Dances with Wolves - Trekking in the Bale Mountains
The twin otter bounced to a standstill on the grass airstrip. The door was opened and we were squinting in the sunlight, trying to get accustomed to our surrounds. Apart from a lone hut, which served as both the arrivals and departure terminal, and a man on a set of stairs, that served as the tower control, there was not much to our surrounds. We were quite literally in the middle of nowhere. We were in the Bale Mountains – the best kept secret in Ethiopia.
Mention Ethiopia and most people think of drought and famine. The country has become synonymous with famine to the extent that there is an apocryphal story of an Ethiopian Airlines salesperson being asked by a client if they served meals on the plane. If such a misguided person, or better still you, were to travel to Ethiopia then they would find a country that confounds such a stereotypical image.
In fact you would find that there is much more to this land of contrasts and extremes than starving children and Live Aid. What Ethiopia should best be known for is not its recent tragic history, but its long and rich historical past. A past that has created a country like no other in Africa. A country that is quite simply different. Historically, culturally and geographically, Ethiopia is arguably the most fascinating and interesting country in Africa.
Few other countries in the world, can boast an imperial dynasty that stretches back centuries before the birth of Christ with the reign of Menelik I, son of the Queen of Sheba, to the iconic Haile Selassie who was overthrown in 1974. No other country claims to posses the Ark of the Covenant, as Ethiopia does. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is one of the oldest churches in the world and the eleventh century monolithic rock-hewn churches of Lalibela are regarded as the unofficial eighth wonder of the world.
Scenically Ethiopia is an amazing land of contrasts from the forbidding Danakil Depression to Lake Tana and the Blue Nile Falls. From the staggering beauty of the Simien Mountains to the wildlife of the Omo valley. But perhaps the least well-known of them all, the Bale Mountains, is the Jewel in the Crown.
The Bale Mountains National Park is an area of high altitude plateau that is broken by numerous spectacular volcanic plugs and parks, beautiful alpine lakes and rushing mountain streams that descend into deep rocky gorges on their way to the lowlands below. It is the largest area of Afro-Alpine habitat in the whole of the African continent and contains many of Ethiopia’s endemic mammals in particular the Simien Fox, the Mountain Nyala and birds such as the thick-billed raven, wattled ibis, blue-winged goose and Rouget’s rail. The National Park is divided into two parts by the spectacular Harenna escarpment that runs from east to west. North of this escarpment is a high altitude plateau area at 4,000m.
I had been invited to the Bale Mountain by the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme (EWCP), which was established in 1995 for the conservation of the Ethiopian wolf. The Ethiopian wolf, canis simensis, is a rare endemic of the highlands of Ethiopia. With fewer than five hundred individuals remaining in seven small and isolated populations, the Ethiopian wolf is the rarest canid in the world and arguably the rarest carnivore in Africa.
We were met by Stuart Williams, who heads up the EWCP project, and driven the short distance to Dinsho Lodge. Being little more than a staging post for our expedition into the Bale Mountains, I was pleasantly surprised by the lodge, which offered simple but pleasant accommodation. Its simplicity is not worthy of note but its pleasantness is. It was situated in one of the last remaining Juniper and Hagenia forests in Ethiopia and its surrounding wildlife was surprisingly tame – going for a walk in the nearby forest we came across warthog, Menelik’s bushbuck and the endemic mountain nyala.
The next morning we met Edris, our easy-going Ethiopian guide for the week’s trekking. Edris introduced us to the assembled company and then told us to choose a horse. I am told that horse selection is all-important for any jockey worth his weight in the saddle and choosing your mount in the Bale Mountains is no different. I chose Dama because he was a handsome horse that looked strong. I think that my judgement was basically sound but I, or more to the point Dama, was handicapped by my weight. Let us say that I am somewhat heavier than the average Oromo man and hence could never persuade Dama into more than a canter.
If Dama disappointed in terms of my position in the Bale Mountains Derby, he definitely did not so as a means of seeing and enjoying the unfolding scenery of the day. Although the scenery was impressive it could not be described as spectacular – there were no imposing mountains, no dramatic gorges but rather I was awestruck by the remoteness of where we were, shell-shocked by the vast expanses.
The sense of wilderness was further accentuated when we arrived at camp and I use the word in the loosest sense. There were no huts, no tents, just a sheltered hollow in which we had to pitch camp, cook and make our home for the next few days.
We awoke early, at 5 a.m., to the brightness of the firmament above and split up into two groups to make our presence seem less threatening to the wolves. The hope being that in smaller groups we might be able to get closer to the den and the pups. It was an hour-long trek to the den across a vast valley. The frost on the grass and heather shimmered in the early morning light. As the sun rose bringing warmth with it, the frost melted away to reveal a variety of hues, yellows, browns and golds.
We arrived at the den to find no sign of life. Stuart told us to keep low and be patient as he went off on a short scouting trip to see if there were any signs of movement on the plains. I was awoken from my reverie by Stuart tapping me on the shoulder and whispering, “There.” “Where?” I replied straining my eyes in frustration at not being able to see anything. Stuart patiently guided me to where I could just make out a reddish brown object on the ground. I did not feel so stupid for not having seen it immediately and would definitely not have noticed it without the benefit of Stuart’s trained eyes.
