The Simien Mountains National Park
The Simien Mountains National Park is located in the northern edge of the central plateau of Ethiopia overlooking the Tekeze Gorge. It is a part of Simien mountains massif in Northern Ethiopia, which lies at elevations between about 2000m and 4543 m of above sea label, taking in Ras Dejen, the highest peak of the Horn of Africa. The park is found in the northern parts of the North Gondar Zone of the Amhara National Regional State.
The geographic location extends from 1309’57” to 13019’58” North latitude and from 37054’48” to 38024’43” East longitude. With its present total area of about 13,178 hectare, the park lies in three woredas of the zone, namely, Debark, Adiarkay and Janamora. The Simien Mountains National Park is one of the smallest national parks in Ethiopia with a core area of around 140km2.
The Simien Mountains National Park is 130 km from Gondar, the capital of North Gondar zone of ANRS and about 882km from Addis Ababa. It covers both the highlands and the lowlands. The steep escarpments separating these two significant landscapes were formed by volcanic activities and subsequent erosion over millions of years. They give the mountain scenery spectacular appearance.
Geology of the Simien Mountains
The Simien Mountains consist of many summits of above 4000m, with the highest pick at Ras Dejen (4,543m), which is the highest point in Ethiopia and the fourth highest mountain in Africa.
Ercand pointed out that the dramatic landscape of the Simien Mountains is mainly the result of volcanic activity, which is 'Hawaiian- type' without pouring Lava, during the Oligocene period of Pre-Cambrian Era (approximately 40-25 million years ago). This Volcano is believed to have spread over large areas of more than 15,800 km2. The center of this Volcano must have lain in the present area of Kidus Yared Mountain, while Ras Dejen, Silki and Bwahit were part of the outer core. The very high relief energy is characteristic of the whole area and Hurni and Ercand pointed out that the geomorphic landforms of the area could be categorized in to four landscape units. These are:
- The deeply incise lowland valley, which is below 2000m because of water erosion and/or the formation of frost or ice on a surface;
- The lowland terraces, roughly at 2000m, which consists of the essential cultivation and settlement areas;
- The extreme steep escarpment between 2000-4000m, extending in a south-west to north eastern direction, which forms the man and the wildlife habitats;
- The highland plains with river valleys, south of the escarpment which is ranging from 3200m-3700m, representing a densely settled and cultivated area, intensively used for cultivation and livestock grazing.
Climate in the Simien Mountains
The Simien Mountains are characterized by one season rainy with high amounts between June and September. In Simien Mountains the daily temperature varies between 18c annual mean at 2600m to about 20c on the highest peak, Ras Dejen, at 4,543m. Rainfall also varies between less than 1,000 mm in the lowlands and more than 1,500mm in the highlands. In Gich Camp (3600m), the mean annual temperature and annual rainfall are 7.70c and 1,515mm respectively. There are often dry winds during the day. Frost may occur at night. Hail and snow that fails on the highest points of above 3800m (including the summit of Ras Dejen) results in ice, which may remain for several days.
Wildlife in the Simien Mountains
The Simien Mountains National Park has international significance because of its biodiversity, highest number of endemic species and outstanding biophysical features (Hurni, 2000:191). There are major wildlife species which are either unique to the region or to particular ecosystem within the region, as well as these species playing major or vital ecological function (Ercond, 2006:22). In the Simien Mountains National Park the Gelada Baboon (Theropitcus Gelada], which is also known as 'The Bleeding heart Baboon', Walya Ibex (CapraIbex Walie), Ethiopian Wolf (Canis Simiensis) formerly known as the Simien Fox, klipspringer (Creatragus Oreotragus) are found. Some of them are endemic to the national park [like Walya Ibex and Simien Fox] where as the others are endemic to Ethiopia. Walya ibex has now become a national symbol and endemic to the Simien Mountains National Park. It is one of the most highly endangered mammal species in the world and is threatened by extinction due to low members and very restricted area of remaining habitat.
Vegetation in the Simien Mountains
The Simien Mountains are generally rich in plant diversity. So far, over 20 plant species are recorded to be endemic, of which three of them are only endemic to Simien Mountains. These include Festuca Gilbertina (Which is only found in Gich plateau), Rosularia Simiensis and Dianthus Longiglumi.
Preserving of the national park in the Simien Mountains has direct value for regional biodiversity with high potential for natural recovery of vegetation and wildlife.
According to Ercand (2006:16), the vegetation of the Simien Mountains have correlation with altitudinal ranges. Hence, there are three belts. These are discussed as follows:
- Afro-alpine steppe Belt
- It occurs within an altitudinal range of 3700m and above. In this belt dominant species such as Giant Lobelia (Lobelia Thrynochopetlum), Danthonia, Festula, Pentaschistics, Agrostics and Poa Simiensis are found. There is also a colorful patching with the red and yellow flowers of the so-called 'Red hot poker' (kniphofia foliosa and kniphofia comosa), and Silvery Strawflowers called 'Everlastings' (Helichriysum species), which complete the picture of this high alpine zone.
