July 27, 2017
Last year I travelled to Bale Mountains National Park in Ethiopia in order to try to photograph the world’s rarest canid, and Africa’s most endangered carnivore: the Ethiopian wolf (Canis simensis). Even though this National Park hosts half the world’s population, that still only amounts to around 250 animals in an area of 2,150 square kilometres. To add to the fun, this highly specialised predator only occurs at an altitude between 3,000 to 4,100 meters. Now that’s what I call a proper adventure!
With its bright red coat, long legs, bushy tail, pointed ears and long muzzle it seems somewhat of a mix between a wolf and a fox. It’s endemic to Ethiopia (meaning it occurs nowhere else), and with a fragmented total population of around 500 animals, it is classified as an endangered species. Hence my chances to see them were rather slim. But – as you have probably guessed from the cover photo – I managed to photograph several of these gorgeous animals.
Bale Mountains National Park
Bale Mountains National Park is an absolute jewel. This park seems less well visited than Simien Mountains National Park, and then often while en-route to the Omo Valley with its many ethnic groups. And even though it lacks the Gelada baboon (Theropithecus gelada), this National Park is very much worth visiting in its own right. It has the largest piece of Afro-Alpine habitat in the world with its otherworldly views, lots of endemic species, the highest all-weather road in Africa, great trekking opportunities, the largest cloud forest of Ethiopia, and much more!
The park boasts several distinctive habitats, including the Gaysay grassland in the upmost north where you can see the endemic and endangered mountain nyala (Tragelaphus buxtoni).
The Afro-Alpine highlands of Web Valley and Sanetti Plateau in north to central part of the park, with giant lobelia (Lobelia rynchopatelum) that grows to heights of up to six meters. Afro-Alpine meadows (aka high-altitude-plants-like-in-the-Alps-but-in-Africa) start at an altitude of around 3,000 meters, which confronted me with less than perfect conditions… sounding like an old lady climbing a flight of stairs! Mount Tullu Demtu is also worth visiting: the second highest mountain in Ethiopia at 4,377 meters. You can drive almost straight to the top on the highest all-weather road in Africa.
The Harenna forest, from the central to south, was the biggest surprise of all and my personal favourite because so little is being written about it. This is an actual cloud forest with amazing vegetation and lots of wildlife! Here you can see the endemic Bale Mountains vervet (Chlorocebus djamdjamensis), taste wild forest coffee and maybe even spot elusive lions. Read my blog post on Harenna.
Accommodation-wise there are limited options inside the park: we stayed at www.dinsholodge.com with its friendly staff, good food, and many chameleons and warthogs. Elsewhere we camped on designated campsites and cooked our own food. In the Harenna forest there is also a high-end boutique lodge www.balemountainlodge.com for those of you with deeper pockets.
Where to see Ethiopian wolves?
Ethiopian wolves are specialised in hunting the weird and wonderful rodents of the Afro-Alpine meadows. The rodent community includes grass rats (Arvicanthis blicki) and the endemic and endangered big-headed mole-rat (Tachyoryctes macrocephalus). I know: the latter has the funniest name ever, but wait till you see this creature! These rodent species are the natural grazers of this vegetation type.
Ethiopian wolves wait until one of their prey pops its head out of a burrow or runs out into the open. The wolf then often pounces on its prey like a red fox hunting in the snow. The long and narrow muzzle of the Ethiopian wolf is a helpful tool here. Ethiopian wolves are social animals like other canids: living in packs of around six animals. However, they prefer to hunt alone and are diurnal (active during daytime). They don’t sleep in dens and only use those for their pups. After waking or before sleeping at night, they meet up and reaffirm their connection and place in the pack by dominant and submissive displays.
So, based on this information, the Afro-Alpine meadows of Bale Mountains National Park are the place to see the Ethiopian wolf. You have two good options here. Either you can use a dedicated 4x4 hike from Dinsho lodge / park headquarters to visit the Web Valley, or drive / hike on the Sanetti Plateau from Goba. I managed to see wolves in both areas with a total of 20 encounters and both are both good places to see these lovely creatures along with impressive landscapes. You have the highest chance by driving slowly back and forth on the only road of the Sanetti Plateau: look for that splash of red among the boulders that isn’t lichen. Wolves seem to mind their own business here and you can get rather close while they showcase natural behaviour like hunting. In the Web Valley I found encounters are more short-lived if they are close by (you often surprise each other due to the nature of the erratic volcanic landscape), or with sightings farther away.
Threats to the Ethiopian wolf
The Ethiopian wolf has probably always been rare, due to its extreme specialisation and very localised occurrence on some of the margins of the roof of Africa. The Afro-Alpine meadows have annual rainfall and good soils which mean that their habitat is being slowly encroached on by humans. The biggest threats to the survival of the Ethiopian Wolf in Bale Mountains are because of habitat-loss and dogs. Loss of habitat is due to encroaching agriculture and overgrazing by cattle. Nomads and cattle herders also bring dogs, which can cause several diseases like rabies and possible hybridisation between the two species. Multiple documented rabies outbreaks in Bale Mountains National Park have had a severe impact on the decline of the local Ethiopian wolf population. As a result, conservation efforts are focusing on education, wolf monitoring, rabies control in domestic dogs and vaccination of Ethiopian wolves.
If you want to read more about either Ethiopian wolves or Bale Mountain National Park, I recommend the following resources:
- Support ongoing conservation efforts on the Ethiopian wolf at www.ethiopianwolf.org
- Download a free pdf at the official website of Bale Mountains National Park with lots of info to help you plan your visit at www.balemountains.org
- Get your hands on a copy of the beautiful coffee table book ‘The Ethiopian Wolf: Hope at the Edge of Extinction’ by Will Burrard-Lucas and Rebecca R Jackrel at www.ethiopianwolfproject.com
- Hire local certified guide, naturalist and overall nice guy, Ahmed Alo at www.balemountainstours.com