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A protective wall surrounds the Mekame Selam Kolala Meskel church’s forest in South Gonder, a region of northern Ethiopian. Photo by Kieran Dodds/Panos Pictures

Ecologist Meg Lowman has been helping to teach priests and communities how to conserve their church forests. Photo by Kieran Dodds/Panos Pictures

Ecologists are working with the nation’s Tewahedo churches to preserve these pockets of lush, wild habitat.

If you see a forest in Ethiopia, you know there is very likely to be a church in the middle, says Alemayehu Wassie. Wassie, a forest ecologist, has spent the past decade on a mission: preserving, documenting and protecting the unique biodiversity in pockets of forest that surround Ethiopia’s orthodox churches.

These small but fertile oases — which number around 35,000 and are dotted across the country — are some of the last remaining scraps of the tall, lush natural forests that once covered Ethiopia, and which, along with their biodiversity, have all but disappeared.

…When Wassie first started surveying the forests in the early 2000s — counting individual species and saplings — priests didn’t understand why he was doing his work, says Wassie. “It appeared to them to have no advantage to the church or the community.”

By the time he had finished his PhD thesis in 2007, at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, he had documented vegetation diversity in 28 church forests in South Gonder.

But he was feeling gloomy about his future — finding funding or local collaboration was proving difficult. Then, that year at a meeting of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation in Morelia, Mexico, he met Meg Lowman, a forest ecologist at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, who was moved by his despair. They became “lifelong conservation soulmates”, she says, and began working together to raise money and to win the trust of the church’s priests.

With modest grants from the National Geographic Society in Washington DC, Wassie and Lowman began a series of workshops to educate priests about their conservation work and its importance. They took slide projectors to villages and showed them Google Earth’s bird’s-eye views of their churches. The dots of green scattered across arid plains gave the priests a perspective shift, says Lowman, as they saw the vastness of the forest loss contrasted with the treasure they had helped to preserve.

“The priests gave us limited permission to enter the forests and take samples,” says Wassie.

The pair have since organized various research activities to catalogue species of birds and insects in the forests, inviting international experts to help in identification.

…Lowman and Wassie offer cash donations to churches that manage to build protection — 15 or so churches have now constructed walls. And some priests have become stewards of their forests and encouraged local people to help build conservation walls. Many now volunteer time to remove stones from fields for construction, which is also good for crop yields…

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