As an endemic monotypic species, this is a critically important population which deserves conservation focus and support, and which requires further research to understand the ecology of the species.
Strengthening Ethiopia's Conservation Team
In order for endangered species to survive in the wild, the small, fragmented populations need to be monitored over time in order to inform ongoing conservation action for the species. Training field biologists to understand and address conservation issues within the country is an excellent method of building the future capacity for wildlife and habitat assessment and management. Recently, a training program took place in the Bale Mountains National Park to enhance the capacity to monitor large mammal populations. Through this project, a monitoring program has been established, and several conservationists have been trained. This project has far-reaching and sustainable affects on conservation for many species of interest to the Saint Louis Zoo, including the endangered Grevy's zebra, the critically endangered Somali wild ass and the threatened Speke's gazelle.
Engaging in Behavioral Research
Anagaw Atickem is a PhD student at University of Oslo, studying the basic biology and behavior of the mountain nyala and investigating how human-related activities such as sport-hunting, livestock herding and agriculture are impacting the wild mountain nyala populations both inside and outside of the protected areas. In May 2008, satellite tracking collars were placed on 19 mountain nyala so the researchers could track the nyalas' movements night and day. In this project, our Zoo is helping an Ethiopian conservationist expand his experience and knowledge for his future. Furthermore, the information he gathers during his PhD research will be critical in helping Ethiopia to develop a national conservation strategy for mountain nyala and to manage this species for the future.
Finding Solutions through Community Partnerships
While there are many factors that have made the mountain nyala rare, there are also a lot of ways to help it rebound. Forging a partnership with local people is key in conserving this eye-catching antelope. The Saint Louis Zoo is partnering with conservation organizations in Ethiopia and supporting several ongoing projects which are focused on helping the species.
The Saint Louis Zoo has partnered with an Ethiopian non-governmental organization called MELCA (Movement for Ecological Learning and Community Action) Ehiopia, an environmental organization which was initiated in Ethiopia in 2004. The mission of MELCA is to work for the protection of biodiversity and for the revival and enhancement of traditional ecological knowledge in Ethiopia, through advocacy, empowerment, research and development. To avert the current adverse situation and to conserve the mountain nyala and its ecosystem, much has to be done through environmental education, resolution of conflict between the people and the park, creation of emotional links between the local youth and the Bale Mountains National Park and its wildlife and habitat. MELCA is working to ensure that degraded parts of the forest are restored so that the natural habitat for wildlife is reclaimed.
With support from the Saint Louis Zoo's WildCare Institute, MELCA was able to initate a program called SEGNI (Social Empowerment through Group and Nature Interaction) in Bale Mountains National Park. SEGNI seeks to link young people with the natural world and to encourage them to feel responsible for conserving their environment and preserving their culture. Engaging students in the SEGNI program not only increases the potential of these students becoming conservation stars in the future, but also strengthens the school's environmental club activities and creates an effective outreach to thousands who live near mountain nyala. Over 700 students have participated in the SEGNI program since it was initiated in 2006.
The participants of the program raise seedling trees for reforestation projects in and around National Park, collect plant specimens for study, implement recyling projects and actively participate in the popular Mountain Nyala Day celebration each year. For this celebration, students from many different rural schools and more than 4000 community members gather, while environmental and conservation messages are transmitted in the forms of drama, poems, songs, exhibitions, brochures and leaflets about the needs for the conservation of mountain nyala and its habitat.
Here and Now and Beyond
As conservation programs are strengthened in the present, it is also important to engage and empower conservation leaders for the future. By empowering young people, from grade school to graduate school, to help both animals and people in need, healthy relationships between humans and animals are built and sustained.
The Bale Beauty Nature Club is an enthusiastic group of students in the Bale Mountains that has taken the initiative to launch a grassroots environmental organization of their own. The Club was established with a stated vision of being an organization that would inspire young people to resolve environmental challenges in their community. Since its inception, this 40-member group has provided indigenous seedlings to over 6000 households in an effort to rehabilitate the town areas through their inventive house-to-house tree planting program. They have opened a library in town with a large selection of books about the environment and wildlife, as well as developed a photo and slide exhibition to promote their club's activities and, hopefully, encourage others to participate in conservation activities in the community. Moreover, they have established an income-generating business focused on selling low-cost fuel conserving stoves to encourage the community to reduce their use of fuel wood and diminish forest degradation.