A female slowly got to her feet, yawned lazily and scanned the horizon looking for signs of movement. She trotted towards a den where her scent and high-pitched bark brought her young scurrying to the surface. Stuart explained “The mother sleeps outside the den. The adults rarely sleep underground.” The pups were playful and happy to see Mum, whereas she was brusque and businesslike, lying down for the shortest of feeds before heading out to the plain to patrol her territory with the other adults of the pack. The pups were momentarily at a loss, put out by Mum’s abrupt departure and the fact that they had been abandoned before they realised that it was an opportunity for some fun and games and began cavorting and playing happily in the early morning sun.
Meanwhile Mum trotted out across the plain. Elegant and long-legged she looked like an oversized jackal. Yet despite her slender stature her spritely step displayed a plucky confidence and arrogance. Stuart explained that she was heading out on a patrol; in contrast to their solitary foraging habits the Ethiopian wolves are social animals, living in cohesive social units or packs, which defend exclusive territories. The packs range from three to thirteen adults and are generally biased towards males. Whereas males never leave their natal range, up to two thirds of females disperse to seek breeding openings elsewhere, and in the process sustain higher mortality rates as sub-adults.
Despite their social habits, these wolves are precision solitary hunters, specialised on diurnal rodents, and in Bale they favour the giant molerat, which at 900g, provides a handsome meal. However, true to their wolf colours (their closest relatives are the grey wolf and coyote), Ethiopian wolves are also facultative cooperative hunters, and whenever the opportunity arises they aggregate to hunt hares, hyrax and small ungulates.
That afternoon we headed out to a different den. As we sat waiting for signs of activity, pups to emerge from the den, adults to return from patrol, I thought I was alone until I heard high-pitched squeaking. Looking around I noticed that the ground was scattered with burrows and holes – Afro-alpine rodents – mice, rats and molerats – dominate these cold and seemingly barren plateaux due to their ability to flee the bad weather by living underground. They are found at staggeringly high densities – at most the rodent densities reach about 4,000 kg/km² but average around 2,500 kg/km². If you like me are not great with weights and measures let me put that bewildering statistic into perspective: it is equivalent to the large mammal (including the 1.5 million wildebeest and 200,000 plains zebras) densities recorded in the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem in East Africa.
The high density of rodents also attracts a huge density of raptors – both resident and migrant. Included are golden eagles. Not only are the Bale Mountains the only area in sub-Saharan Africa to have a population, but this is their most southern resident and breeding area in the world. Other raptors include Augur buzzards, Verreaux’s or black eagles, tawny and steppe eagles, Abyssinian long-eared owls, lanner falcons, kestrels and the Lammergeier or bearded vulture. It was a constant joy throughout our time in the mountains to look above and see raptors circling and hovering in the skies above us.
Over the next few days we visited a number of dens in the area, watching at close quarters the daily lives of these high plains drifters. Each day and each visit I noticed different characteristics about the wolves and began to appreciate and understand better their life on the plateau. Although the wolves had none of the physical presence of some of Africa’s other and bigger carnivores I developed a healthy respect for the life that they managed to eke out in the harsh environment of the plateau, how they coped with the extreme temperature changes and how they adapted to people on the plateau.
One afternoon enjoying the last of the afternoon sun, we were woken from our dosing by the arrival of two young girls aged roughly three and six. Imagine their surprise at coming over the brow to see five farangi basking in the sun. Undaunted by this most unusual sight they cautiously approached us. I went forward, keeping low to be as unthreatening as possible, and gently greeted the younger of the two, extending my hand in greeting. She took by hand and gently lifted it to her mouth and kissed it. I cannot tell you how wonderfully moving that gesture. It was one of the most genuine and touching movements made all the more magical by the fact that we were in the middle of nowhere in the Bale Mountains. In that moment I realised more than ever that you cannot disassociate people and wildlife.
Later one afternoon we met a wonderful looking herd of cattle being driven to market.
“Where is the market” I asked Edris, thinking that it was a couple of miles away.
“In Addis” replied Edris. Addis was over four hundred miles away.
It was not just the distance that the cattle were being taken to market that surprised me but the seemingly peaceful coexistence between the Ethiopian wolves and the Oromo shepherds. Ethiopian wolves share the Afroalpine moorlands with shepherds and their livestock, and are perceived only as a minor threat to lambs. But is the relationship as innocuous as first sight would have us believe?
My guidebook seemed to imply that the relationship between the two was innocuous but if this was the case how come the Ethiopian wolves were an endangered species, holding the unhappy distinction of being an endangered species. I asked Stuart, “Why are the wolves so endangered? Are they not known for their adaptability?”. Stuarts reply was blunt “Numbers have declined critically in the last few years due to increasing human pressure for high altitude grazing and agriculture, direct persecution, hybridization with domestic dogs, and infectious diseases such as rabies.”
Scientists and statistics paint a much bleaker picture. The Ethiopian wolf has the sad privilege of being the rarest member of the canid family. With the current rate of habitat destruction, persecution, disease, and hybridization, action is needed to avoid a further population decline and diminish the chances of these animals becoming extinct. Without swift intervention and help from the international community, one of the most interesting creatures ever to inhabit the African highlands might soon become the next large mammal to go extinct.
Yet while food for remains scarce for millions
of Ethiopians it is understandably hard to raise awareness of the wolves’ plight. Perhaps what is
needed is a new way of thinking and development – no longer should
we just promote conservation and wildlife issues in isolation but the
emphasis should be upon people and wildlife.