Tucked away in the southwest corner of Ethiopia, the Gambella People’s National Regional State (GPNRS) is hidden from much of the world. Located on the strategic Baro River, Gambella is a historic meeting place of cultures. It boasts of the physical remnants of Italian, British, and various African occupations.

The richness and diversity of humanity found in Gambella is rivalled only by its natural landscape. Gambella is home to a stunning mosaic of ecosystems, including pristine areas of highland forests to the east and the expansive Duma wetland to the west. These ecosystems host some of the world’s rarest species, including the Nile lechwe antelope and the endangered Shoebill stork. It also boasts of the second largest terrestrial mammal migration in Africa, particularly that of the White-eared kob antelope. Every year, close to a million of these majestic creatures trek across the South Sudanese border into Boma National Park, only to return to Gambella when the weather is right. Gambella’s waterways lay claim to the highest diversity of fish in Ethiopia, and experts have described the bird life as “astounding.” Gambella is truly a hidden treasure.

Gambella has been hidden not only from tourists and ecologists, but from the international economy. Indeed, this splendid landscape and obvious national asset has so far remained one of the least developed regions in Ethiopia. For the past one hundred years, ecological tourism has boomed in neighboring Kenya and Tanzania, but Gambella, with just as much, if not more impressive displays of natural beauty, has remained isolated.

Gambella offers a powerful opportunity to capitalize on its natural collateral with commercial farming, fisheries, protected areas, ecotourism, and community conservation zones. Under the Ecosystem Management and Conservation Partnership program at the Horn of Africa Regional Environment Center and Network (HoA-REC&N), and in partnership with the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority (EWCA) and African Parks Network (APN), a project is underway to contribute towards the sustainable development and management of the Gambella Region.


Despite some areas of agricultural development, the Gambella Region is relatively untouched. This lack of development has maintained the Region’s environmental integrity. By virtue of its fertile soils, substantial water resources, and sparse population, Gambella has been targeted as one of the focal regions for agricultural expansion. It is estimated that the Gambella Regional Government and the Federal Ministry of Agriculture will make up to 1.2 million hectares (ha) of land in the region available for agriculture. Indeed over 100,000 ha are already under lease by foreign investors.

Ecotourism is an industry that has brought significant economic development and political empowerment of local communities in a growing number of African countries. But although Ethiopia is endowed with some of the world’s most marketable natural, cultural, and historical sites, it has so far lagged behind its neighbors – notably Kenya – in terms of ecotourism revenue. Gambella’s majestic scenery and bountiful wildlife could present a profitable economic opportunity for Ethiopia in the form of sustainable tourism enterprises.

Apart from commercial agriculture and ecotourism, the Gambella Region also has the potential to support numerous other land uses including fisheries and other forms of agriculture, Shea butter production, game ranching, and community conservation areas, as well as benefit from climate financing schemes e.g. generating saleable carbon credits from REDD+ activities. In so doing, Gambella can help build social equity, improve food security, and contribute towards bringing about Ethiopia’s desired economic growth and transformation. At the heart of development should be the commitment to protect Gambella’s natural environment in order to ensure a sustainable flow of ecosystem goods and services for present and future generations.

The challenge is finding a way to develop Gambella in a holistic, integrated, and sustainable manner. HoA-REC&N aims to provide baseline information and recommendations to help inform future land use and development plans, serving as a script for land allocation and management, and to build further institutional capacity to support ongoing decision-making. Furthermore, with particular regard to biodiversity conservation, the project plans to establish a network of Protected Areas (PA) around the National Park to preserve wildlife and to facilitate trans-boundary natural resource management between the Gambella Region and the Boma (-Jonglei) landscape in South Sudan.

Environmental, social, and economic data collection is already underway. These efforts include ecological profiling, analysis into ecosystem connectivity within the region, social and economic assessments, feasibility studies into potential commercial land uses and research into climate change impacts and conflicts over resources. Findings will be used to underpin recommendations for decision makers with regards to the design of a multi-stakeholder land use plan, guide decisions concerning agricultural investments, and formulate a methodology to improve environmental governance and sustainably diversify livelihoods.


