National Geographic Project: What Lives in Ethiopian Church Forest Walls? A Herpetofaunal Survey
Assessing the church forests of Ethiopia as critical reservoirs of herpetofaunal diversity
Human land-use change is the most pervasive threat to biodiversity generally, but it’s possible for altered landscapes to both maintain biodiversity and support human welfare. In the northern highlands of Ethiopia, the vast majority of natural land cover has been converted for agricultural production. The only remnant natural ecosystems left in this region consist of small Afromontane dry forest fragments surrounding local churches. These church forests provide a unique opportunity to study how species are able to survive in forest islands over the long-term, as these fragments have been maintained for hundreds of years. We aim to survey the abundance and diversity of herpetofauna (specifically frogs and lizards) in church forest fragments across the South Gondar region. The long-term history of these fragments will provide key insights into how patch and landscape characteristics facilitate the long-term persistence, colonization, or extinction of amphibian and reptile species. Furthermore, the unique cultural element of the church forests provides an opportunity to build scientific capacity in a region with low development but high levels of biodiversity and endemism by engaging youth in Sunday School programs in identifying and monitoring herpetofauna. By highlighting the diversity of frogs and lizards in church forests to villagers by creating visual guides we hope to generate interest, and therefore value, in the biodiversity of these critical habitat elements. Results of our surveys and programs can be used to guide direct conservation management in the region, study key aspects of long-term fragmentation effects on herpetofaunal biodiversity, and encourage local participation in scientific efforts.
At Wonchet church forest, the local priests and disciples all are excited to find herps in the stones!