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Ashaafean Reserve (Libya) (AFP)
A two-hour drive east of Tripoli in the Nafusa mountain range, Ashaafean Park was added to UNESCO’s list of biosphere reserves last month.
It includes dry forests, grasslands and a desert on the edge of the Sahara – ideal habitats for the increasingly rare Houbara Bustard, a large bird.
“The ongoing climate change, associated lack of rainfall and long spells of drought in summer have made the reserve vulnerable to repeated fires in recent years,” said Anas al-Qiyadi, of the Libyan Wildlife Trust.
Along with unauthorized logging and construction, these factors have “damaged the diversity of flora and fauna,” he said.
But Qiyadi hopes the UNESCO list will help protect the park.
“The core area of 83,060 hectares (approximately 205,000 acres) of the biosphere reserve is home to a variety of rare and / or endangered species,” the United Nations cultural agency said on its website.
They include 350 species of plants, some medicinal or aromatic, as well as endangered birds, reptiles and mammals.
Some 65,000 people also live in the larger park area.
Decades of violence
Ashaafean was designated a nature reserve under dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 1978.
But in the decade of violence following the overthrow of Gaddafi in 2011 in a NATO-backed revolt, the fragile and divided Libyan state has provided little protection to its nine nature reserves, increasingly threatened by human activity.
Qiyadi said several initiatives are underway to protect the reserves, including a program to breed endangered turtles in captivity and release them into the wild.
“A few days ago, we released 36 endangered turtles in the (Ashaafean) park,” he said.
Volunteers also pledged to water the trees throughout Libya’s long periods of drought, Qiyadi said, adding that irrigation networks alone were not enough.
“Because the water source is far from the reserve, we and a group of volunteers have started campaigns to irrigate and plant more trees, but this requires continued attention.”
Drought and deadly forest fires have hit several countries around the Mediterranean this year, including neighboring Algeria.
Libya was largely spared this time, but since 2015 it has seen huge fires that have killed many endangered animals and trees for over a century.
Ashaafean is the first Libyan site to be classified as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
The designation aims to promote sustainable development, protect ecosystems and support research and education.
Tareq al-Jdeidy, a scientist from the University of Tripoli who led a campaign for the listing, said it was a step towards better protection for one of the most valuable reserves in the Libya.
The designation means “it will attract international attention from organizations focusing on the environment, plant and animal life – there will be studies on how to develop it,” he said.
According to UNESCO, most of the inhabitants of the reserve make a living from sustainable traditional agriculture as well as from collecting wood and beekeeping.
“The region is known for the quality of its olives and its oil,” he said when announcing the appellation.
Jdeidy hopes the park will both help the local economy and serve as an example of efforts to combat desertification.
“It will support local residents both directly and indirectly through development programs linked to the reserve,” he said.
© 2021 AFP