Animals don’t usually come to mind when you think of Ethiopia. But the country is home to an incredible diversity of species. Graeme Green explores the Simien and Bale mountains to find out more. Picture credit: Will Burrard-Lucas
t’s a ‘you-scratch-my-back, I’ll-scratch-yours’ situation,” says wildlife guide Dani Fikru. We’re watching a huddle of geladas caringly checking through each other’s fur. “They spend 30 to 40 per cent of their day grooming. They’re picking out parasites, but it also has social value: it’s a way to show friendship.”
These monkeys are ‘friendly’ to humans too, or, at least, many of them are habituated enough that, with no sudden moves or loud noises, I can sit among them as they go about their daily grazing and grooming. Geladas are one of Ethiopia’s endemic species, along with the Ethiopian wolf and the walia ibex. I’m here to discover more about the wildlife of the Highlands.
I’d flown up from the capital, Addis Ababa, to Gondar, and driven north with my guide Dawit Teferi to Limalimo Lodge, a rare new opening inside the Simien Mountains National Park. In the morning, I draw back the curtains to see a large male gelada prowling through the forest below. Moments later, a mother passes close to the window, carrying an infant on her back. Over breakfast on the terrace, a lammergeier (or bearded vulture), known locally as ‘bone-breakers’ — since they smash bones against rocks to get the marrow inside — soars up the hillside. Clearly, spotting wildlife is not going to be difficult here.
I head into the mountains in a 4WD with guides Teferi and Fikru and a compulsory armed ranger. The park was established in 1966, but has been expanded several times so now spreads over 412sq km, ranging in altitude from 1900m up to the 4550m peak of Ethiopia’s highest mountain: Ras Dashen. It was also one of the world’s first UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
It doesn’t take long to spot geladas on the headland. “They eat 1kg of grass each day,” Fikru tells me. “But nowadays it’s difficult to get grass, so that’s why you see them digging into the ground.” They gambol across the hills, infants playfully tumbling over each other. The smallest monkeys hitch rides on their mothers’ backs. Most striking of all are the large males; with big shaggy coats, they look part King of the Jungle, part 1970s pimp, their thick manes earning them the nickname ‘lion monkeys’. They have other names too, including ‘bleeding heart monkeys’ because of the red patch on their chests.
The important word, though, is ‘monkey’, rather than ‘baboon’. “Nowadays, scientists say they’re technically gelada monkeys,” Teferi informs me. “They look like baboons, behave like baboons. But they have different DNA. Genetically, they’re more similar to a monkey that was historically in this area of Africa. The same thing happened with the Ethiopian wolf; it used to be called Simien fox, but they found out the closest relative was the grey wolf or coyote, even though it looks like a fox.”
A shaggy male stands on all four paws, keeping watch over his troop. “The male usually has maybe seven to eight wives — up to fourteen,” says Fikru. “He looks after his family. Leopard and hyena are their natural predators. That’s why, every evening, they sleep in the cliff’s edge, and why the Simiens are such a good place to see them. There are around 10,000 in the park. They like the big, open areas during the day and they have the safety of the cliffs for night-time.”
Driving on, we catch sight of a bushbuck among the trees and a pair of klipspringers below. We hike out to a ledge, Teferi and Fikru calling out the names of an impressive procession of birds of prey gliding across the canyon: Verreaux’s eagle, augur buzzard and a griffon vulture to name a few.
Next morning, we drive further into the park. Shepherds guide goats, sheep and horses up onto the high plains. Interestingly, the protected reserve is still home to people who grow crops in the low areas and use the highlands for livestock. “They’ve managed to convince locals that it’s better to have the wildlife here,” Teferi explains. “They’d kill monkeys in the past to stop them eating their crops. They’d kill ibex to eat. There are long prison sentences now for killing wildlife. But the main problem in the park is overgrazing — the tension between domestic animals and wildlife. The plan is to relocate some of the villages from the park, but it’s a difficult process. Wildlife populations here were badly damaged during the Civil War in the 1980s,” he continues. “This was a battlefield between rebel forces and the government’s army.”
