Story | 06 Jun, 2024

The law of the land

Endashaw Mogessie,  director of the Population, Health and Environment Ethiopia Consortium, explains how traditional indigenous governance has helped a once-unwanted protected area thrive.

content hero image

Senkelle Swayne’s hartebeest sanctuary is home to at least 36 mammal and 191 bird species

Swayne’s hartebeest (Alcelaphus buselaphus swaynei) is an endangered antelope endemic to Ethiopia. Two of the largest remaining populations are located
in the Senkelle Swayne’s Hartebeest Sanctuary (SSHS) and Maze National Park.

SSHS was established by the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority (EWCA) in 1976 to protect the hartebeest, and is the smallest protected area (54km²) in Ethiopia. The area is surrounded by human settlement on all sides, except to the east, and nearby residents were greatly impacted by the new rules put in place in terms of access to resources and limitations on development. With SSHS’s non-participatory management also impacting the community’s traditional use rights, locals felt abandoned.

After the Derg government was toppled in 1991, people began seeking retribution by hunting every hartebeest they came across, both inside and outside the sanctuary. Between 1991 and 1992, the population fell from an estimated 3,500 animals to less than 70.

The Gada system is the indigenous democratic system of governance used by the Oromo ethnic group in Ethiopia. One of the traditional clan leaders, Aba Gada Worena Jarra Jarso, was particularly worried about the aggressive extermination of Swayne’s hartebeest.

He assembled locals in the nearby town of Senbete and started a conversation about how to preserve the remaining antelope. He urged the neighbourhoods to consider the ramifications of eradicating the species permanently, asking fellow community leaders and elders (known as Aba Gadas):

Will the Creator not question us if they are extinct?

The Aba Gadas formed a committee to look after the sanctuary and to safeguard Swayne’s hartebeest. They decided to declare the hartebeest as the 29th sub-clan member of a local clan known as Hambentu. As of the 15th June 1993, a person hunting one of these animals would be penalised by the Gada authorities as if they had killed a human member of the clan.

Consequently, the killing of the Swayne’s hartebeest has stopped, and the population has increased dramatically. The introduction of rules based on the Geda system has changed attitudes of the community too, which has now become an ally of the species and the protection of SSHS. There are now over 800 Swayne’s hartebeest.

Many authors suggest that recognition of customary law is significant for the sustainable use of the natural resources of our planet (IUCN, 2011). The implementation of the traditional customary law developed by Oromo people (Gada system) and Sidama people (Sera system) jointly with the Ethiopia Wildlife’s Conservation Authority’s management of SSHS, has been vital in the conservation of the wild lives and biophysical resources of the sanctuary.

Community conflict has been minimised and local communities also now benefit from grazing in specified areas and the production of sellable cultural materials such as grass for thatching. Similar traditional customary law has since been adopted in Ethiopia’s Abijatta-Shalla Lakes National Park, and we have been sharing our experiences with other areas and conducting awareness-creation programmes in various publications and media outlets.

Learn more at