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Uphill Struggle To Preserve Somalia's Wildlife

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Uphill Struggle To Preserve Somalia's Wildlife

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JOHANNESBURG, Jan 11, 2006 (Reuters) – Osman Amir has a task few would envy. The soft-spoken biologist is seeking to assess what wildlife remains in Somalia, an anarchic Horn of Africa nation that has no functioning government.

"My homeland is rich in biodiversity with 200 bird and animal species found nowhere else," he told Reuters on the sidelines of an international conference on lion conservation in Johannesburg .

"People think Somalia is a desert. But we have 5,000 species of plants," he said.

But much of the country is a wasteland after 15 years of civil war that has decimated much of its wildlife.

"In 1980, we had 40,000 elephants in Somalia but now they are almost all gone, killed by poachers for their ivory. We think there are around 200 in the south but we need to verify this fact," said Amir.

He said verifying such facts were not easy in a country where roads, along with almost everything else, lie in ruins.

The database he has constructed so far is based on records from before 1991, when warlords ousted military dictator Mohamed Siad Barre carving the country into a patchwork of fiefdoms.

It shows the country was home to 1,135 species of mammals, birds, reptiles and freshwater fish.

The next phase of his project -- to assess what is still there -- will be much harder.

But representatives of the fledgling administration in Somalia are keen to see proper wildlife assessments as they hope one day to promote the country as an ecotourism destination.

"We have a very long coast on the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean , and the coral reefs are untouched. We see tourism as very important to development," said Ali Ossoble, a development advisor in the prime minister's office.

There are precedents on Africa 's east coast. Mozambique has a fast-growing tourist sector with divers drawn to its reefs, in a pristine state as no divers ventured onto them during a long civil war that ended in the early 1990s.

But Somalia 's coast is prowled by modern-day pirates who frequently attack or hijack vessels -- a big turn off to all but the most intrepid tourists.

One tourism option the Somalis are exploring at the Johannesburg conference is to allow foreign trophy hunters to bag some of the country's lions -- once the government starts functioning.

"We believe there are about 500 to 750 lions left in Somalia and they can be a source of revenue. It could help to ease conflict between the lions and the pastoralists if rural people made money from them," Amir said.


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