Fikru points to the giant lobelia trees filling the hillside. “These are endemic to Ethiopia. They only grow above 3600m.” They are an encouraging sign that we are in the right place for the animal we’re searching for. “Walia ibex live at high altitudes. On lower ground, it’s hard to see predators. The ibex is the only endemic species that’s found only in this national park. There are around 900 here.”
Eventually, Fikru picks one out with his binoculars on a ridge, its distinctive long, curved horns silhouetted against the sky. It’s far off, though, so we keep searching and find two more on the mountainside close to the Bwahit Pass. “Do you know how high you are right now?” Fikru asks, as we try to keep up with the sauntering ibex. “This is 4300m,” which explains our shortness of breath. Its legs and lungs are far better suited to this altitude.
We spend one last morning with the geladas, setting off early again to watch them emerge from the cliffs. They shuffle along the ground, stopping often for grazing, grooming and mating, with no scruples about the presence of friends and family. Trails of them climb up the hills, the separate groups coalescing on a grand plateau. “You’re very lucky,” Fikru tells me. “I never saw so many together. There must be at least 400.”
We leave the Simiens behind and, after a night in Addis Ababa, drive for a full day down through the country’s south-eastern grasslands. We’ve barely entered the Bale Mountains National Park in the remote south when we see a cluster of life gathered by a river, including mountain nyala, a kudu-like animal only found in Bale, warthogs and anubis baboons.
Around the grounds of Dinsho Lodge, we see herds of nyala and Menelik’s bushbuck, a rarely spotted bohor reedbuck and shy colobus monkeys hiding high up in the trees, before we drive on through the park to the warmth of the fireside at Bale Mountain Lodge in the Harenna Forest.
The 2200sq-km Bale Mountains National Park, established in 1969, is one of the most isolated and sparsely populated areas of the country but, as in the Simiens, there are people living and farming within its boundaries. The population in the south is mainly Muslim and Christian in the north.
As we drive the following morning towards the Sanetti Plateau, we pass through small villages with colourfully painted mosques. “We’re at above 4000m,” Teferi tells me. “This is the world’s largest area of Afro-alpine moorland. The Bale Mountains are the best place to see Ethiopian wolves. You can find them in the Simiens and elsewhere, but they’re much rarer. There are about 200 here, out of a population of 500 in the country.” There’s plenty of food for the wolves here, including giant mole-rats. We search with our binoculars. “Sometimes the wolf hides among the cows to make it easier to get close to the mole-rats,” local guide Kassim Datu tells me.
Finally, it’s time to cry (or softly whisper) ‘wolf’. Make that ‘wolves’. We spot two among some rocks, orangey and fox-like, but larger and more powerful. We see a third down in the valley and, later, three smaller ones together on the hillside, most likely hunting, taking
our tally to six.
We set out early next morning, which pays off with our first wolf spotted down by a stream, stalking geese. Another crosses the road, pausing to nose and paw at holes, searching for food. Further along, we see three down in the valley. “That’s amazing,” says local guide Ziyad Kemal. “Five pups in one morning.”
We’ve had another lucky day, but numbers of the wolf, the most endangered canid in the world and Africa’s most threatened carnivore, are declining. “I see less today than I did five years ago,” says Teferi. “There’s a lot more land under cultivation, so they’ve lost habitat. But the main problem is people’s dogs and their diseases: rabies and distemper. Many wolves have died in the Bale Mountains. Local mongrels are being vaccinated now to try to stop the spread of diseases.”
We hike across the Sanetti Plateau. The sun is shining, bringing out the bright greens of the grasses and the giant lobelia leaves, the pinks and yellows of Afro-alpine flowers. The upland is alive with birdsong. Across a small lake, we spot a herd of nyala. “They sometimes come up from the forest below onto the plateau to explore,” says Kemal. “These are the adventurous young ones.”
