Mountain Nyala Conservation

The mountain nyala (Tragelaphus buxtoni) is a large spiral-horned antelope endemic to Ethiopia’s highlands, and has been a priority species for The Murulle Foundation for well over a decade. First identified by the scientific community in 1908, very little is known about the life histroy, range and population of the species. Mountain nyala are generally found at elevations between 5,900 and 13,000 ft, but have been occasionally observed at elevations as low as 5,000 ft. The antelope usually occupies dense highland forests which they use for concealment, thermal regulation and the availability of seasonal forage. Particularly, mountain nyala prefer the upper and lower Afro-montane zones, which are dominated by Hagenia abyssincia, Hypericum revolutum, Juniperus procera, and Sinarundinaria alpine forests. Historic records suggest that the sub-alpine zone, dominated by giant heath, was at one time prime mountain nyala habitat; however, much of the heathlands that formed an elevation belt above tree-line have been burned or cut for livestock grazing and agriculture.

Habitat loss and land degradation are the most significant threats to mountain nyala, as is the case with the vast majority of Ethiopia’s wildlife. It is estimated that Ethiopia’s forests once covered 65% of the country and 90% of the highlands. Today, Ethiopia’s forests cover only 2.2% of the country and 5.6% of the highlands. As forest habitats are reduced by the growing human population and need for natural resources (e.g., agriculture, livestock grazing, fuel-wood), mountain nyala populations are becoming fragmented and increasingly confined to small areas. Although it is evident that habitat loss is reducing the known range of mountain nyala, the full distribution of the species has only recently been determined. As recent as 2004, the total population was believed to be less than 1,500 animals with two-thirds of the total confined to a small area around the town of Dinsho and headquarters of Bale Mountains National park.

The Murulle Foundation first started supporting mountain nyala research and conservation in the Galama Mountains (part of the larger Arussi Mountains) in 2001; the same mountain range where Major Ivor Buxton collected the very first specimens almost a century earlier. An intensive survey of mountain nyala, the condition of available habitat, and intensity of land-use practices found that local poaching and illegal burning of woody vegetation had all but depleted the Galama populations. The results of the survey were disappointing and the extinction of the species seemed inevitable. That same year, however, two new mountain nyala populations were documented for the first time along the eastern ridges of the Bale Mountains. The new populations were found in two remote areas called Odu Bulu and Demaro where surveys indicated that more than 1,000 animals inhabited the intact forests. Research supported by The Murulle Foundation and wildlife managers from the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority (EWCA) have been monitoring the populations ever since. In 2003, EWCA requested our research team to document all known mountain nyala populations including several areas where the species was thought to be extinct. The team not only found that mountain nyala persisted in all previously known areas in the Chercher, Arussi and Bale Mountains, but also found evidence that new populations never documented may still exist. Using satellite imagery and new geospatial technologies, large areas in the Harenna Forest and below the southern escarpment of Bale Mountains National Park were identified as prime habitat. In 2004, two expeditions by The Murulle Foundation and Ethiopian Rift Valley Safaris, and later by EWCA, confirmed that a significant population of mountain nyala inhabited these areas. Total population estimates were revised to 4,000 animals, and have since been supported by several independent surveys.

The Murulle Foundation continues to support mountain nyala research, particularly the species’ habitat requirements and response to land degradation. In recent years, we have expanded our research to examine the effectiveness of different conservation and management strategies. Surprisingly, we are finding that natural areas that receive the highest level of protection are failing to meet objectives in protecting mountain nyala critical habitat. The Bale Mountains National Park, for example, was established in 1970* at the recommendation of Leslie Brown to protect both the mountain nyala and the Ethiopian wolf, both endangered and endemic to Ethiopia. The mountain nyala’s range covers about 50% of park, although population densities are low in most areas. In the last decade, human and livestock encroachment into the park has increased dramatically. This is largely due to the government’s inability or unwillingness to prevent people from settling in the park. As a result, large-scale deforestation and land degradation in and around Bale Mountains National Park is occurring at an alarming rate. Preliminary results from a study tracking deforestation over time show that Bale Mountains National Park has lost 7.2% of its forests between 1995 and 2010. In comparison, a Controlled Hunting Area and private forest plantation have seen a gain in forest cover of 11.1% and 1.3%, respectively. Although the three areas prioritize conservation of forest habitats, there are obvious discrepancies in their effectiveness. Identifying the mechanisms that drive successful or unsuccessful conservation strategies and using this information to guide management will ultimately determine the survival of mountain nyala and many other wildlife species that share these unique mountain habitats.

To learn more about the mountain nyala research and conservation program supported by The Murulle Foundation and its members, we encourage you to read the following technical reports and peer-reviewed scientific papers listed below. Copyrights by the publishing journals prohibit distribution of some papers through this website; however, copies may be acquired directly from the authors upon request through The Murulle Foundation.

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Updated: June 14, 2013 © 2011 All Rights Reserved
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