“Appreciation and Awareness of biodiversity at all levels of society is what makes Eritrea a wildlife-friendly place.” Ted Papenfuss
In Eritrea, it is easy to notice, especially outside towns and cities, the spiritual connection people have with nature. It comes down packed as part of tradition and traditional rites that substantially give nature sacred attributes linked to life and living.
Professor Theodore Papenfuss of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, University of California, is a longtime friend of Eritrea and a close colleague of the Eritrean Forestry and Wildlife Authority. With his first trip in 2015 Ted shed somelight on the riches of the Eritrean biodiversity: lizards, toads and snakes. With that, Professor Theodore won the attention of many Eritreans, especially the communities in urban areas eager to learn and know more about these thousands of little species. Lately, the public’s awareness is on the rise. Meet Professor Theodore Papenfuss as he takes us through yet another successful visit. He was in Eritrea for a fourth scientific expedition.
- -Why is it that you and the Eritrean experts at the Forestry and Wildlife Authority are working closely with the Ministry Mines?
You want to make sure you reserve the habitat for the wild life that is the uniqueness of Eritrea. For example, the Asmara Toad is a national treasure. There are posters all over the place starting from the airport. The article you put out in 2016 ‘Do you know the Asmara Toad?’ made everyone curios, especially the young ones. Now, more than the previous years, I noticed that people want to know more about such unique aspects of the Eritrean wildlife.
Henceforth, as the mining sites are growing in number and size by the day the consideration of the natural surroundings is high. My colleagues and I are looking over the implantation of the Ministry of Mines and Energy’s policies for natural safeguarding. So, where they put their waste should be carefully studied and analyzed so that there is no wildlife damaged by such developmental sectors. For Eritrea, its people and government, natural conservation is a point of elevated interest and, luckily, the awareness is there. Accordingly, many national plans and projects are reasoned before they are put in action. I visited several mines to learn about these aspects and more.
- -You visited historic sites too. What was the purpose?
Mainly I visited historic places that were surveyed by Italian scientists in the colonial period. My purpose has been taking samples of what species they found many years ago and do DNA studies to see if the similarities and differences between the described species in the historic sites and also compare them to similar species in other parts of Eritrea and Africa.
For instance, there is a toad known as Bland-ford toad described from Foro in 1868, during a UK expedition to rescue those held hostage by Emperor Tedros the Second of Ethiopia, at that time Abyissinia. They landed at the golf of Zula and it took them many months to reach the Abyissinian highlands. Amongst them was a British medical doctor who was interested in collecting some spacemen including some toads he found in the Foro area, South of Massawa. His name is William Bland-ford and this is how the species was named after him. So we sampled some Bland-ford toads from that site and we are now in the process of comparing them to what we think are Bland-ford toads that I collected in Somalia several years ago.
- -A place you hadn’t mentioned in our previous interviews is Afabat. How was it?
It was an honor for me to be there because it is one of the most historic places in the modern history of Eritrea. During the armed struggle for Independence, Afabat was one of the Ethiopian army’s strongest holds and its defeat there was a historic one. The Ethiopians lost a lot of their weapons to the Eritrean freedom fighters. Also, I felt privileged because foreigners don’t get travel permit to Afabat. I felt like an Eritrean!
Now, on my fourth trip I am becoming much aware of Eritrea as I have been in five regions out of the six. The only reason I haven’t been in South Red Sea Zone is because I didn’t have much time. However, we are planning on a much elaborated tour in the coming rainy season, in July. That is the time of year when snakes will be easily spotted. Moreover, I would also like to visit Assab because there are many surveys that date back to 1890s conducted by Italian biologists.
- -What pleased you the most from this trip?
One of the things is that is new to me and all Eritreans is the newly reached peace in the region. It is a complete contrast to my previous three trips. The breakthroughs that have been taking place from June are incredible. I have noticed more tourists in towns and hotels that are mostly booked. It is a pleasure of mine that now, finally, people will get to know Eritrea as much as I did as there is no limit to the things one can see in Eritrea.
- -Ted, is there anything you want to say before we end?
I am thankful of the hospitality of the Eritrean people. My conversations with Eritreans have been very instrumental in my works. I highly appreciate the knowledge I get from people every time we set out for survey. People, here, know a lot about the wild life and even the tiny ones. And those who don’t know are happy to learn and tell others. So, like always, my kind regards to Eritrean people. Moreover, my research work wouldn’t be as successful and as enjoyable without the assistance of the Eritrean Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Energy and Mines and the Forestry and Wildlife Authority and all of my colleagues. For the coming years my Eritrean colleagues and I have mapped out bigger plans. I truly hope there will be more findings unique to Eritrea. I am already excited about my next visit