We disturb long-eared Starck’s hares that bolt to safety. A pair of lammergeiers circle high up in the cloud. Augur buzzards glide over the plateau, searching for prey. It shouldn’t take them long. Up here in the Ethiopian Highlands, there’s no shortage of life.
Discover the wildlife of Ethiopia with Trevor Jenner, author of Ethiopia: Travellers’ Handbook
Males weigh more than 125kg and have the largest horns of any ibex — over 1m long. The 500 or so animals are restricted to the Simiens.
Feeding on plant roots below ground, this fascinating creature lives in Bale Mountains National Park, at 3000m and above. Hunted by the Ethiopian wolf, it digs a new burrow entrance every day.
Anubis (or olive) baboon
The largest baboon in Ethiopia can be a nuisance when they snatch food from the tables of restaurants. Common in woodlands and forests.
Also called the ‘bleeding heart baboon’, it is the only surviving member of a genus of monkeys that graze. About 250,000 live in the mountains north of the Rift Valley above 1500m above sea level.
This large black eagle that mainly hunts rock hyrax is reasonably common in the open plateaus.
The most striking of raptors, it flies on up-tilted wings and comes in two forms: pale phase all white underneath and dark phase all black underneath.
A grey hare that merges with the foliage of the Sanetti Plateau, where it can be found right up to 4300m on Tullu Deemtu. Unknown numbers, limited to the highlands.
It feeds almost entirely on bamboo and is one of only 11 species able to do so, as bamboo is so deficient in nutrients. The number of animals is unknown but it is limited to high-altitude bamboo forest.
Rüppell’s griffon vulture
A huge bird that can fly great distances to seek food, they have been seen by pilots at 6000m.
There are 2500 to 3000 of these attractive large mammals in the uplands south of the Rift Valley.
This beautiful animal, with a red-and-white body and largely black-and-white tail, is the world’s rarest canid, limited to 500 animals in just seven populations in Ethiopia.
Lammergeier (or bearded vulture)
Also known as the ‘bone-breaker’ because of its habit of dropping bones to get at the marrow, it is reasonably common in the Ethiopian Highlands.
4 More wildlife hotspots
• Awash National Park This can be visited in a two- or three-day jaunt from Addis Ababa. Situated in the Ethiopian Rift Valley, the grasslands are home to beisa oryx, Soemmerring’s gazelle, Salt’s dik-dik, lesser kudu, kori bustard and the Abyssinian roller. You can also visit the Fantale Volcano as well as the Awash Falls and gorge.
• Alledeghi Wildlife Reserve Adjoining Awash National Park, this is home to the rare Grevy’s zebra and Arabian bustard.
• Senkele Swayne’s Hartebeest Sanctuary This can be combined with Hawassa and Nechisar National Park in a five- or seven-day excursion from Addis. The hills, grasslands and open acacia savannah harbour the rare Swayne’s hartebeest, oribi, greater kudu, caracal and pallid harrier.
• Hawassa Lake This freshwater lake is great for birding. You may spot pelicans, gulls, herons, Western-banded snake-eagles, harrier hawks, saddle-billed storks, black herons, silvery-cheeked hornbills, malachite kingfishers and pygmy geese. There are also hippos residing here.
• Getting there Ethiopian Airlines fly daily from Heathrow to Addis Ababa. The airline also flies to 20 domestic destinations. To book, see ethiopianairlines.com. The author travelled with cazenove+loyd (cazloyd.com, 020 7384 2332), which offers an eight-day trip, including accommodation, international and domestic flights, private guides and transfers from £4630 per person, based on two sharing.
• Where to stay The writer was hosted by Limalimo Lodge (doubles from US$250) in the Simien Mountains, Bale Mountain Lodge (doubles from US$340) and Radisson Blu Hotel in Addis Ababa (doubles from US$197), all excellent options.
• When to go The best time to visit is from late September to April. The main wet season is from June to September.
• Health Visit your GP or local travel clinic to ensure you have all necessary vaccinations and anti-malarials.