This article was first published online in the "Addis Tribune", a website that has since vanished. It is here reprinted in its entirety.
Title: Awliyaw: the Largest and Oldest Tree in Ethiopia?
Source: Ethiopia Online
Date: February 18, 2000
Byline: Dr. Alula Pankhurst
In southern Wello, there are still a few areas left where indigenous trees survive in pockets of remaining forests. Recently, there has been a debate about the extent and the nature of deforestation, and a questioning of received wisdom about increasing deforestation. The view that 40 percent of the Ethiopian highlands were forested has been questioned by a number of researchers. However, we should not loose sight of the steady loss of forests with indigenous species. The plantations around settlements are made up largely of imported eucalyptus trees brought from Australia only a hundred years ago. Fortunately, however, some indigenous forests have survived to this day, although one may wonder how long this will continue.
Along with colleagues from Addis Ababa University and the University of Sussex, I recently had the opportunity to visit some forests in Wello. A highlight of our trip was a visit to Anabe, one of the few forests of Podocarpus, locally known as Zegba, remaining in southern Wello. In an article on the history of forest management in Wello, published in the Journal of Ethiopian Studies in 1998, Professor Bahru notes that Anabe was 'discovered' relatively recently, in 1978,when a forester was looking for a nursery site. In imperial days the area fell under the category of balabbat land before it was converted into a madbet of the Crown Prince. After its 'discovery' it was declared a protected forest.
Anabe is some 30 kms to the west of the town of Gerba, which is on the Kombolcha - Bati road. Until recently the rough road from Gerba was completed only up to the market town of Adame, from which it took three hours' walk to the forest. A road built by local people through an Employment Generation Scheme organised by Concern with European Union funding now makes the forest accessible in a four-wheel drive vehicle. The forest is tucked away near steep cliffs and is invisible until you arrive within a couple of kilometres. It is a surprise to find a beautiful forest in such a densely populated area, close to intensely irrigated fields. Not far away is a nursery site. One of the two forest guards and a nursery site worker accompanied us in the forest. They claimed that in the past barley, oats and sorghum used to be cultivated within the forest area and that a Mislene or representative of the imperial regime, named Abegaz Amede used to provide tribute from the area.
Anabe is one of the few remaining forests of Podocarpus. The size of the forest has been estimated at 53 ha. In An Illustrated Guide to the Trees and Shrubs in the Red Cross Project Areas in Wello (1989), Prof. Mesfin Tadesse mentions an Amharic saying about the forest, which Prof. Bahru translates in his article as: "Anabe is said to be growing old and greying, a solitary individual could now cross it without fear." This may suggest, as Prof. Bahru notes, that the forest has become denuded, although it may also refer to claims that shifta, outlaws, lived there in the past.
In the central part of the forest there are areas with only giant Podocarpus trees. Unfortunately during tree planting campaigns under the Derg foreign trees, notably pines, have been planted in the forest. Though planting a barrier of fast-growing trees on the outskirts of the forest may have been useful to protect it, the planting of exotic trees within the forest detracts from its former originality.
Podocarpus are one of the most beautiful trees of Ethiopia. The combination of lush dark green mature foliage with light green tips of the new growth give the tree a distinctive variegated appearance. In his book on Indigenous Trees of Ethiopia Prof. Legesse Negash notes that the scientific term Podocarpus falcatus has now gained currency over the former term Podocarpus gracilior which alluded to the tree's elegance and gracefulness. As an evergreen with a dense crown, the Zegba has many ecological advantages. It provides cool shade and nourishment for birds and small mammals and is a preferred home for Colobus monkeys that eat the fruit and shelter in it. Indeed we saw some of these beautiful monkeys which have become a rarity in so much of the country since their black and white skins are illegally sought after for making carpets.
The Zegba is known commercially as Podo or East African Yellow Wood, and is the only representative of the family Podocarpaceae in Ethiopia. It is often found in old forests along with indigenous junipers, known as Ted. Unfortunately the Zegba does not reproduce easily, though Prof. Legesse has pioneered ways of improving germination. Because Podocarpus is classified as a "high class soft- wood" it has been a primesource of timber and is used for cupboards, shelves, panels, making matchsticks etc. In the middle of the past century it was the number one commercial species in Ethiopia, accounting for 60% of production, and some saw mills specialised only in Zegba production. Not surprisingly, it is estimated that just under one percent of the original Podo forests have survived. Podocarpus oils are said to have medicinal properties in curing gonorrhoea. In their book on Medicinal Plants and Enigmatic Health Practices of Northern Ethiopia Dawit Abebe and Ahadu Ayehu also note that the powder from the bark is used for curing headaches.
The special tree in the middle of Anabe forest is called Awliyaw by the local people, a term suggestive of its revered status (Weliy means prophet in the Islamic tradition and Awliya often refers to a Zar possession cult). Legend has it that it existed before all the other trees, when the land was barren and that it gave rise to all the other trees. There is also a story that a man attempted to climb the tree to catch a queen bee, and retreated when he was confronted by a snake. The man is said to have died within three days, for having disrespected the sanctuary.
This tree was estimated by Prof. Mesfin to be about 12.5 metres in circumference and about 4 metres in diameter. True enough, when we measured the tree, we found it to be 12.7 metres in circumference. Is this then the largest tree in the Ethiopia? The tree is said to be 63 metres high. Is this figure correct? Has anyone seen a taller tree in this country? Forestry reports from the 1940s suggest a maximum height of 50 metres for Zegba trees, whereas reports in the 1990s suggest a maximum of 35 metres.
How old is Awliyaw? It is said to be over 700 hundred years old. This may seem incredible, but studies of old trees in other parts of the world mention exceptional cases of trees that have surpassed a millennium and even cases of trees, notably yews, that may be up to 1,400 years old. In his beautiful book Meetings with Remarkable Trees, Thomas Pakenham depicts an example of an oak that was around at the time of William the Conqueror in 1066. If the suggested age is correct, Awliyaw would have been around before the restoration of the Solomonic Dynasty in 1270!
The are many beautiful indigenous species in Ethiopia and still a number of exceptional forests. The efforts of the Ethiopia Heritage Trust at promoting indigenous trees in the park on Entoto are commendable, and we need more awareness of, and commitment to, this aspect of Ethiopia's natural heritage. It is sad that such a venerable tree as Awliyaw is so little known. Apart from a photograph of a 'human chain' around the ancient tree published by Prof. Mesfin in an academic article and in a report for the Ethiopian Red Cross, I have not come across any other photographs of the tree, let alone a description in tourist guides. Was this because Anabe forest has been fairly inaccessible? Will the new road result in more interest in the oldest living heritage of Ethiopia? In a country in which deforestation is such a pressing concern, surely this exceptional example of natural beauty deserves more celebration.