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The Resilience of Ethiopian Church Forests: Interpreting Aerial Photographs, 1938–2015

Scull, Peter, Cardelús, Catherine L., Klepeis, Peter, Woods, Carrie L., Frankl, Amaury, Nyssen, Jan
Land degradation & development 2017 v.28 no.2 pp. 450-458
aerial photography, edge effects, highlands, indigenous species, inventories, invertebrates, landscapes, montane forests, pastures, shrublands, trees, Ethiopia
Church forests collectively represent the only surviving remnants of the original montane forest, serving as critical sanctuaries for many of Ethiopia's endangered and endemic plant and invertebrate taxa. Modern inventories of church forests suggest that they are vulnerable to degradation because of their small size and isolation. The aim of this study is to use historical air photos from the period of the Italian occupation of Ethiopia (1935–1941) to measure changes to church forests over a ~80‐year time span. We find little evidence that church forests in the study region around Debra Tabor in the northern Ethiopia highlands are declining in size. Rather, church forests have proven to be remarkably resilient on the landscape despite decades of dramatic change to the world around them. Our findings, therefore, highlight the effectiveness of religion‐based forest stewardship. Results also indicate, however, that while many church forests used to be buffered from intensive agricultural activity (e.g., cultivation and pasture) today, they find themselves significantly more isolated and vulnerable to edge effects as a result of a general decrease of trees and bushlands surrounding the forests. Copyright © 2016 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.