Trekking with the World’s Rarest Wolf

Last Sunday I wrote about Ethiopia’s sprawling capital, and the first few days of my 10 day visit to the country. Once we felt we’d exhausted Addis’ coffee shops and museums, we got on a bus and made the eight hour journey south to the Bale Mountains.

The first leg was down the long, straight, 240km stretch of road that links Addis to Shashemene, which skirts the blue volcanic hills of Lake Ziway, and a number of other Rift Valley lakes. Shashemene is an interesting town, not because it sits alongside southern Ethiopia’s most important crossroads, but because it’s the unofficial Rastafari capital of Africa. When Ras Tafari was crowned Emperor Haile Selassie in 1930, he gained followers far beyond the confines of his own kingdom. The ‘return to Africa’ movement in Jamaica saw the emperor’s coronation as the fulfilment of an ancient biblical prophecy that ‘Kings will come out of Africa’, and thus Rastafarianism was born. In 1963, Haile Selassie granted the Rastafarians land in Shashemene, a community now known locally as ‘Jamaica’.

From Shashemene we headed east, along a steep road that winds through the northern escarpments of the Bale Mountains, with their rounded rock pinnacles dotting the hills like lonely teeth in an old man’s gums. The bus then dropped us off at Dinsho, near the Bale Mountains National Park headquarters. The park extends for 2,200km2 across the upper reaches of the Bale Mountains, which were formed by volcanic activity roughly 10 million years ago. It’s most notable, perhaps, for the Sanetti Plateau – a vast tract of heather-strewn Afro-alpine moorland with elevations over 4,300 metres. The land gradually falls away from the plateau in the south, giving way to the thick Harenna Forest.

It wasn’t this spectacular change in landscape, though, that drew us to the park. The Bale Mountains are also home to an incredible diversity of endemic birds and animals, including the Ethiopian wolf – the world’s rarest canid, and Africa’s most endangered carnivore. Of the 500-or-so wolves left, over half live in Bale, while the rest are scattered in and around the Simien Mountains in the north. Unlike their closest canid relatives – such as wild dogs and jackals – Ethiopian wolves are highly specialised feeders. They prey on Afro-alpine rodents, and have therefore developed very specific habitat requirements, which is why the surviving populations have been restricted to Afro-alpine pockets in the Ethiopian highlands.

Their suitable habitats typically extend between 3,000 and 4,500 metres, but subsistence agriculture reaches up to 3,800 metres in places, pushing the wolves to even higher ranges. These highlands are among Africa’s most densely populated agricultural areas, and human encroachment has proved to be one of the wolves’ biggest threats. In Bale, it isn’t so much the people but their dogs that are at the root of the problem. One of the wolves’ main causes of mortality is Rabies, which locals are reluctant to vaccinate their dogs against as it makes them less aggressive. Thankfully, Bale’s locals seem to have a lot of respect for the wolves, made easier by the fact that they don’t prey on livestock. In fact, the wolves like to use the livestock to hunt, as the rats feel safe enough around cattle to emerge from their burrows in the ground.

Because of Bale’s relatively large wolf population, getting a glimpse of them was surprisingly easy, but then we made sure the route of our five-day trek passed through as much wolf territory as possible. We walked 20km a day, first through the riverine plains and juniper woodlands of the park’s outskirts, before gradually making our way up to the Sanetti Plateau. Apart from the alien looking giant lobelias, the plateau is covered in heather – which meant our wolf sightings were often just a flash of orange in a sea of misty grey. One of the wolf packs, though, called ‘BBC’ (by whom they were filmed for a documentary), has become more accustomed to humans, and one of them wandered within 20 metres of us.

We were also lucky enough to see them socialise with each other in the early morning, as they are usually seen hunting or patrolling their territory alone.

There are plenty of birds too: the park hosts nine of the sixteen bird species endemic to Ethiopia, including the blue-winged goose, and we even spotted a lammergeyer. Identifying these and other bird, animal and plant species was made easier with the help of our guide – Muzeyen Turke. Muzeyen spent years working as a monitor for the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme (EWCP), and was therefore very clued up on the behaviour and general whereabouts of Bale’s wolves. He now runs the Bale Trekking Tour Company, and if you’re interested in visiting the park, his email is muze1977@gmail.com. For general information contact info@balemountains.org, and if you’re also keen to read more about the work of the EWCP, visit www.ethiopianwolf.org.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation