In a faraway land, in a province named South Gondar, the arid landscape is dotted with ancient Orthodox Christian Tewahedo churches. Forests encircle these churches—hundreds of green spots visible in satellite photos—and they are about the only stands of trees surviving after the Amhara people expanded their agricultural fields by cutting down more than 95 percent of the old forest for fuel, crops, and grazing.

A scenario out of J.R.R. Tolkien? An imaginary land in the game Myst?

No. It’s the situation Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Travis Reynolds encountered in northern Ethiopia two years ago. Now these so-called “church forests” are living laboratories for Colby undergraduates conducting original research likely to yield new species and destined to help preserve these unique island ecosystems.

Lydia Ball ’13, who grew up in Philadelphia eager to become a globetrotting herpetologist and photographer, was one of the first two Colby students to visit the church forests in summer 2012. Both made the trip with support from Hollis Foundation Student Research Fund and Environmental Studies Program research funds.

Her goal was a biodiversity inventory—survey data on frogs and insects in two of the forests, which are known to contain endangered plants and have already produced new species of insects. As an environmental studies major with a concentration in science, Ball worked with Ellen Evangelides ’14, an environmental policy major who was conducting interviews. “That’s what we’re trying to merge together. It’s taking our scientific knowledge to make policy recommendations and to formally preserve these church forests,” Ball said.

But not so fast. Among the reasons these refuges still exist at all are church policies that have kept outsiders out for more than a thousand years. So, on the first Colby research trip, Ball, Evangelides, and Reynolds “weren’t allowed to step one foot inside,” Ball said. They respected the prohibition in the interest of building a relationship, and she collected her specimens around the edges of the forests.

Trust established, when Reynolds took three Colby students back last January, they had necessary church and government permits and were welcomed in.

“When we finally entered the church forest, it was an amazing and powerful experience,” Ball said of her second trip. “The churches themselves are fantastically old with these really amazing paintings. … It was very much an otherworldly experience.” She described priests and students living in ancient dwellings in the forests and all of the people “so kind and open and sharing what was happening in their community.”

“Magical,” Reynolds called it. He described the surrounding African landscape: the soil cracked, arid, and abused; the temperature blazing hot. “Then you walk into the church forest and it’s ten degrees cooler, and there are birds and insects, and there’s an ashkoko [a rodent-sized mammal more closely related to elephants than squirrels] climbing up the tree, and it’s like, ‘This is what was here two hundred years ago.’

“And this is all that’s left.”

As a Ph.D. candidate, Reynolds had attended a conference in Ethiopia on managing natural resources for community benefit. When he arrived at Colby, one of his teaching assignments was the international environmental policy capstone course.

Worshippers approach the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Church of St. George on St. George’s holiday. Hewn from solid rock in the 13th century, it is one of a 11 churches in Lalibela, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Left: huge trees have survived in the protected church forests.
Worshippers approach the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Church of St. George on St. George’s holiday. Hewn from solid rock in the 13th century, it is one of 11 churches in Lalibela, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

He recalls getting in touch with contacts in NGOs and at the university he had visited and telling them, “I’ve got this team of advanced undergraduate students with all the training and resources you could want in terms of data analysis, in terms of writing skills, in terms of communications skills, in terms of web expertise.

“How can I put that to use for you for free?” he asked. And “Is there anything of value that Colby students can produce that would be useful to you in this realm of environmental policy, environmental planning?”

It turned out that there was, he said.

His 2011 capstone students completed six studies that had them talking on the phone or by Skype to stakeholders with specific concerns about the environment in Ethiopia. “And what they do matters,” said Reynolds of his students.

The exchange evolved into a schedule where Reynolds is doing field research in Ethiopia while he is setting up the capstone research seminar on a year-to-year basis. And now, “students come to Ethiopia with me, both as research assistants and as presenters sharing the result of their capstone.”

Last January seniors Ball, Kate Hamre, and Sally Holmes took part in a conference—a meeting of Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo priests called “The Sacred Forests Workshop”—sponsored by Colby’s Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement at Bahir Dar University. Organizers included the leading expert, Alemayehu Wassie Eshete, who was raised in one of the churches and studied for the priesthood, later earned his Ph.D., and literally wrote the book, in 2008, about Ethiopian church forests. It was Alemayehu, with contacts in the church, in academe, and in the government, who provided entree for Colby researchers to enter the sacred forests.

Alemayehu recently wrote that he expected 100 priests and church officials for the workshop, but more than 150 showed up. “It was so amazing!”

Also presenting at the Goldfarb Center conference was Margaret Lowman, who has collaborated with Reynolds. The director of the North Carolina Nature Research Center, she is a pioneer in the study of forest canopies and a leader in studying the church forests.

A local boy helping students with a tree-planting project holds a toad, to the delight of photographer/herpetologist Lydia Ball ’13.
A local boy helping students with a tree-planting project holds a toad, to the delight of photographer/herpetologist Lydia Ball ’13.

Doing research in the Horn of Africa appealed to Ball for several reasons. Globetrotting was one. (As a junior she studied in New Zealand for a semester and did frog research with Associate Professor of Biology Cathy Bevier in Brazil in January.) Another was the chance to fill a void. “One of the reasons policy recommendations are so difficult in Ethiopia,” she said, “is that there’s no data.”

Few if any records on the forests or their biodiversity exist. It wasn’t even clear how many church forests there are. Tewahedo canonical writings say 35,000, but research by Jacob Wall ’16—who scoured satellite photos in Colby’s GIS lab as Reynolds’s research assistant this year—counted 1,354  church forests at least 100 meters in diameter in northern Ethiopia, 859 of them in South Gondar. Wall found 615 additional churches with no remaining forests and few if any trees, Reynolds said.

“In particular, Ethiopia is data deficient on amphibians,” Ball said. “There’s one book by this mysterious man from the London Museum, and nobody knows what’s out there. So if I had the opportunity to contribute, that meant something.”

Reynolds emphasizes the importance of both the scientific data and the social science. On the policy side, he said, students have been “looking at the institutional governance structures that have kept church forests standing when the rest of the forests are gone.”

“If we’re in a system where people are more likely to steal a tree from the government than they are to steal a tree from a church,” he said, then perhaps nationalizing forests is a bad idea. “Similarly, if we’re in a situation where people revere these trees because they’re sacred, it might not be a good idea to pay people to plant trees for carbon, because now it’s no longer a sacred forest, it’s a carbon cash generator. And there’s a very different ethos associated with that.”

The globetrotting research experience changed Ball’s thinking. “As a scientist, I get caught up in the conservation and I get caught up in how cool bugs are, how cool amphibians are. I don’t necessarily always bring people into the picture, but it’s necessary to when you’re talking about conservation in areas where there are lots of pressures.

“Working with Travis, with the natural resource economist—working with the policy—really broadened my view. All of my other experiences led into this—viewing myself as a global citizen rather than just a U.S. citizen, and that your duty is to humanity and not just to the frogs that you love.”

As she prepared to head off to do amphibian research in Wyoming after graduation, she said, “It is funny. I thought I would have more of an idea what I wanted to do when I graduated, but I have less of an idea.”

“I guess it’s not that I have less of an idea,” she said with a laugh. “It’s that my interests are broader and I see more things as accessible.”