Living on the edge

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The walia ibex (Capra walie), a large goat-like creature, has been on the brink of extinction on several occasions, starting in the late 1930s. Their population slowly began increasing but poor conservation strategies resulted in numbers plummeting again in 1996, prompting the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to list the walia ibex as Critically Endangered.

Today it is listed as Endangered and these outstanding climbers only occur in the mountainous regions of the Simien Mountains National Park in Ethiopia. Based on population projection models, Dessalegn Ejigu, a PhD associate professor at Bahir Dar University in Ethiopia, believes there might be about 975 walia ibex individuals occurring in the park.

While collecting data on walia ibex ecology, Ejigu discovered that the growing human population and increasing human activity in the northern and central parts of the park have caused the ibex to shift their natural distribution to the south-western area.

 

Sketch: Graham Kearney

“Habitat destruction by livestock and increased human activity threaten the walia ibex population,” says Ejigu. There are over 30 000 people living on the periphery of the Simien Mountains National Park boundary. In order to protect the remaining walia ibex, park management is working with communities in the Adarkay, Debark and Janamora districts by hiring scouts to protect the species from extinction. “Community-based conservation is an important strategy for sustainable conservation of walia ibex,” he says.

Surprisingly little is known about this iconic and rare species. The ibex is a generalist feeder, eating 28 types of grasses, forbs and shrubs. Its natural predators are the hyena and leopard, and in order to avoid them, lactating mothers keep their kids on some of the most inhospitable cliff faces. They are typically found in groups of 12 individuals.

The closest relative to the walia ibex is the Nubian ibex found in the deserts of North Africa and the Middle East. “Simien Mountains National Park is the southernmost distribution point of ibexes in the world,” Ejigu explains, “and the only place in the world where the walia ibex occurs.”

The park is situated in northern Ethiopia, and is made up of Afro-alpine woods, heath forest, high mountain vegetation, montane savanna and montane moorland. Simien Mountains National Park is
a registered UNESCO world heritage site.

Ethiopia is home to more than 31 species of endemic mammals including walia ibex. High levels of endemism in Ethiopia can be attributed to large portions of the country being mountainous. Mountains create physical barriers to evolution, and altitudinal variations provide diversified habitats to support different species of plants and animals.

Written by Georgina Lockwood  

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