Algerian forest reinstated as National Park after turbulent history

The Barbary Macaque clings to just a few forests in North Africa © Kamil Laghjichi

Djebel Babor forest in Northern Algeria was a National Park for 60 years before being stripped of its status. Now, despite political upheaval, the hard work of conservationists has paid off once again.

The lush green vegetation of Djebel Babor forest carpets the edge of the Atlas Mountain range. As you walk among endemic trees like the Algerian Fir, you may spot a troop of Barbary Macaques strolling by with babies clinging to their fur. This Endangered monkey is Europe’s only primate and the only macaque found outside of Asia. Despite this accolade, the species now clings to just a handful of fragmented forests across North Africa. Walk a little further, and you may hear the piping call of the Algerian Nuthatch Sitta ledanti, also an Endangered species and the country’s only nuthatch. This scurrying songbird is restricted to just five breeding sites, and Djebel Babor Forest is an important one.

You may therefore be shocked to hear that for many years, this precious habitat had no formal protection. Djebel Babor forest was classified as a National Park in 1921, but a decade later the size of the park was significantly reduced. Then in 1985, it was declassified altogether. Thankfully, all that changed on the 28th of May this year, when we received news that, after years of advocacy from conservation organisations, the Algerian government has officially declared the site a protected area.

The struggle to get protection for this site wasn’t easy. It began way back in 2013, when organisations lead by the Algerian conservation group  AREA-ED and supported by the CEPF Mediterranean Programme* came together to protect the forest from fires, illegal logging and over-grazing that threatened to wreak irreparable damage. Experts conducted scientific surveys which found that the area was even more ecologically important than we thought, playing host to important raptor nesting sites and 32 bird species protected by law. One of the main solutions was a “buffer zone” of reduced land use around the park, which would prevent farming and other human activities from encroaching upon the forest.

Although this looked good on paper, it was important that local people also understood and bought into the idea. AREA-ED therefore held meetings with local communities, including family farmers who traditionally graze their livestock around the forest. Here, citizens were able to raise their concerns and agree on solutions that would allow people and nature to live in harmony. AREA-ED also rolled out a public education campaign across the media and even local schools, ensuring that everyone understood the importance of the forest and the plans surrounding it. Local people responded with resounding support.

Despite this diligent preparation, getting the site classified as a protected area was an uphill climb. It was particularly difficult for Djebel Babor forest, as this had been an area used by terrorists during conflicts in Algeria. Ultimately, the fact that a new protected area would help Algeria to meet its Aichi biodiversity targets was a big factor in encouraging the Ministry of Agriculture and the Environment to accept the proposal.

So what happens now? Well, National Park status will garner better investment and protection for the forest and the Endangered species that call it home. It will also enable AREA-ED to work more closely with local people on sustainable farming projects, for example traditional grazing on mountain pastures. Ecotourism is another exciting possibility, which will provide local people with livelihoods that do not impinge on the forest’s valuable resources. Djebel Babor forest will be one of the first forests in Algeria to be managed as part of a whole landscape, rather than in isolation. In this way, it will form the template for similar projects in the future.

Above all, we hope that becoming a National Park will be the final, triumphant chapter in this forest’s turbulent history.

Jessica Law, Birdlife International, 18th June 2019

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