  • To guide agricultural investments and development in the selected landscapes through holistic, participatory and integrated land use planning;
  • To Improve environmental governance in selected landscapes;
  • To sustainably diversify and enhance the livelihood base in selected landscapes;
  • To maintain or restore the resilience and functions of key ecosystems within selected landscapes.

Activities & Achievements

  • October 2012 – Established a permanent HoA-REC&N Branch Office in Gambella Town.
  • April 2013 –HoA-REC&N and EWCA started a three-year collaring operation to track, via GPS, the movements of 43 White-eared-kob (18 animals collared by EWCA, 25 animals collared by HoA-REC&N), 4 Nile lechwe (all collared by HoA-REC&N), and four elephants (all collared by HoA-REC&N). Location data is received four times a day for the elephants and six times a day for the other animals. This activity will provide valuable information about these species movement patterns and which areas are key resource areas, and inform the land use plan and location of PA’s. As migration routes cross the border, it will also highlight the importance of collaboration between South Sudan and Ethiopia.
  • March – June 2013 – Landscape and ecosystem assessments and studies started, including an aerial census (sample and total counts) of key wildlife species to monitor population trends and map distribution patterns, and aerial surveys to map the vegetation and current land use.
  • June 2013 – Several Interviews with local communities and other local stakeholders carried out.
  • Ongoing – Aerial reconnaissance and surveillance trips undertaken to identify and map key areas of interest and to understand and monitor animal and human activities.
  • Ongoing – PR aerial tours for officials, donors, and delegates to help create awareness about the need for land use planning as well as garner support for biodiversity management.

Future Plans

  • Put forward a proposal for a well-defined and well-managed Gambella National Park and for the delineation of other areas important for conservation (with a focus on the cross border connectivity between Gambella National Park and Boma National Park in South Sudan).
  • Produce an ecosystem-based, integrated and comprehensive land use and development master plan.
  • Establish an integrated spatial information database. This will be essential for both a land use plan and ultimately the establishment of a network of PA’s.
  • Establish a functional supporting infrastructure system for Gambella National Park, including a main road and an off-road network, air strips, headquarter buildings, outposts, bridges, etc.
  • Conduct ground-based surveys, studies, and assessments to refine and complement areas/issues of interest highlighted during the aerial survey phase. This may include on the ground mapping of agricultural investment areas, settlements, canals/dykes, roads, mobile towers, artificial lakes, dams, water holes, etc.
  • Develop and establish conservation monitoring systems. This will include maintaining a system of data collection, supporting research on topics related to conservation monitoring and natural resource management, providing special training on wildlife tracking, ecosystem and natural resource management, as well as developing various research programs and conservation strategies for carnivore species.
  • Monitor and manage key habitats and ecosystems.
  • Implement a wildlife law enforcement system to reduce hunting of the rare Nile lechwe in particular.
  • Set up trans-boundary management systems.
  • Enhance livelihoods and revenues for at least 1,200 adult householders in the local populations by:
    • Increasing tourism revenues derived from the Gambella National Park and ensure fair distribution to surrounding communities;
    • Strengthening existing value chains and identifying promising new ones, e.g., Shea butter production and fisheries;
    • Renewed focus on the promotion of Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFP’s), e.g. honey, tamarind, gum arabic, gum karaya, cardamom, etc.
    • Providing employment opportunities, e.g., through the construction and maintenance of infrastructure and eco-tourism ventures.

