Week 1:
Adapting to Addis


Cornell Fellow in Botanical Conservation

Gullele Botanic Garden | Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

February 13, 2019

The prospect of me coming to Ethiopia had been in the works for a little under a year, and thanks to my resourceful and supportive advisor and professors (Steven Sacks of the Religion Department and Tammy Mildenstein of the Biology Department), the opportunity for me to intern at Gullele Botanical Garden, has now officially materialized from e-mail chains and the Cornell Fellows application process. I can say that because I’m at the Gullele office itself, and I can assure you that the desk I’m sitting at, the research proposal next to me, and the smell of coffee and Eucalyptus leaves currently in the air is very, very real.

But let’s back up for a moment—what is Gullele? Gullele (pronounced goo-lell-ay) is basically Ethiopia’s national botanical garden. It’s a baby garden in comparison to other collections like Kew Gardens or the Missouri Botanical Garden at only 9 years old. Born from 705 hectares at the north-western edge of Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, Gullele Botanical Garden is largely still under construction, with structured gardens being built around a large forest reserve that constitutes the bulk of the garden grounds. A visitor center, laboratory, and office complex, all targeted to be completed by 2020, will line the structured gardens. When finished, Gullele will be one of the only African botanical gardens outside of South Africa, and the staff will aim to foster a massive collection of Ethiopia’s endemic plant species (there’s 428 total).

Gullele’s director of research recently collaborated with the Chicago Botanical Garden on a project–my advisor, an alum of the University of Chicago, heard about the collaboration and got me in contact with Gullele. Now, six months later, I’m officially in Ethiopia, excited to intern at an institution doing exactly what I want to do with my life: biodiversity conservation.

I’ve been here for a week and quite frankly it feels like a month, not because it’s been passing by slowly, but because so much has happened. Landing in Addis Ababa six days ago was pretty surreal, mostly because I was surrounded by signage in a strange, twisting alphabet:

A street sign on the way to the office, thankfully in Roman script alongside Amharic.

While I’m still pretty slow on the uptake of Amharic, the official language here, I am getting settled in thanks to the kindness of Gullele’s staff and my site advisor, Dr. Birhanu. He has been assisting me in learning some basic Amharic, navigating the steep cobblestone roads of Northern Addis, and creating a methodology for a project I will be working on during my stay here. As an intern, my primary task will be a research project concerning the feeding habits and habitat preferences of a shy forest antelope called Menelik’s Bushbuck.

While I have yet to see this species in person, I have become familiar with its habitat in field walks through Gullele’s forest reserve, which sits adjacent to its terraced gardens and the office itself. The forest is dry, with an Afromontane vegetation type that is characterized by juniper species and grasses. Gullele’s forest reserve takes up half a mountainside, which means that there’s plenty of little hideaways for the shy bushbuck.

While I am incredibly excited to get started on field work in the coming week, I am so grateful for the time I’ve had to adjust to Ethiopia. I am starting to get to know the neighborhood around the Garden and soon will be moving into a rental rather than staying at a hotel. I have to admit it, I’m wildly excited about the rental; I have two American neighbors as well as an Ethiopian family. In addition, I have just acquired a hot plate which means I can do my own cooking! Injera and wot recipes, here I come!

The highlight of my week thus far has got to be Gullele’s staff. Not only is Dr. Birhanu an amazing site advisor, but everyone here from the chief director to the research department to the ecotourism department to budgeting is so incredibly kind. Being able to come to Gullele’s office and see them every day has been a treat. I have time to work on the research proposal and create datasheets yet also sit in on meetings, talk with staff about their career paths, and learn more about local culture.

In short? THIS IS AWESOME. I can’t wait to see what the coming weeks bring and am so grateful to everyone who has helped me get here.

A burro grazes in front of Gullele’s offices.

Talitha McGuire '19

Talitha is a religion and biology major from Flagstaff, Arizona.