Lets Talk Nechisar National Park (Ethiopia)
Posted 27 January 2012 - 12:54 AM
Nechisar which means white grass is a 750km˛ national park in Ethiopia’s southern Rift Valley near the town of Arba Minch. The park was established in 1974 to protect the Swayne’s hartebeest a subspecies of hartebeest that is endemic to the horn of Africa and is almost certainly now restricted to Ethiopia, having probably become extinct in Somalia. The park includes a mountainous isthmus of land between Lake Abaya in the North and Lake Chamo in the South known as “The Bridge of God” and beyond to the east stretching to the Amaro Mts is the Nechisar Plain a largely open area of golden white grass that gives the park its name. The two lakes which are connected by the Kulfo River are quite different as can clearly be seen on Google Earth, Lake Abaya is always brown in colour due to suspended ferrous oxide whereas Lake Chamo is very blue.
Sunrise Lake Abaya
Unfortunately like many of Ethiopia’s national parks in the chaos following the downfall of the brutal communist Derg regime Nechisar was invaded by local people. Members of the Kore and Guji communities decided to reclaim what had been their land and started establishing settlements and grazing their livestock inside the park and as a result parts of the park have become degraded due to overgrazing. When I visited Nechisar back in 1999 it was not uncommon to see people just walking through the park safe in the knowledge that there was little in the way of dangerous game to trouble them, quite a few big game species have become locally extinct, in some cases very likely long before the national park was created. Populations of many large ruminant species in Ethiopia particularly buffalo were decimated by the great rinderpest epidemic that hit the country at the end of the 1880’s, after the Italian army brought infected cattle from Asia in to the port of Massawa in neighbouring Eritrea. It’s likely that some species never really recovered from this epidemic and in some locations were unable to survive subsequent hunting.
Ground Water Forest
The area of the park immediately below the town of Arba Minch is primarily riverine and groundwater forest and the saddest sight returning to our hotel in the evening was seeing often quite elderly women on the side of the road struggling uphill bent double carrying huge loads of firewood illegally harvested from the forest. Although the park has lost many of the bigger animals some game species are still common notably the most northerly plains zebras in Africa and also Grant’s gazelles. On my visit I also saw greater kudu, Guenther’s dikdiks, warthogs, hippos, black & white colobus, olive baboons and a marsh mongoose. Very sadly the Swayne’s hartebeest for which the park was created have declined significantly in 1999 there were thought to be about 100 now there may be as few as 12.
Some of the most northerly plains zebras in Africa on the Nechisar Plain
For the three nights I was there I stayed at the Bekele Molla Hotel in Arba Minch one of a number of hotels I’ve stayed in where the best that could be said about it is that the view is fantastic, the hotel is on the edge of the town on top of an escarpment above the park with the forest down below and the Bridge of God beyond with the end of each lake either side. One night arriving back at the hotel I walked in to my cabin/room and thought I was hallucinating as I could hear the distinctive sound of a lion roaring. With the amount of human disturbance in the park and the extinction of some of the larger herbivores I thought there can’t possibly be any lions left in Nechisar, but later sitting outside on the restaurant terrace I heard it again much more clearly, somewhere down below in the forest was at least one lion. Sadly I fear that lions are probably now extinct, leaving the numerous crocodiles that congregate at the so called “crocodile market” in Lake Chamo as the largest predators left in Nechisar.
Nile Crocodiles Lake Chamo
The parks birds have inevitably fared rather better than the mammals and with all the different habitats, forest, woodland, bush, open grassland, marsh and of course the lakes, Nechisar supports a good variety of species around 350 have been recorded. Including 25 Somali Biome species, notably on the Nechisar Plain Ethiopia’s only known population of northern white-tailed bush lark and at the south-western corner of Lake Abaya one of the countries only two populations of white-fronted black chat. For serious birders the park is perhaps best known for just one bird, back in 1990 a new species of nightjar the Nechisar nightjar was identified from a single wing found on one of the parks roads virtually nothing is known about this bird and only a tiny handful of people notably Ian Sinclair can claim to have actually seen one.
Local Fisherman Lake Chamo
Local Fisherman Lake Chamo
If some of Ethiopia’s parks were properly managed and restored there’s no reason why they shouldn’t attract as many tourists as those in Kenya, recognising this a few years ago the Ethiopian government agreed to sign over the management of Nechisar and also Omo and Mago NPs to the African Parks Network. They drew up an ambitious management plan for Nechisar that would involve fencing the park so that eventually all of the missing species could be reintroduced including animals like buffalo, biesa oryx, and ultimately black rhino and even elephant.
APN agreed with the Ethiopian authorities that the Kore and Guji people would have to be relocated from the park and that they would only take over the full management of the park and begin the restoration once this was done. The eviction/relocation of the people would be carried out entirely by the local authorities without any involvement from APN. Depending on your point of view this was a very wise decision or alternatively APN were simply getting the local authorities to do their dirty work for them. Ethiopia is divided in to 9 different states and the authorities decided that the Guji should not only not be living in the park but being an Oromo people should be living in the neighbouring state of Oromiya and not the The State of Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples where Nechisar NP is.
Understandably the Guji were reluctant to leave so the authorities in 2004 evicted a large number of them in an extremely heavy handed fashion, burning down people’s houses to force them out. This attracted the attention of various international human rights organisations and they inevitably started blaming APN. Although APN claimed that the evictions were entirely the responsibility of the Ethiopian authorities and nothing to do with them they soon realised that the growing row over the treatment of the Guji was doing serious damage to their reputation and could jeopardise their work elsewhere in Africa. As a result APN decided to pull out of Nechisar and later after experiencing similar problems in Omo & Mago out of Ethiopia all together at least that is my understanding of what happened you can read more about this here
Indigenous peoples versus the ‘business model’ why African Parks Network is pulling out of Ethiopia
The anger and resentment felt by the Guji over their treatment may in part explain why the parks lions have disappeared and possibly also why the Swayne’s hartebeest population has declined so much.
Without the involvement of APN it is now very unlikely that Nechisar will be restored at least in the foreseeable future and the park will probably remain an off the beaten track destination visited by just a handful of birders, overlanders and other adventurous tourists.
White Pelicans Lake Chamo
Fisherman with Pelicans Lake Chamo
Fisherman with Pelicans Lake Chamo
You wouldn't think that these local boats were the safest design for use on a lake stuffed with huge crocodiles but I guess there are so many Nile perch and other fish that the crocs have no need to attack the local fishermen. Whatever the case I was very glad to be in a "proper boat"
There are a couple of campsites inside the park (or certainly were at the time of my visit) otherwise you have to stay in Arba Minch.
As stated earlier for my visit I stayed at the Bekele Molla Hotel this is one of a whole chain of Bekele Molla hotels around Southern Ethiopia all the ones we stayed in were of equally poor standard, I recorded at the time that this one was a bit of a dump, mind you the standard of other hotels in Ethiopia wasn’t much better and to be fair the food especially the local fish was actually pretty good. From what I can gather mostly from Tripadvisor the hotel really hasn’t improved much, and the various new tourist hotels that have been built since my trip don’t appear to be that much better either, though I may be wrong.
White Pelicans Lake Chamo
Sunset Lake Chamo
Posted 27 January 2012 - 08:18 AM
Thanks for a wonderfully informative -albeit rather sad in parts -post.
Posted 10 September 2015 - 07:25 AM
Thank you very much for your detailed and informative posting.