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Impacts of human presence on fragmented northern Ethiopian church forests

Human disturbance is leading to the degradation of small church forests in montane areas

In South Gondar, Ethiopia, sacred church forests represent the last remaining forested areas in the country. These areas are on average ~5ha but number ~1022 and so together represent an opportunity to conserve a large area of forest. The effectiveness of the church’s protection is evidenced by the lack of non-church associated forests in the area and the fact that these forests have not experienced serious declines in recent decades. However, these forests are still subject to human disturbance and associated degradation including logging, path creation and recreation which has led to great erosion of their buffer zones. Other, less obvious forms of disturbance include the introduction of exotic or weedy species and the creation of gardens or plantations. The small and isolated nature of these forests creates strong edge effects, including increased wind and decreased humidity which can permeate up to 300m into the forest. This separation of large tree species can also create reproductive isolation and prevent the forest from regenerating. These all have negative impacts for seedling recruitment and growth, making these last refuges both culturally valuable and highly vulnerable.

This study examined how these different forms of human disturbance affected the integrity of church forests finding that it led to decreased tree species richness, density and biomass and seedling richness and density. The authors studied 44 forests in the region distributed across montane (1800-2050m) and upper montane (2400-2700m) areas. For each site forest area, elevation, distance to population centre and presence of a surrounding wall was recorded. Within the site they used transects to sample evidence of human disturbance and species richness. Initially the authors sought to record natural disturbance along with human however sampling revealed the overwhelming majority was human.

The results showed that over half of the forest area was found to be disturbed by humans with buildings and clearance accounting for the most disturbance and the introduction of weeds and planting being significantly lower. Weedy species such as Acanthus and Justica were found to be common and are problematic for regeneration. Higher overall human disturbance caused decreased species richness, biomass and tree density with smaller areas being more strongly affected. There were also two unexpected findings; firstly, presence of a wall did not significantly contribute to the level of disturbance despite previous work showing a positive effect on seedling survival. For forests smaller than 15.5ha there was also no change in disturbance even when distance from the population centre increased, this was also unexpected given areas with reduced road access are often less impacted by humans.

These small and highly used forests need protection if they are to be used sustainably by local people. The authors suggest measures be put in place to mediate the damage caused by human usage of these forests, namely that large trees should be preserved for use as seed sources and exotic and weedy species removed. The creation of clearings and paths should also be minimised. For local communities which rely heavily on forest areas, degradation of forest resources can impact economic stability and cultural heritage therefore these forests must be conserved in such a way as to promote sustainable usage.

Read the full paper here: Cardelús, C.L., Woods, C.L., Mekonnen, A.B., Dexter, S., Scull, P. and Tsegay, B.A., 2019. Human disturbance impacts the integrity of sacred church forests, Ethiopia. PloS one, 14(3), p.e0212430.

To find over 950 similar papers use the following search on the Forest Science Database: (”churches” OR “sacred” OR ”cultural heritage”) AND (“protection” OR “conservation”)