Field Mission Djibouti (2015)

Djibouti is a country located in the Horn of Africa. It is bordered by Eritrea in the north, Ethiopia in the west and south, and Somalia in the southeast. The remainder of the border is formed by the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden at the east. Djibouti occupies a total area of just 23,200 square km. Between 8 and 16 December (2015), Loïc Michon, Doudjo Ouattara and Fred Stauffer spent more than a week studying and sampling wild and cultivated populations of Hyphaene thebaica in this country. With the great support of Dr. Abdourahman Daher (Director of the Institut des sciences de la vie, Centre d'étude et de recherche de Djibouti - CERD), Mrs. Sabira Abdoulkader (researcher at CERD), Mr. Omar Osman (Researcher at CERD-FAO), and not to forget our great driver Mr. Mohamed Hamadou, we spent amazing days sampling in many regions of this beautiful country. We visited Hyphaene thebaica palm groves in the regions of Tadjoura, Dikhil and Arta, in a travel of more than 2000 km; extremely hard work but amazing sampling and great gathering of ecologic and ethnobotanic data. Some results of this field mission were published by Stauffer et al. (2018)

The flight from Addis-Ababa to Djibouti in this small airplane of Ethiopian Airlines was very pleasant and already showed amazing views of the arid landscapes dominating the Horn of Africa.

Day 1 of our field mission!.This is part of the collection team (Loïc Michon, Doudjo Ouattara) sitting on our 4WD Toyota. Standing to the right is our skilled driver of the CERD, Mr. Mohamed Hamadou.

Already the first day of our field mission we had the chance to visit the very famous Lake Assal, about 120 km west of Djibouti city. It is a crater located at the western end of Gulf of Tadjoura (Tadjoura Region), touching Dikhil Region, at the top of the Great Rift Valley. In this photo you can clearly see that it is a saline lake!. It lies 155 m below sea level in the Afar Triangle, making it the lowest point on land in Africa and the second-lowest land depression on Earth after the Dead Sea.

In direction of the extensive Hyphaene thebaica grove of Hagandé we stop in the small village of Balho, located in the “Plaine” of Balho, only 7 km away the Ethiopian border. We were invited by the villagers to have a great meal (goat ragout and rice) sitting on H. thebaica mats. Quite an ethnobotanical experience for all of us!. Sabira explained to us plenty of details about the manufacture of these mats.

First individual of H. thebaica collected in Djibouti. The task force Loïc-Doudjo immediately tackled the collection process, looking for reproductive structures.

This palm grove is located in Kibohta (180 m altitude), south-east of Balho. The soil is predominantly sandy and the population is composed of about 12 clumps. There were no evident signs of exploitation for wine tapping or fruits from these palms, but there were signs of some fruits eaten by most probably Hamadryas Baboons (Papio hamadryas). Small tornadoes are frequent in this desert area (see left of the palm clump)

We stopped in the locality of Hagandé rather late in the evening. In this small village palm wine extraction and use of leaves from H. thebaica are very intensive. Local inhabitants rely 100% on the palm ressource.

Palm wine tapping is mostly carried out on adult individuals, but also observed in young palms. The weaved device made of the palm leaves is use to protect the palm apex and avoid the visit of insects that feed on the palm sap. Palm wine is highly appreciated in this region

Women are also very engaged in palm wine tapping and mat weaving. This woman is part of the 1.8 million of people belonging to the Afar ethnic group in Djibouti. The palm apex has been severely damaged but a young leaf will still come out. The new crown of these tapped palms look abnormal and much more reduced than in non-exploited palms.

Mat weaving is a major activity in the locality of Hagandé. These long ribbons will be weaved together in order to produce a large mat. The latter are normally sold or exchange against salt with caravan guides.

We are here loading the roof of our Toyota with ethnobotanical objects and mats. It is 7 pm and we still have to drive about 2-3 hours to the coastal city of Tadjourah (region of Tadjourah). We passed deserts in the night and saw salt caravans, the latter taking advantage of the fresh temperatures that arrive with the sunset. An amazing experience!.

In the coastal city of Tadjourah we visited a small cooperative organized by women dedicate in the manufacturing of large diversity of handcrafts made of leaves from H. thebaica. Many of the objects here depicted are now in the ethnobotanical collection of the Conservatory and Botanical Garden of Geneva.

On December 10 we spent the night in Tadjourah and took the road towards the south, in direction to Ambabo, Sangallou and Arta; at some point we crossed large areas of volcanic origin. Right on the coast and growing directly on sandy soils we spotted these populations of Hyphaene thebaica. These palms are permanently exposed to sea winds and grow on extremely harsh conditions.

The palm groves of Agna and Assa-Eyla (Region of Dikhil) are characterized by their sandy, salty soils. A crust of about 1-2 cm salt covers the surface of this landscape; however, these clumps of H. thebaica seem to successfully support these conditions. The growth of these palms is rather abnormal as they appear to remain at “juvenile” stage. Indeed, only few adults were seen in this area.

Palm wine tapping in the Hyphaene thebaica groves of Agna and Assa-Eyla is a common practice, often heavily threatening young clumps that most probably will never have the possibility to reach adult stage.

The access to the palm groves of Agna and Assa-Eyla goes through a very extensive (and also very intimidating!) desert area. No water, no plants…only sun and sand!

In the palm population of Agna we collected some individuals of H. thebaica that beared male and female structures in the same plant; somehow contradicting the otherwise universally accepted dioecious reproductive syndrome proposed for the genus Hyphaene. Sabira and one of our guides hold male inflorescences harvested from this palm and the associated fruits lay on the ground.

Dromedaries are frequently used in Djibouti and their presence in palm groves is not rare; they feed on the young leaves of H. thebaica. Doudjo Ouattara stands in front of a juvenile group of dromedaries in Agna.

Mat weaving remains a major activity for women of all ages. This very old lady in the village of Agna perfectly managed the manufacture of large mats; only the speared leaves are used in this case.