The Sheka forest covers a unique bio-geographic unit extending from cold and very wet highlands bordering Illubabor zone of Oromia regional state and Kafa zone to hot lowland areas bordering Gambella regional state and the Bench-Maji zone.
The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has added the Sheka forest to its global list of 599 Biosphere Reserves in 117 countries, on 11, July 2012 in Paris.
According to UNESCO’s definition, Biosphere reserves are places recognized by Man And Biosphere (MAB) where local communities are actively involved in governance and management, research, education, training and monitoring at the service of both socio-economic development and biodiversity conservation. “Biosphere reserves are sites for experimenting with and learning about sustainable development,” UNESCO has said in a news release about the adoption.
Sheka Forest is located in the Sheka Zone of the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples (SNNP) Regional State. The Sheka forest covers a unique bio-geographic unit extending from cold and very wet highlands bordering Illubabor zone of Oromia regional state and Kafa zone to hot lowland areas bordering Gambella regional state and the Bench-Maji zone. The whole area is very diverse, with contrasting landscape elements, habitats and cultural practices.
The Sheka forest is adopted to be a biosphere reserve because it fulfills the three functions of biosphere reserve-namely the conservation, development and logistics support functions to the desired level.
In terms of the conservation function, the forest contributes to the conservation of landscapes, ecosystems, species and genetic variation.
The Sheka forest constitutes one of the few remaining afromontane forest vegetation in Ethiopia. As such it is highly regarded as important for conservation of the Afromontane forest vegetation types, especially the Afromontane Rainforest and alpine bamboo thickets.
Furthermore, the forest of Sheka is important for the role it plays in protection of watersheds that have local and international significance in the Nile and Omo-Ghibe/ Lake Turkana Basins. It is the source of major rivers like Baro and Akobo rivers, the main tributaries of the White Nile, Gojeb, the main tributary of Omo from the southwestern highlands of Ethiopia. It is also highly regarded for conservation of biodiversity, flood and erosion control, and carbon-sequestration to mitigate the effects of climate change.
The forest is rich in both plant and animal species. There are over 300 higher plants, 50 mammals, 200 birds, and 20 amphibian species, occurring in all habitats. Out of these, at least 55 plants, and 10 birds are endemic to Ethiopia. There are also over 38 threatened species (IUCN Red list) in the area, which include 5 bird, 3 mammals and 30 plant species. It is an important gene pool for Ensete (sometines called ‘false banana’), Arabica coffee and other plant species important as food, agricultural and forestry purposes.
The forest’s development/economic function is also vital. The Shekacho people earn most of their cash income from honey and spices produced in dense forest. The traditional agricultural practice is also ecologically sustainable, while fulfilling the social and economic needs of the local population. There is also a growing trend of coffee production by the highlanders, by planting coffee in degraded forest areas. Since coffee is shade-loving crop, enrichment planting of trees is also conducted, thereby contributing to ecological sustainability through rehabilitation degraded forest areas. The area also has a good potential for eco-tourism, with its diverse natural and cultural landscape, tropical forest, crater lakes, waterfalls and cultural festivals.
The fact that the forest has a great potential as a demonstration site for environmental education and the link between culture and biodiversity or cultural biodiversity explains its function in logistical support. Currently MELCA-Ethiopia is implementing an environmental education program called SEGNI (Social Empowerment through Group Nature Interaction) in the forest. As related to this, UNESCO has also recognized the Sheka Biosphere Reserve to serve as a training center for a transfer of cultural and traditional ecological knowledge from the old to the new generation. And in the near future, the forest has a great potential to serve as biological field station for the newly established universities in the area, especially for Mizan-Teppi University, located in the proposed biosphere reserve, and Metu University located at 60 km away in Illubabor zone of Oromia state.
The Sheka Forest Biosphere reserve has a total area of 238,750 hectares. Out of this total area 55, 255 hectares (23.14%), 76,395 hectares (30%) and 107,100 hectares (44.86%) are designated as core zone, buffer zone and transitional zone respectively.
The core zone is an area devoted to long-term protection of the natural forest. It is composed of intact natural high forest, cultural forests (Kobo), sacred forests, wetlands and bamboo tickets. Hence it is an area to be protected from human interference except for traditional non-timber uses such as traditional beekeeping, wild spices and medicinal plants collection, ritual ceremonies as well as controlled eco-tourism using some routes, research, monitoring, and trainings.
The buffer zone on the other hand is an area devoted for both conservation and use functions. All use functions except logging, new permanent settlements, and high impact investments like monoculture plantation, intensive agriculture and hunting are allowed in this area.
And lastly the transitional area is a development zone where all activities for livelihood of the local community take place. Here, all kinds of traditional and modern agriculture based sustainable land management can be undertaken.