- Sub-alpine highland Belt (Ericaceous belt)
- This belt does not correspond to the altitudinal range of similar forest on the mountains of tropical East Africa though it covers on altitudinal range of 3000m-3800m. This belt lies on the escarpment areas, but scattered Erica forests are found on the high plateau areas. This vegetation includes Ericarborea, Ericatrimera (mainly in the cliffs), Hypericum revolutium and scattered lobelia spcies. Another remarkable plant native to the Simien mountans are species of Rosa genus (the Abyssinian wild Rose commonly called Rosa Abyssinica) and Giante sphere Thistle (Echinops giganleum). Festuca macrophylla and Festula abyssinica are the characteristic grasses in the mountains. There are also mosses (Grimmiaceae) and lichen usnea species.
- Afro Montane forest Belt
- This forest belt covers an altitudinal range of 200m-3000m. It extends from the less steep parts of the escarpments to lowland plateau at the northern end and the western side (the newly include Limalimo Wildlife Reserve). Here, the biodiversity is much higher than on the highland plateau, and one can easily find more than 20 species of trees. The most common trees are Juniperous procera, Hagenia Abyssinica, Olean Choysophylla, Cordia Africana, Ficus Species and Szgium Guineense. The other smaller trees and plants include: Solanum species, Rosa Abyssinica, Primula Verticillata, and species of Alchemilla, Thymus and Urtica.
History of the Simien Mountains National Park
The original inhabitants of the highlands of the Simien Mountains are Ethiopian Jews known as 'Felasha'. After the decline of the Jewish Kingdom in the 14th Century, many of the Ethiopia Jews were converted to the Orthodox Christian Faith. Areas to south of the Debark, Ambaras-Chenneck foot path were given 'Rist' land to the Christian while those located further north were given to the Muslims. Until the 1990s, there were some Felasha settlers in the Simien area. Most of them immigrated to Isreal between 1988 and 1991. The last residents left in 1998.
The world heritage committee inscribed the Simien Mountains National Park in the world Heritage List, thus ensuring the park an international status. The same writer pointed out that the main reasons for establishing a national park in Simien were the following:
- Simien is the only place, where the endemic animals (like Walya Ibex, Simien Fox etc) are found;
- Many other endemic and/or highly endangered species can be found in Simien due to its topographic and biological diversity;
- Due to its topographic ruggedness, comparatively large forest stands, some in a more or less virgin state, still exist;
- With its unique topography, abundance of fauna and flora, and its traditional peasant farming system, the area has a high potential for tourism.
Although the idea of conserving and protecting the park is long years ago, the formal management of the Simien Mountains National Park is started much more recently with the establishment of the first national institution: Department of Forestry, Game and Fishery within the then Ministry of Agriculture, in 1944.
Some Ethiopian National Parks become very popular because they are near to historical sights making it easy to visit a park on route to historical sights. For example, a Sofamor cave is found near to Bale Mountain National Park, which helps this park to be visited easily. The Simien Mountains National Park also found on route to the ancient historical cities of and cultural centers of Axum, Lalibela and Gonder.
Prior to 1960s, the Simien Mountains National Park has been used as 'controlled' hunting area. It was often regarded as a Royal Hunting Ground (Hurni, 2000:19). Later, with increasing land use pressures and hunting activities in the country, the need to conserve the resources through establishment of wildlife conservation areas became apparent.
Until 1977, Expatriate Wardens who have been supported by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the American Peace Corps (Ercand, 2006) have led the management of the park. In July 1977 Ethiopia ratified the world Heritage Conservation and in 1978, based on a proposal by the Ethiopian government, the world Heritage Committee of UNESCO placed the Simien Mountains National Park on its list of World Heritage Sites together with other five Ethiopian sites such as Harar Jegol,Axum Obelisk, Lalibela RockHewn church, Sofamore Cave and the Castle of Fasil.
Other places, such as the ruins of Axum or the church of lalibela, are listed due to their cultural value, whereas the Simien Mountains National Park is listed solely on the merit of its natural richness and outstanding beauty. Based on the request from the regional government, in 1994, United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) began planning a road from Debark to Janamora woreda through the park area. Later, UNCDF withdrew from the Road Project in 1996 because it concerns for environment, particularly for the park security. Despite this, however, the road was constructed by the government of ANRS [Ercand, 2006). The ADA reports of 1997 indicated that the Simien Mountains Nature Oriented Tourism Development Project (SMNOTDP) was initiated through the technical and financial assistance of the Austrian government with major objectives to enhance elaboration of management plan for the park and to implement the annual operation plans.