Lake Abbé sits on the Ethiopia-Djibouti border. The dramatic scenery is set by a dormant volcano (Mt. Dama Ali) on the northwest shore, and vast salt flats to the south.  On the Lake, steam vents from limestone chimneys that can reach 50 metres in height, and below them flocks of flamingos feed in the water. Beneath the surface it is just as dramatic. Lake Abbé lies on the Afar Triple Junction , where three pieces of the earth's crust are slowly pulling away from a central meeting point. It is an iconic feature of the Afar Depression. A biodiversity assessment in the Lake Abbé transboundary landscape, conducted in December 2014, confirmed the importance of the Lake for water birds, particularly as a stronghold for the Lesser Flamingo (Phoeniconaias minor) of which there are an estimated 100,000. 

The Afar people rely on the lake's feeding rivers for water. However unplanned extraction and recent droughts have affected the water supply (namely the lower Awash river), resulting in loss of livestock, crops and a drop in the Lake's water level. 

The IUCN Grant also supports work in the Gulf of Tadjoura, a seascape within Djibouti national waters, which is separate from the Lake Abbé landscape.  The Gulf of Tadjoura is threatened by rapid infrastructure development (two new ports) and poorly regulated fishing.

Implementing Partner: 

This site is managed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) with a grant of €2m from the BMP through IGAD. 

Project Purpose:

The conservation and sustainable management of ecosystems in the Lower Awash-Lake Abbe land and seascapes, in order to contribute to lasting ecosystem goods and services.

Project Partners and Associates : 

IUCN partners with the Djibouti Ministry for Housing, Urban Affairs & Environment, the Ethiopian Biodiversity Institute.  CORDIO and Equipe Cousteau are responsible for the marine survey and management plan for the Gulf of Tadjoura.

Expected Results:

The IUCN Grant has four expected results:

1.    To improve the understanding of biodiversity and ecosystem services 

2.    Develop holistic and integrated trans-boundary landscape and seascape management plans 

3.    Develop and support sustainable nature-based and community-managed/co-managed livelihood improvement initiatives 

4.    Strengthen capacity for biodiversity conservation and the management of protected areas and key ecosystems 

Impacts and activities:

Biodiversity surveys around Lake Abbé
The rapid biodiversity assessment of the Lake Abbé transboundary ecosystem took place from the 1st to the 12th of December 2014.  The assessment was carried out by a multi-disciplinary team from Ethiopia and Djibouti, and was lead by Houssein Rayaleh, the IUCN Project Technical Advisor. It also included experts from EBI, EWCA, La Caravane du Développement de Goba’ad and Association Djibouti Nature as well individuals from the local communities. The team spent six days on camel-back to reach the remote parts of the project area, completely inaccessible to vehicles. 

The assessment focused mainly on mammal, bird and plant species using rapid biodiversity assessment census methodologies. Observations of species encountered were systematically recorded on GPS with indications of size and habitat types, and photographs were taken where possible. Using photographs and illustrations from field guides, the team interviewed local people to get more information on other species that may occur in the area. Indirect signs e.g. prints, droppings, calls, active dens, etc., were also used to assess presence or absence of key species.

141 species of birds observed during the assessment, including  more than 100,000 Lesser Flamingos (Phoeniconaias minor). This was an unexpectedly high number, implying that Lake Abbé is one of the most critical feeding grounds for the Lesser Flamingos in the Horn of Africa. The survey team suspects that the remote nature of the area makes it a preferred breeding ground for the flamingos, as well as many other resident and migrant water birds species. 

Approximately 60% of the 42 mammal species expected to occur in the area were recorded during the survey. Further north, the Awash River and its riverside acacia woodland were found to accommodate many other taxa species such as the Nile monitor (Varanus niloticus) and Nile crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus). Based on local knowledge, there are several mammal species that have disappeared from the area, including the Grevy’s zebra, cheetah, bat-eared fox and Beisa oryx. 

