Ethiopia’s wolves are one of the most endangered animals on the planet—even rarer than China’s giant panda. Travel writer Lizzie Pook crosses the remote Bale Mountains in hope of a glimpse.
“I had a wolf named after me once,” says my guide Ayuba as we clomp towards the Sanetti plateau, our horsemen clattering by, trailing pots and pans. “Every day, I’d come out here and look for him, to see how he was doing,” he says. “He’s dead now,” he concedes, with a gentle shake of the head.
We’re camping in Ethiopia’s remote Bale Mountains National Park. A wind-pitted place, home to soaring golden eagles, preying leopards, packs of spotted hyena and, in the nearby Harenna cloud forest, rare and magnificent black-maned jungle lions. The night is heavy and black. I can feel its darkness there, hovering outside the thin layer of canvas with a sort of malevolence.
All told, this is a wild part of the world. At night, we invariably set up our tents observed by curious troupes of baboon, or bed down under soaring vultures that drop the bones of their prey from great heights so that they can feast on the oozing marrow.
But it’s the wolves I’ve really come to see.
Sitting in southeast Ethiopia, 400 kilometers from the capital Addis Ababa and home to the highest plateau on the continent, earning it the name ‘the rooftop of Africa’, the Bale Mountains are less visited than the Simien Mountains in the north. And this ethereal landscape has to be seen to be believed, strewn with totem-like lobelia plants, jewel-colored swathes of heather and rock formations.
This landscape is also home to the elusive Ethiopian wolf—a russet-colored, white-socked, coyote-type creature—the rarest canid in the world, and Africa’s most threatened carnivore. Decimated by habitat loss and infectious diseases carried by domestic dogs, there are now fewer than 500 of the wolves in the wild, marooned in a handful of isolated pockets in the mountains of Ethiopia.
But I’m so intent on seeing this remarkable creature—an animal even rarer than China’s giant panda—I’ve chosen to schlep my way across the vast mountain range, at altitudes reaching a lung-pinching 2,000 meters, to try and clap eyes on one.
My guide is Ayuba Ahmed, a sanguine chap in his early 30s. Born in the small town of Dinsho in the heart of the park, he worked in odd-jobs until a passing biologist recognized his passion for wildlife and he was offered a role as wolf monitor for the local Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Program, and charged with tracking the animals and trapping them so he could administer rabies jabs.
Now, the potentially species-saving vaccine is given to the wolves via baited goat carcasses, the meat delicately positioned around the animals’ key territories by conservationists on horseback in the dead of night.
He also has the patience of a saint. “What lives in there?” I ask him, on multiple occasions, as we trudge through fields honeycombed with holes (incidentally, the answer is always giant mole rats). “What made that noise?” I demand, often.
At all times during our trek, Ayuba carries a pair of binoculars and a battered copy of The Birds of Ethiopia, held together with heavy-duty gray parcel tape. As we walk, he identifies the trills, whirrs and chirrups that float on the air around us. Cocking his ear to the screech of a raptor overhead. Nodding, he mutters “Augur buzzard” to himself with a satisfied smile.
He also has the patience of a saint. “What lives in there?” I ask him, on multiple occasions, as we trudge through fields honeycombed with holes (incidentally, the answer is always giant mole rats). “What made that noise?” I demand, often. Each time he pauses, before opening his book to an illustration of an iridescent tacazze sunbird, or gesturing across a ravine to a huge eagle owl being harassed by a burly mob of crows.
Most importantly though, he knows exactly where to find wolves. We trek for six days in search of them, across windswept plains teeming with anemone-like wildflowers, around towering volcanic mountain ranges that rise in the distance like giant’s jawbones.
Individual wolves, Ayuba tells us, will forage alone, often among grazing cattle, using the animals to hide their presence and flush big-headed African mole rats out of their burrows. But packs of the territorial animals can also be found gathered at dawn and dusk, patrolling their boundaries, repelling intruders or coming together to hunt for tiny mountain nyala calves.
I raise my binoculars and my eyes rest on its body, its long legs and its unmistakable black-tipped tail. My very first wolf … This is a species that only a handful of people have ever seen.
Eventually, after much trekking, we reach the caldera-like Sanetti plateau, and it’s up there, on that blustery, shrub-specked plain that I see it: A flash of burnt orange trotting across the horizon. It can’t be.
I raise my binoculars and my eyes rest on its body, its long legs and its unmistakable black-tipped tail. My very first wolf. Moments later, in a flurry of excitement, we spot another, resting on its hind legs among witchy alpine shrubs, its long snout sniffing at the air. I have to take a moment to breathe.
This is a species that only a handful of people have ever seen. But later that evening, as we set up camp, we’re graced by another two wolves, passing nimbly with a staccato gait as the sun sinks, sending shafts of golden light across their bodies.
The final night falls with a whisper, and I cocoon myself inside several layers to fight off the cold of the rain-slicked tent. But after just a couple of hours of fitful sleep, I’m awoken by a haunting sound. ‘Oooweh’, the call goes. ‘Ooweh, ooweh’. ‘I know that sound,’ I think, wrestling my way out of my sleeping bag and unzipping the tent.
In the darkness, I see that the horsemen have lit several fires, furiously stoking them to keep the flames rolling. Slowly, a prickle of recognition creeps across my neck. I know what they’re trying to keep away; why they’re trying to protect our horses. It’s hyenas. And they’re on the hunt.
Thankfully, there is no bloodshed overnight. As we commence the last leg of our journey and meander our way along stony roads, our bones aching and in a fog of dirt, dust and sweat, we see more wolves, at least half a dozen of them, foraging in the lush green earth. We watch them, in their stark, beautiful, wild, harsh environment of the Bale Mountains. And I’m happy to leave its wolves in peace.
The writer traveled to the Bale Mountains with Yellowwood Adventures who specialize in adventure trekking in Ethiopia, Kyrgyzstan and Iran.