Biodiversity of Ethiopia

Biological resources are fundamental to human well being: in agriculture, livestock, logging, export earning, economic output and for their ecological services and functions. Ethiopia, because of its geographical position, range of altitude, rainfall pattern and soil variability has an immense ecological diversity and a huge wealth of biological resources. This complex topography coupled with environmental heterogeneity offers suitable environments for a wide range of life-forms.

As a result, Ethiopia is known as one of twelve Vavilov centres of primary plant domestication in the world. Furthermore, due to its geographical position and socio-economic diversity, numerous crop plants that are known to have originated elsewhere have developed an enormous secondary diversification in the Ethiopian region.

The flora of Ethiopia is very heterogeneous and has endemic elements. The Semien and Bale Mountains have been identified as areas of plant endemism of continental importance. Their flora is diverse and the afromontane representative show affinities to South African, Eurasian and Himalayan elements. The Southwestern broad-leaved evergreen forests show affinities to the Congolian forests of western Africa.

Vegetation types in Ethiopia are highly diverse ranging from afro-alpine to desert vegetation. It has a large number of plant species and a recent work indicated that the number of higher plants was over 7000 species from which ca. 12 % are probably endemic.

Likewise, Ethiopia is also unquestionably a critical region for faunistic diversity. With the limited studies that have been undertaken in the country, numerous categories of terrestrial and aquatic resources such as mammals (277 spp.), birds (861 spp.), reptiles (78 spp.), amphibians (54 spp.) and fishes (101 spp.) out of which 22, 27, 3, 17, and 4, endemic species are recorded respectively. Domestic animal species that are known to have originated elsewhere have also developed secondary diversification in Ethiopia. Although there is no substantial studies on microbial resources, preliminary assessments demonstrate the existence of various types and species of microbes in the country. This diversity of biological resources is a clear demonstration of ecosystem diversity and biological wealth existing in the country.

The diversity of organisms in an ecosystem provides essential foods, medicines, and industrial materials. As many as 40 percent of modern pharmaceutical medicines in the developed world are derived from plants or animals. In Ethiopia, no less than 80 percent of the rural community and a significant proportion of the urban dwellers depend on herbal medicines for their primary health care delivery system. In addition to foods, medicine, fuel wood, and construction materials, biological resource especially forests provide wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities, prevent soil erosion and flooding, help provide clean air and water. Biological resources are also important biotic checks to pests and diseases and serve as defense line against global climate change.

Ethiopia: Center of origin and/or diversity

Ethiopia is considered as one of the richest genetic resources centres in the world in terms of crop diversity ever since the expedition and plant collector N.I Vavilov in the 1920s. This is principally attributed to socio-economic, cultural diversity and complex topography. Crop plants such as coffee, Coffea abyssinica, Safflower, Carthamus tinctorius, ‘tef,’ Eragrostis tef, ‘noog’, Guizotia abyssinica, ‘anchote’, Coccinia abyssinica, etc. are known to have originated in Ethiopia. Local cultivars/farmers’ varieties of several major crops viz. wheat, barley, sorghum, and field pea, faba bean, relatives of some of the world’s important crops with enormous genetic diversity are abundant in the Ethiopian region.

Threats to biological resources

Unfortunately, human activities have greatly reduced biodiversity around the world. The greatest threat to teff biodiversity is loss of habitat as humans develop land for agriculture, grazing livestock, and unsustainable use such as draining wetlands and clear-cutting forests for agricultural land and polluting the air, soil, and water through unwise use of chemical compounds such as herbicide, insecticides, etc. As human populations increase and their encroachment on natural habitats expands, humans are having detrimental effects on the very ecosystems on which they depend. In the Ethiopian context, the most drastic damage has occurred in the natural high forests and their biological resources that have once covered more than 42 million ha (35% of total land area) of the land in the country.