Trip report: Watching Ethiopian wolves in Ethiopia's Sanetti Plateau
It wasn’t the bleak beauty or the bitter cold of Sanetti Plateau that took my breath away on that chilly November morning, but my first ever sighting of an Ethiopian wolf, the world’s rarest canid, writes Sue Watt. Only 500 Ethiopian wolves survive, yet it was the wolf’s demeanour rather than his rarity that made me wish time could stand still and let me savour this moment.
He’d crept up to us while we’d been busy looking into the distance through binoculars, and we’d suddenly realised what we’d been searching for was loitering right by the side of our Land Rover. Looking more like a fox than a wolf, but taller and sleeker, his long muzzle sniffed the air, so close to me I could see his black nose was wet and shiny. His ears were pricked bolt upright, the white hairs inside them twitching, alert to every sound. And his eyes, bright amber with flecks of green, studied me with quiet curiosity.
The wolf’s inquisitiveness was probably justified: tourists too are currently quite rare in Bale Mountains National Park. But he’ll be seeing a lot more in the future, if all goes to plan for the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority and a new lodge in the Park that opened last year.
Bale Mountain Lodge is the dream child of former British Army Colonel Guy Levene and his wife Yvonne, a schoolteacher. Tucked into the Katcha clearing of Harenna Forest, it is the only lodge in the Park, with eight stylish chalets overlooking open glades and mountains, and a large, thatched “tukul” housing the bar and dining room. Activities range from hiking on forest and mountain trails, fishing and game drives to visiting local villages and camel markets.
Having fallen in love with the area while posted in Addis Ababa, the couple’s ambitions go beyond running this beautiful, eco-friendly lodge. ““We’re here because we want to save Bale,” Guy explained. “We hope to have a direct impact on the management of the National Park. All our activities are geared to reducing deforestation, educating locals and guests about the special nature of Bale, its role as a 'water tower' for 12 million downstream users and its unique wildlife.”
The mix of fauna in this 2,200 square km Park is certainly unique. Black-maned lions, African wild dogs, giant forest hogs and even a black leopard have been seen here. And some of the 78 mammal species and 310 species of birds living within its boundaries can rarely be found outside Bale, like the handsome Mountain Nyala, the skittish Menelik’s bushbuck and the giant molerat, strangely the Ethiopian wolf’s favourite meal.
If the chef’s adage “you eat with your eyes first” were true of Ethiopian wolves, they would probably have starved to death generations ago. With yellowing, protruding front teeth that hang down their chins and a neck as fat as a rugby prop forward, giant molerats are the size of domestic cats with short, stubby legs. Hardly appealing to us, they are the saviours of the canids: with 5000 molerats per square kilometre, the wolves should be thriving. Yet they face serious threats to their survival.
Although tourists are rare, farmers and their families have moved into illegal settlements in Bale as Ethiopia’s population has exploded to over 90 million, leading to unchecked human encroachment. They also brought their livestock, their dogs, and their dogs’ diseases like rabies and canine distemper which spread to the Ethiopian wolves. Such is the vulnerability of the wolves that because of disease outbreaks in 1990, 2003 and 2008-9, their numbers crashed to fewer than 200 adults in 2010.
Today, they are back from the brink of extinction. Thanks to the work of the highly respected Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme (EWCP), their populations have recovered to the levels preceding these outbreaks. Established in 1995 by Oxford University with financial support from donors including the Born Free Foundation, Frankfurt Zoological Society and Wildlife Conservation Network, EWCP’s mission is to protect the Ethiopian wolves and the fragile Afroalpine habitat in which they live. As part of their aims, they employ “wolf ambassadors” to raise awareness of habitat and wolf conservation, and to help educate local people. Working on disease management, they have vaccinated over 4200 dogs in Bale in the last two years; and focusing on scientific research, they are testing a rabies vaccine for wolves.
Classified as endangered, Ethiopian wolves are found in six highland areas of the country. A handful of wolf packs live in Arsi Mountains National Park, North and South Wallo, Guassa and Simien Mountains National Park. Around half the global population, some 230, live in the Bale Mountains.
I’d hiked in the Simiens nine years ago, to the summit of Ras Dashen, Ethiopia’s highest mountain at 4543m. On our ten-day trek, I’d been desperate for a glimpse of the Ethiopian wolf, but the few that live there remained stubbornly elusive. I half expected a similar outcome in Bale. James Ndungu, Bale Mountain Lodge’s resident naturalist, has been researching in the National Park for three years and is a walking encyclopaedia on its fauna and flora. “Don’t worry, you’ll see a wolf, I promise,” he’d reassured me, smiling confidently as we left for a morning game drive.
But there’s more to Bale than the Ethiopian wolves. The National Park has one of the most diverse habitats in Africa. We left the lodge which lies in a forest clearing in the shadow of Mount Gujuralli, a steep two hours’ hike away with exceptional views from its peak. Shortly after, we drove past bamboo forests where endemic Bale monkeys can be seen and then through the village of Rira with mud and thatch houses, home to most of the staff at Bale Mountain Lodge.
Ascending steeply to the outskirts of Harenna Forest, Ethiopia’s largest cloud forest, the landscape changed from eerie moss and lichen drenched trees to slopes swathed in heather and everlasting flowers. Between June and September, the hillsides are a mass of red hot pokers but at the end of November, tiny white blossoms looked like a blanket of frost. Finally, we reached the largest tract of Afroalpine moorland in Africa, home to the Sanetti Plateau where striking giant lobelia jutted into the cold, thin air all the way to Tulu Dimtu, Ethiopia’s second highest mountain at 4337 metres.The African Bird Club also ranks Bale as the fourth best place for birding on the continent. Endemic birds we saw included pretty black-headed siskins with chubby yellow bodies, blue-winged geese, and yellow-fronted parrots. My favourite, although not endemic, was the augur buzzard, often seen on the roadside perched on rocks looking for rats.
“After this drift, we’re into wolf territory,” James said as we drove across a small stream and started looking in earnest for the canids. Whilst scouring the horizon, he told me all about the wolves: how they live in packs and move their lair every day unless they are denning with pups, when juveniles will guard them while the adults hunt. He described how they are blind at birth, all black and fluffy, turning russet as they age; and how their parents feed them by regurgitating their food in their dens. But perhaps the most appealing things about them were their bedtime habits. “At night, they sleep huddled together to fend off the cold,” he explained. “And every morning, they kiss each other when they wake up as part of their socialising.”
Although they live in packs, wolves hunt alone, and are most often spotted searching for prey in the mornings and late afternoons. I needn’t have worried about not seeing them. We came across several after that first special sighting. One was just 20 metres away, stalking a giant molerat. His long, slim legs were perfect for skulking low, and we waited silently for him to pounce on his prey. “He’s a juvenile, his tail is still black,” James whispered. “And he’s learning how to hunt.” But this wolf clearly had more to learn. As he lay motionless by the burrows, another two giant molerats popped out of their holes, and spoilt for choice, he left them to it and simply sauntered away empty-handed.
Had that wolf stayed a few minutes longer, he would have seen how the experts do it. An adult female appeared, stalked for a few seconds then quickly snapped up her lunch, grabbing the molerat around its fat neck before it had chance to retreat. We saw others in the distance too, one with a rat dangling from its jaws and another sleeping in the sun, cleverly camouflaged by rust coloured lichen on the rocks.
But it was that first wolf that struck me most, with his gentle, curious gaze. He stood watching us for a minute or two, so close I could have touched him, then calmly trotted away as silently as he’d arrived. Still vulnerable and endangered, every Ethiopian wolf is precious, but to me, this one was special. That brief moment we shared will always stay with me.