In Ethiopia’s Addis Ababa, Gullele Botanical Garden captivates city dwellers

  • Gullele Botanic Garden (GBG) is the first of its kind located in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
  • Officially inaugurated and opened to the public in January 2019, it has become increasingly popular among the city’s residents and educators.
  • On a smaller scale, similar initiatives such as Shashemene Botanical Garden are being undertaken elsewhere in the country.

ADDIS ABABA — Five miles northwest of Addis Ababa’s thriving city center is the lush Gullele Botanic Garden (GBG), the first well-established site of its kind in Ethiopia that covers both forest and semi-forest vegetation.

Of the more than 2,500 botanical gardens that exist in the world, only an estimated 4 percent are in Africa, many of which can be traced back to colonial times in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Unpublished GBG records show that efforts to establish a botanical garden in Ethiopia date as far back as four decades. However, Gullele was only officially inaugurated in January 2019, 14 years after it was realized as a joint venture between Addis Ababa University and the city administration, which provided full funding for the 705-hectare (1,740-acre) park.

Berhanu Belay, the garden’s director of botanical research and development, says awareness has improved significantly since then and that it’s even been referred to as the “green lung” of Ethiopia’s capital.

Conservation of plant species

A green house at the Gullele Botanical Garden in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Photo courtesy Gullele Botanical Garden.

Over the past year, the botanical garden received recognition from Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI), a U.K. charity membership organization, for its focus and best practices on plant conservation. According to BGCI, more than 9,600 trees worldwide are in danger of extinction and more than 1,900 are critically endangered.

Belay says his main priority this year is to introduce and cultivate critically endangered indigenous and endemic plant species, such as Euphorbia burgeri, known locally as qulqual, and Erythrina burana, or welina.

With the increase in Ethiopia’s population and scarcity of agricultural land, forest degradation and the consequent loss of biodiversity have become key problems for the country. Studies show that 13 percent of the total woody plant flora in Ethiopia and neighboring Eritrea are endangered.

Eradicating eucalyptus trees

The Gullele Botanic Garden in 2017. Photo by Maheder Haileselassie Tadese.
The Gullele Botanic Garden in 2017. Photo by Maheder Haileselassie Tadese.

Eucalyptus trees were first introduced into the country in 1895, during the reign of Emperor Menelik II, who recognized the scarcity of and high demand for fuelwood among the population.

More than a century later, the once-exotic tree has become increasingly popular among farmers and abounds in many parts of the country. Studies show that its fast growth rate, short rotation nature and multi-faceted value have made it an ideal tree, especially in rural and semi-urban parts of the country that mainly grow it to generate income.

However, many experts say it’s not suitable for the environment, since it requires more moisture than indigenous vegetation, releases toxic chemicals into the soil, and threatens local species.

The botanical garden took the task of removing Eucalyptus globulus trees seriously. When established in 2005, 90 percent of the garden was predominantly covered in the species known as southern bluegum. Today, an estimated 420 hectares (1,040 acres), or 65 percent of the coverage, has been successfully removed.

Since September 2018 alone, the garden has employed hundreds of local people to successfully clear more than 40 hectares (100 acres) of land and replace it with indigenous plants.

Raising awareness among youth

In Ethiopia’s Addis Ababa, Gullele Botanical Garden captivates city dwellers
Students of Bole Gerji Primary and Secondary school in Addis Ababa planting trees that they received from the botanical garden as part of its ‘Model Gardening’ Project. Image courtesy Gullele Botanical Garden.

Gebreselassie Mebrhatu is a facilitator for an environmental protection club at the Bole Gerji primary school in Addis Ababa. Every year before the rainy season starts, he and the 78 other members of the club set out to dig the ground and plant trees around their school. The school is part of GBG’s model gardening project, which supports students to plant indigenous trees like Acacia abyssinica, known locally as girar.

According to Eshetu Worku, an environmental education officer at the botanical garden, the model gardening project was launched a couple of years ago at 10 primary and secondary schools in Addis Ababa, where students get a hands-on education in horticulture by taking plants from the botanical garden to their schools.

“We want to enable people to have an understanding and care for their environment because they unnecessarily cut plants or remove forests out of the lack of knowledge. So we create awareness in order to avoid the consequences that come out of cutting trees,” Worku says.

In recent years, GBG has made a serious effort to promote the garden through various media outlets and stakeholders. Consequently, more than 10,000 people visited the botanical garden in the first half of 2019 alone.

The majority of these are students from primary and secondary schools in the capital city and higher education institutions all over the country, benefiting from the provision of ecological science education support from the garden.

Relevance for the community

Employees are seen at the nursing site in Gullele Botanical Garden in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Photo courtesy Gullele Botanical Garden.
Employees are seen at the nursing site in Gullele Botanical Garden in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Photo courtesy Gullele Botanical Garden.

Martha Tadesse, 28, started an all-women’s hiking group, Berchi (“be strong” in Amharic), in June 2017 through social media. Since its establishment, the group has hiked together in the botanical garden several times.

“Living in a city like Addis [Ababa] where there are few or no green areas, [the] botanical garden is a gift to residents around it,” said Tadesse, who said she has hiked there more than 10 times in the past three years.

But Tadesse isn’t the only one who enjoys spending time in the garden. Yoga teacher and writer Heran Tadesse (no relation) has been giving yoga classes in the botanical garden for the past six months.

“Every time I visit the Gullele Botanic Garden, there are wedding pictures being taken and communities gather to celebrate the special events,” she says. “Like the other day, I witnessed an Islamic wedding, Protestant wedding as well as a traditional Oromo wedding. Culturally enriching and refreshing!”

Records at the botanical garden show that since its establishment in 2005, more than 50,000 people have visited for leisure, education and research.

Other initiatives for new botanical gardens

A view of Shashemene Botanical Garden in February 2018. Photo by Maheder Haileselassie Tadese.
A view of Shashemene Botanical Garden in February 2018. Photo by Maheder Haileselassie Tadese.

While not on the same scale as Gullele Botanic Garden, botanical gardens have sprung up in the towns of Shashemene and Jimma, under the auspices of the Ethiopian Biodiversity Institute.

The 17-hectare (42-acre) Shashemene botanical garden, situated 249 kilometers (155 miles) south of Addis Ababa, was established in 2005. But it wasn’t until 2013 that it fully commenced the activities of conservation, ecotourism and plant nursery. It’s home to the Lephis Forest field gene bank, where rare indigenous trees like Albizia gummifera and Prunus africana are planted and protected.

The institute grows more than 200 indigenous and 12 endemic plant species at the nursery site that produces more than 100,000 seedlings every year to be distributed to the community and restore degraded land in the region.

But the small yearly budget of $60,000, an estimated 50 percent of which goes toward administration fees, and a quarry site just outside the perimeter are among the challenges hindering it from possible future expansions and meeting expected standards for a botanical garden. The town of Shashemene is also struggling with a shortage of drinking water and loss of water bodies, which has affected how the garden cultivates plants in its vicinity.

Banner image: Students of Bole Gerji Primary and Secondary school in Addis Ababa planting trees that they received from the botanical garden as part of its ‘Model Gardening’ Project. Image courtesy Gullele Botanical Garden.

Maheder Haileselassie Tadese is an award-winning freelance photographer and journalist based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. More of her work can be found here

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