History of the Project

  • 2008 – The African Parks Network and HoA-REC in partnership launched a trans-boundary conservation initiative in Gambella.
  • February 2009 – Launched the Omo-Gambella Trans-Frontier Conservation Initiative (TFCI) Task Force, which initially comprised of EWCA, HoA-REC&N, APN, Forum for Environment (FfE), Sustainable Development of the Protected Area System of Ethiopia project (SDPASE – administered by GTZ-IS), Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS), the Gambella Region Culture and Tourism Authority and the Southern Region Culture and Tourism Authority.
  • February 2009 – November 2011 – Coordinated the TFCI Task Force, whose duties involve a variety of activities including supporting EWCA in demarcating the Gambella National Park and developing an interim management plan.
  • November 2009 – Coordinated the wet season aerial wildlife survey, which included mapping human habitation.
  • March 2010 – Coordinated the dry season aerial survey during which 250,000 White-eared kob were counted in Gambella, ascertaining that this landscape shares with South Sudan the second largest wildlife migration in Africa.
  • November 2010 – Delivered a talk to the Royal Geographical Society in London, promoting conservation activities in Gambella.
  • March 2011 – Commissioned the making of a professional documentary and organized a helicopter filming mission as well as a helicopter tour for Ethiopian delegates and foreign ambassadors.
  • October 2011 – Consultative meeting to establish Steering and Technical Committees for Holistic and Integrated Land Use Planning in Gambella
  •  January 2012 – Launched the professional documentary ‘Gambella’s Hidden Treasures’ at the EU delegation in Addis.
  • January 2012 – Field visit to Gambella with APN to develop work plan with the EWCA and the regional Land Utilization, Administration and Environmental Protection Authority.

About Gambella

** Map of Gambella**

‘Gambella Landscape’ refers to the Gambella Regional State. Land Area: 30,065 Km2.

Elevation: 395-23000 masl.

Administration: The Gambella Regional State is one of the 9 regional governments of Ethiopia, and includes three zonal administrations (Anywaa, Nuer&Mejengir), which consist of 12 woredas.

Rainfall: Mono-modal, ranging between 800 – 1,200 mm, approximately 85% of the rain falls between May and October.

Temperature: In the eastern highlands the mean temperature is approximately 17.3 °C and this increases to about 28.3 °C in the lowland plains. The temperature in the region ranges from 10.3 °C in December to 45 °C in mid-March (Ministry of Agriculture, 2010).

Landscape Profile: The eastern part of the landscape consists of high plateaus, mountain peaks and rugged terrain, whilst the western part of the landscape is generally flat. Most of the land lies below 1,000 masl.

Climate and Ecology: Numerous perennial rivers cross the landscape, including the Alwero, Akobo, Baro and Gilo Rivers. The Gambella Landscape comprises approximately 40% of the BaroAkobo Basin. A significant portion of western Gambella is transformed to vast wetlands, which during the dry season contract to remnant pockets of permanent wetlands, the most significant of which is the Duma wetland (approximately 400 – 500 Km2 during the dry season). It supports an exceptional diversity and abundance of wildlife, sustaining a large population of the rare Nile lechwe antelope which is restricted to wetlands, and only has two known sustainable populations (in the Duma and Sudd wetlands), and a large population of Shoebilledstork, an endangered bird species.

In addition to the White-earedkob migration, Gambella also harbors populations of elephant, nubian giraffe, buffalo, Roan antelope, waterbuck, tiang, reedbuck, warthog and numerous smaller mammals. Carnivores are well represented: lions, hyenas, cheetahs, and wild dogs have been documented.

Gambella’s water bodies harbor 111 species of fish, of which 6 are endemic. This is the highest diversity of fish in Ethiopia. On the basis of the significance of the wetland areas in the Gambella Region, and the diversity and abundance of wildlife, the Gambella Region may have the potential to lay claim to RAMSAR and World Heritage Sites.

Settlements: With a population density of approximately 10 people Km2, Gambella is the least densely populated region in Ethiopia, supporting a total estimated population of 306,916. The indigenous population is comprised of Anuak, Nuer, Mezengir, Opo and Komo. Livelihoods include sedentary farming, local businesses, fishing, hunting, pastoralism, beekeeping and small-scale cultivation.


Sanne van Aarst
Ecosystem Conservation and Management Programme Coordinator