National Geographic : 2017 Apr
90 national geographic • april 2017 bared their teeth, and the children fled. When he grew older, he built traps. He beat geladas with an Ethiopian staff, called a dula. These days Wudimagegn feels sheepish about such mistreatment. “I was wrong to think like that,” he said. Oversight in Guassa is better than ever, but the community is in flux. The prop- erty system has shifted. Once church based and limited to the descendants of its founders, Guassa’s stewardship is now more secular, more open to newcomers who don’t share its history. The underlying dynamic that makes local con- servation work is the perception that everyone’s in it together. But now resentments are budding. A sense of belonging is eroding. Wudimagegn admitted that he sometimes stares at his walls with longing. The magazines depict “better places,” he said. He wants to move gone, but other parts of the country are again wrestling with political instability. Climate change is making higher land even more suit- able for farming. By 2050 Ethiopia’s population could increase 10-fold from what it was in 1950, to 188 million. A country less than twice the size of Texas would have nearly seven times as many citizens. Incomes are rising, but one-third of Ethiopians still live in extreme poverty. So the government is encouraging Chinese investment. Making our way back toward Guassa, I see a meadow popular with geladas. Yellow tractors and earthmovers are paving a dirt road that skirts the meadow’s edge. Machinery is ripping up wet- lands thick with nutritious vegetation. Power lines and cell towers and a rudimentary tourist lodge have all been built within the past decade. And why not? Life here is hard, opportunity is With the arrival of tractors and power lines, can these monkeys adapt to the hardships to come? to the city, make more money, give his children a better education. It’s a universal story—people want the life they see others have. aFter an eXhaUsting nine-hoUr walk, Getaneh, Kerby, and I reach Guassa’s end. We hitchhike toward Mehal Meda. Along the way a different landscape spills before us: acre after acre of rolling farms and crumbling earth, each plowed plot hugging the next in an unbroken sea of agriculture. That, Kerby says, is how most of the rest of the highlands look. Guassa avoided that fate in part because lo- cals kept control, rules were clear, oversight was strict, and users were invested. Nobel Prize win- ner Elinor Ostrom found that similar strategies also succeeded in places as disparate as Swiss farming villages, Japanese forests, and New England lobster fisheries. Comparable efforts are being employed in Namibia to protect wildlife. But Guassa for centuries was aided by elevation and remoteness, which kept newcomers at bay. Now new pressures are all around. The Derg is scarce. Development, ecotourism, and access to more markets could pull people out of poverty and help modernize the economy. But all this will put the region and its monkeys to the test. Back in camp on one of my last evenings, Kerby and I follow the monkeys as they move in tight formation beneath a setting sun. One by one, amid their squeaks and grunts, the geladas clam- ber back over steep cliffs, where they will huddle until dawn on thin, rocky ledges. Honed over millennia, this practice protects sleeping gela- das from hungry hyenas or other night-prowling predators. As I watch the stragglers break into a languid trot, it’s hard to escape a sense of unease. Evolution has prepared our fellow primates for many threats. But there will be no place to hide from what we’re about to throw their way. j Photographer and National Geographic Grantee Trevor Beck Frost finds joy in places “where nature is wild and as it should be.” Photographer Jeffrey Kerby, also a National Geographic grantee, is a scientist at Dartmouth. This is their first feature for the magazine.