In Ethiopia’s Bale Mountains, lions and wolves prowl and humans make honey

After a seven-hour drive south from the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, past camel markets, shimmering Rift Valley lakes and seemingly endless fields of wheat and teff, the asphalt ends. A rust-red dirt track takes over and begins to climb, its heavily rutted surface slowing buses, four-wheel drives and firewood-laden donkeys to a crawl. As the air chills, driver and guide Demiss Mamo winds up the window of his well-used jeep.

“Welcome to the rooftop of Africa,” he says, swerving to avoid a giant pothole. “When most foreigners think of Ethiopia, they don’t imagine snow-clad volcanoes, cloud forest and alpine lakes. But then again, the Bale Mountains have always been a pretty unique place.”

Part of the Ethiopian Highlands, the Bale range is made up of mountains built upon mountains, with the highest volcanic peaks soaring way above 4,000 metres. These look down on the high-altitude Sanetti Plateau, a vast, undulating, largely treeless tableland that towers over the rest of southeastern Ethiopia, its southern slopes draped in the lush and mysterious Harenna Forest.

Mamo drives onwards and upwards, switching on his headlights as tendrils of mist drift across the rock-strewn land­scape. Outlandish giant lobelias begin to appear beside the track, their thick, trunk-like stems adorned with headdresses of green fronds, while fields of red hot pokers thrust upwards from the surrounding heather with a fiery-hued dash of colour. In the distance the shallow, brooding bulk of Mount Tullu Dimtu frames the horizon.

With the light beginning to fail, Mamo pulls over and points towards a nearby rocky outcrop. Sitting next to a giant lobelia, its tawny-coloured, fox-like face fixed intently on the jeep, is an Ethiopian wolf. The striking animal rises slowly on white-socked legs and lopes elegantly towards another collection of boulders, pausing every so often to look back at the vehicle.

“I think it’s a female,” says Mamo. “Her den must be nearby. You’re looking at the rarest carnivore in Africa, so it’s not a bad way to begin your Bale Mountain experience.”

The Bale Mountains might not be well-travelled by visitors to Africa (or even Ethiopia), but they should be. From African wild dogs and mountain nyala to Bale mon­keys and Menelik’s bushbuck, an incredible number of rare species owe their survival to the isolated and diverse nature of this high-altitude region. The 2,200 sq km Bale Mountains National Park (BMNP), which encompasses much of the Sanetti Plateau and Harenna Forest, is a nature-lover’s paradise.

The most iconic species of the Bale Mountains is undoubtedly the Ethiopian wolf. Today, with just seven populations scattered across the country, there are fewer than 500 individuals left in the wild. The Sanetti Plateau is their last stronghold, with about 200 of these slender, coyote-like creatures feeding almost exclusively off the appropriately named big-headed African mole-rat (also known as the giant mole-rat).

The most immediate and real threat to Ethiopian wolves comes from domesticated dogs, which are an increasingly common sight in the BMNP, as humans and their livestock encroach on park boundaries. Ethiopia has the fastest-growing human population in Africa, and such encroach­ment is common in many of the country’s national parks.

While many species in the Bale Mountains have been able to coexist with highland shepherds and their cattle, “When dogs interact with wolves they transmit rabies and the canine distemper virus to their wild cousins,” explains Eric Bedin, field director of the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme (EWCP), which was set up in 1995 to prevent the endangered animals from disappearing altogether. “Disease outbreaks can and have decimated wolf populations in Bale and other locations.

The EWCP monitors and protects a number of wolf packs in the BMNP, with pre-emptive vaccination programmes and a team that can rapidly respond to rabies outbreaks.

“The wolves are still in a precarious position, but the population is now slowly increasing,” says Bedin. “We’ve seen animals exploring parts of the park where they were absent for many years, which is really good news.”

Soon after dawn the following morning, Mamo lifts a length of plastic drainpipe to his mouth and blows. The sound that reverberates through the dense, dripping foliage – a kind of guttural woof – starts a family of giant forest hogs crashing through the undergrowth while birds and colobus monkeys set up a chorus of alarm calls and nervous chattering.

Mamo’s lifelike calls might be a piece of ingenious fakery, but the effect they generate is all too real. Because nothing raises the adrenaline levels of the Harenna Forest’s animal community like the sound of a black-maned lion.

Source: Post Magazine