An Ethiopian Encounter
As we reach the Sanetti Plateau, the skyline is broken only by Giant lobelias standing sentry over the windswept landscape. These tall peculiar plants are in stark contrast with low shrubs and rocky outcrops that surround us on all sides high in the Bale Mountains of Southern Ethiopia. Slowly, we slink along in search of the world’s most endangered canid: the Ethiopian wolf.
This slender, reddish, dog-like animal has been known by various names: Simien fox, Abyssinian fox or Red jackal, until fairly recently when DNA sequencing proved that it is, in fact, a wolf. Its population of barely 500 individuals is endemic to Ethiopia’s highlands. Nowhere, however, is the likelihood of a sighting greater than in the Bale Mountains where 300 of these magnificent predators are believed to survive on a diet of Giant mole rats and other rodents, which abound in this region.
We are driving along the only road across the plateau. Though the sun is rising higher in the sky the air is still cool against our faces, the windows wound down just in case we spot movement. The anticipation is building in us as we spot Mountain Nyalas, the last of the great African antelopes to be discovered. It’s unusual to see them this high up, Gebre, the guide, tells me.
We are truly in the domain of the wolves now, and I am excited. Gebre is assuring me of the chances of success when suddenly he stops. I glance over and he is silent, poising, his eyes pointed straight out the window. He raises one arm and I follow it to where he’s pointing, and there, in the distance – barely perceptible against the rust-coloured earth unless it moves – is an Ethiopian wolf. It has its nose pressed against the ground, half-heartedly hunting for Giant mole rat’s burrow. It seems that on this occasion the mole rat is safe, as the wolf ambles off further into the distance, mouth empty.
The car rumbles into life as we head further across the plateau. Our first fleeting glimpse has filled me with enthusiasm for further sightings. My eyes are scanning the skyline when the driver slows to a halt. And there, in front of us, another wolf is stood right by the side of the road. We watched with baited breath before the creature decides to head off into the distance, vanishing behind a rocky outcrop. I’m still tingling from this brief encounter but Gebre is already moving. He gets out of the car and ushers me to follow.
Quietly the two of us creep forward. Soon we’re rounding the rocky outcrop ourselves and I’m startled at how far the male wolf has gone already. We begin to stalk him, silently moving closer each time he pauses. We walk hunched over, half-crouching as we scuttle across the rocks and shrubs – I’m sure the wolf is fully aware of our presence, though he seems unperturbed by it. We soon realise why. Something much more interesting than two humans has caught his eye: a female wolf.
Squatting down behind a rock, we watch the two wolves come together. It’s a classic love story: boy meets girl in a dramatic setting, boy sniffs girl, girl is unimpressed. The nonplussed female wanders off, and the male is left scratching behind his ear. After a while he saunters off, no doubt in search of easier prey – a juicy Mole rat for breakfast, perhaps.
Returning to the car, we continue to explore the plateau, admiring the spectacular scenery, indulging in a spot of bird-watching and seeing hares scatter at our approach. We’re lucky enough to spot two more wolves; each encounter with these lithe predators makes my heart thump with excitement. A day spent on the plateau, the only tourist in sight, has to be one of the most memorable wildlife experiences of my life.
By Tom Harari, Exodus Product Executive, who travelled on our Wildlife & Wilderness of Ethiopia trip.