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The Surud Mountain Forests In Somaliland

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Submitted by editor on Sun, 10/02/2005

There was something strange about the fire that our guide made while preparing tea in our camp 5 km north of Ceerigabo. While sipping our sweetened tea, the smell kept lingering in the air, it was sweet, as sweet as innocence. It was on a slightly chilly evening last November while we were waiting to enter the Surud Mountains in Somaliland , one of the last seemingly untouched places on this planet. We had actually left behind all fears in Cairo as we set off to Somaliland , following the footsteps of early explorers. We had decided to make the visit in search of a few elusive stapeliad species and also to view the majestic Aloe eminens in its habitat. The Surud Mountains are in the northern part of Somaliland , in the Saanag region. The highest peak is Mount Shimbiris , at 2416 m the highest mountain in all of Somaliland & Somalia .

Early the next morning, after a sleepless night in anticipation of all the wonders we would eventually see at daybreak, we headed towards the mountain range, but strangely did not see it. We were actually on top of a plateau that plunges downwards towards the coast. We passed fields of Aloe scobinifolia and Euphorbia ballyi before entering an area of very lush vegetation at the mouth of the famous Tabah Gorge. We could see the gorge plunge deep into the forest to our right. Had we the choice, we would have left the car behind and gone deep down exploring that fabulous gorge, where huge Dracaena schizantha trees hang on the cliffs.

These mountains are part of the Somali Montane Xeric Woodland eco-region that stretches along the northern coast of the Horn of Africa from the Shimbiris to Raas Caseyr, continuing some 300 km south along the Somali coastal plain. Although part of the Somali-Masai regional centre of endemism, this area also contains remnant plant species linking it to Mediterranean, Macaronesian and Afromontane regions. A special environment is created by the mountain chain facing north, accumulating plenty of mist from the sea. The Daloh-Shimbiris area receives the highest rainfall in Somaliland , over 700 mm each year, favouring the evolution of a unique and extremely diverse flora.

Entering the Tabah gorge was like reaching paradise on earth. We stopped the engine and both jumped out of the vehicle, each into a different direction. As we disappeared into the vegetation, we started to see and hear things we were not aware of when the engine was running. Colours, smells, sounds: it was truly alive. Huge Juniperus procera trees more than 20 m high tower among a lush mixed woodland, whose fresh green is heavily spotted with the grey crowns of Dracaena schizantha and the striking red flowers of Aloe eminens. We saw scattered populations of flowering Aloe albovestita and patches of A. hildebrandtii. Plants seemed to sprout from under every rock and inside every crack. Bushes of Buxus hildebrandtii, several species of Commiphora, and succulents – Kalanchoe spp., Senecio spp. and probably a new species of Huernia. It was a botanical heaven.

Unfortunately, since a rumour spread as wildfire in the area that we were diamond hunters, we could not risk getting off the main track that would eventually snake itself through the mountain range. In only 10 km as the crow flies, we passed from the juniper forests of the misty high altitudes crossing very distinct zones of vegetation, down to the extremely arid plains, Guban (burnet in Somalia ), ending up in Maydh on the coast. The track, however, winds down the mountain range for about 40–50 km. The landscape and vegetation are amazing – spectacular woodlands of frankincense (Boswellia frereana), often growing on huge boulders or in vertical cliffs, occasional Pyrenacantha malvifolia with fat caudices that can reach over one metre in diameter, Commiphora spp. with their strong smell and blue, white or grey bark, Aloes, Euphorbias and several other strange xerophytic species. Looking for small stapeliads entails bending and looking under shrubs, rocks and in cracks for these shy plants – this was the origin of the rumour. We had tried to explain to the surprised locals that we were looking for Ubah (flower, in the Somali language), but no one believed us.

For the first few days in the range, one is taken by the beauty and variety of flora, a natural botanical garden. It was on the fourth day, as we were sitting on a ledge overlooking the great cliffs that surround the Tabah Gorge, that it hit us … thud ... thud … thud. Yes, it was an axe chopping a tree. We turned our ears and eyes to locate the source of this logging. Far away in a distance we saw a plume of smoke rising from the thick canopy. From then on and for the next four days, we saw only destruction, juniper trees felled like matchsticks, huge 100-year old Commiphoras cut for charcoal and building material, areas cleared for Qat plantations, total destruction of a pristine and extremely exotic forest. It was sad to discover that the origin of the sweet smell we enjoyed a few days before in our camp fire was not so innocent: aromatic Commiphoras turned into charcoal.

Somaliland is short of cash, particularly after the Gulf States set a ban on livestock exports. Somali authorities have recently given licensing permits to a few greedy companies to burn the forests for export-oriented charcoal production. According to recent reports, the areas most affected are those east of Hargeisa (the capital), most probably around the Golis Mountain range which is closer to Berbera, the main seaport. The destruction in the Surud Mountains is of a more local scale, and can be avoided through careful education of the local tribes that live there and increasing their awareness regarding their natural wealth. However, if the charcoal production companies eventually reach the Surud Mountains , an area of immense beauty and extreme natural diversity will be lost for ever.

Daloh forest is the best preserved Juniperus procera-Dracaena schizantha mixed woodland in the Horn of Africa and it well deserves to be declared a World Heritage Natural Site. This article is a cry for help for anyone interested in saving such a unique and exotic place rich in plant and animal endemics from disappearing before having the opportunity to be even studied. We are planning to arrange for a scientific expedition in the near future, in cooperation with local authorities, as most of the mountain range remains yet to be explored.

In May 1991 the north-west region of Somalia declared its independence as the Republic of Somaliland ’ , within the borders of the former British Protectorate of Somaliland . A government was elected for an initial 2-year period at a conference of elders; and in May 1993 former Somali Prime Minister Mohamed Ibrahim Egal was elected President. Following Parliamentary elections (for which members were nominated by their clans), a new government was formed and a constitution approved. In a referendum in May 2001, 97% of voters supported the new constitution, confirming and supporting the region’s unilateral secession from the rest of Somalia . Somaliland has been widely acknowledged, though not recognized, by the international community. (From the website of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, London )


Reprinted from Plant Talk No 36 (May 2004)

The authors thank their many friends and colleagues in Somaliland for their help.

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