49 plant species were recorded during the survey - 26 trees and shrubs, 5 species of woody climbers, 10 herbs and 8 grasses. Observations were mainly on perennial plant species due to the season. Specimens were systematically collected and their locations recorded on GPS with indications of habitat types. Prosopis juliflora invasion was found to be extensive, and probably the worst invasive plant present in the transboundary area. In some places, it has completely covered the landscape with an impenetrable mass of spiny trees and has consequently destroyed the livelihoods of many pastoralists. The invasion is not at present a problem for the vital grazing areas on the lake shore.

Biodiversity surveys around the Gulf of Tadjoura
Biodiversity data collected in the Djibouti seascape during the course 2014, and the results of observation and consultations on the ground, were analysed and used in a marine spatial planning process with the aid of specialised decision support software. The results of this helped to develop preliminary suggestions for the development of a seascape management plan, which was presented to stakeholders at a workshop in Djibouti in October 2015. The workshop resulted in a series of useful recommendations for the institutionalisation of the marine spatial planning process, and outlined the required next steps for the finalisation and implementation of the seascape plan. 

Whale shark in the gulf of tadjoura

Whale shark in the gulf of tadjoura

Marine Surveys in the Gulf of Tadjoura
Equipe Cousteau and CORDIO surveyed the Gulf of Tadjoura with local divers from the 13th to the 26th of September 2014. While the team were impressed by the healthy populations of corals and fish they found that the shark population has been extirpated by fishermen who sell shark fins to the export market.

Community conservation
The Lake's remoteness and inaccessibility, combined with security concerns, the mobility of pastoralist communities and the absence of government environmental conservation authorities has made it very challenging to develop an effective transboundary conservation strategy for this landscape. On the other hand, these factors have been key in helping to maintain human-wildlife co-existence. 

A range of options for the development of transboundary conservation strategies for the Lower Awash-Lake Abbé landscape were explored by a consultant, Dr Bertrand Chardonnet, during July-August 2014. He worked closely with the IUCN Project Management Unit and local stakeholders, and the options have been evaluated in close liaison with the IGAD Technical Assistance Team. A  community conservancy model, building on the framework developed by the Northern Rangelands Trust in Kenya and drawing other experiences in the broader region, has been identified as the most promising way forward. The establishment of a first ever transboundary community conservation area would be a ground-breaking achievement for the project, and will be the main focus for the next phase of activities.

Socio-economic assessment
An independent consultant, Dr Stéphane Bouju, was contracted to carry out a socio-economic assessment of the land and seascape. Priority sites identified for project intervention were:

  • As Eyla in the landscape – main settlement to the south of Lake Abbé
  • A cluster transboundary site consisting of Lé'Ado (Djibouti), Harissa (Ethiopia) and Hadoïla (Ethiopia) covering the main areas of biodiversity interest and most important grazing areas
  • Khalaf on the coast near Tadjourah in the seascape
  • Godoria / Khor Angar, north of Tadjourah in the seascape 

 The Djibouti seascape was identified as the highest priority for the project based on community consultations. There is huge potential for nature-based activities here  including tourism, livestock, gardening, crafts, fishing, and salt and charcoal production. In general, community-based ecotourism presents the greatest opportunity for the project to positively contribute to biodiversity and livelihood improvement. 

In the transboundary landscape around Lake Abbé, there are high levels of poverty and illiteracy. Livelihoods are heavily livestock-based, and frequent droughts constantly threaten access to grazing and water. An alternative income, such as tourism, would  significantly boost local economy, and provide an alternative income to many families reliant on livestock. The abundance of birds and other wildlife at Lake Abbé, along with stunning scenic features, means there is good potential for an ecotourism product here.

Stakeholder engagement
In December 2014, IUCN completed a survey of the communities and their livelihoods in the Lac Abbé region. The survey identified that the already challenging environmental conditions for the people living in this area is made that much more difficult by the invasive alien plant species Prosopis juniperus. This has become a major threat to the area - competing with scarce grazing land and threatening biodiversity.  Communities requested that the project support them in managing it. IUCN is currently exploring options for developing a cross-border initiative to control Prosopis, including production of charcoal from it for sale to urban markets.

The first Trans-Boundary Steering Committee held in Addis on 19th May 2015 to agree on next steps for the IUCN cross-border project.

Project Manager:

Houssein RAYALEH  
Tel: +253 2135 6921