January 11, 2006

Uphill struggle to preserve Somalia’s wildlife

By Ed Stoddard

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Osman Amir has a task few would
envy. The soft-spoken biologist is seeking to assess what
wildlife remains in Somalia, an anarchic Horn of Africa nation
that has no functioning government.

"My homeland is rich in biodiversity with 200 bird and
animal species found nowhere else," he told Reuters on the
sidelines of an international conference on lion conservation
in Johannesburg.

"People think Somalia is a desert. But we have 5,000
species of plants," he said.

But much of the country is a wasteland after 15 years of
civil war that has decimated much of its wildlife.

"In 1980, we had 40,000 elephants in Somalia but now they
are almost all gone, killed by poachers for their ivory. We
think there are around 200 in the south but we need to verify
this fact," said Amir.

He said verifying such facts were not easy in a country
where roads, along with almost everything else, lie in ruins.

The database he has constructed so far is based on records
from before 1991, when warlords ousted military dictator
Mohamed Siad Barre carving the country into a patchwork of

It shows the country was home to 1,135 species of mammals,
birds, reptiles and freshwater fish.

The next phase of his project -- to assess what is still
there -- will be much harder.

But representatives of the fledgling administration in
Somalia are keen to see proper wildlife assessments as they
hope one day to promote the country as an ecotourism

"We have a very long coast on the Red Sea and the Indian
Ocean, and the coral reefs are untouched. We see tourism as
very important to development," said Ali Ossoble, a development
advisor in the prime minister's office.

There are precedents on Africa's east coast. Mozambique has
a fast-growing tourist sector with divers drawn to its reefs,
in a pristine state as no divers ventured onto them during a
long civil war that ended in the early 1990s.

But Somalia's coast is prowled by modern-day pirates who
frequently attack or hijack vessels -- a big turn off to all
but the most intrepid tourists.

One tourism option the Somalis are exploring at the
Johannesburg conference is to allow foreign trophy hunters to
bag some of the country's lions -- once the government starts

"We believe there are about 500 to 750 lions left in
Somalia and they can be a source of revenue. It could help to
ease conflict between the lions and the pastoralists if rural
people made money from them," Amir said.