Beauty and the Beast Spotting the Ethiopian Wolf

| March 31, 2014

In Ethiopia’s little-visited Bale Mountains National Park, travel writer Sue Watt discovers indigenous wildlife ranges from the heart-stoppingly elegant to the downright ugly. Images by William Whitford.

There’s a strange beauty in the bleakness of Sanetti plateau. At more than 4,300 metres high, a vicious wind careers across Tulu Dimtu, the highest point in Bale Mountains National Park, and my cheeks are almost burning from the bitter chill. Below sprawls a lunar landscape of grey, mauve, green and white, dotted with glacial boulders that have tumbled down its slopes across the millennia. The only living organisms seem to be the enigmatically-named ‘everlasting flowers’ – like tiny dried daisies – and giant lobelia, akin to weird stunted palm trees. It looks barren, devoid of life, yet this plateau is home to the largest population of the world’s rarest canid, the Ethiopian wolf.  

About 450 wolves roam Ethiopia’s highlands, 230 of them living on this desolate plateau: the world’s largest Afro-alpine habitat. The national park is also home to Ethiopia’s newest lodge. Owned by former British Army officer Guy Levene and wife Yvonne, Bale Mountain Lodge aims to protect the region’s fragile wolf population, an aim that has become their overwhelming passion.

In a country of more than 90 million people, Bale Mountains National Park is suffering from a human population encroachment that endangers its indigenous wildlife. With a percentage of the lodge income going to the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority, Guy realised they needed local people on side to help save the park. He explained their ethos: “We are the first concession granted inside a national park in Ethiopia. Conservation is our key driver. But we’re conscious of the need to marry our plans with the needs of the local population and make tourism an integral part of their lives: reducing negative activities like deforestation and overgrazing from livestock. We want them to realise we’re good for Bale, and good for Ethiopia.”

Bale became a national park in 1969, but until recently accommodation options have been limited to just a handful of local hotels. Out on a limb to the south-east of the country, the region has perhaps understandably been neglected on tour itineraries. Most travellers to Ethiopia visit its northern circuit, including the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, the obelisks of Axum and trekking in the Simien mountains. But Bale Mountain Lodge is one element of a new circuit exploring lesser-known areas in this extraordinary country.

Our itinerary includes the charming Aragesh Lodge in Yirg Alem with an early morning guided walk around the local village; a visit to the Unesco world heritage site of Konso, ancient tribal traditions set among fortressed villages and spectacular terraced hillsides; and the aptly-named Paradise Lodge in Arba Minch with views across the lakes and forests of Nech Sar National Park. But Bale, with its fascinating wildlife, is our highlight.

Around 78 mammal species and 300 bird species live in this 2,200 sq km park, and Ethiopian wolves aren’t its only unusual residents. In the juniper woodlands of Dinsho, we see mountain nyalas with their impressive twisted horns and shy Menelik’s bushbucks, both antelopes endemic to Ethiopia. In the Harenna Forest, black-maned lions and a pack of 20 African wild dogs have been sighted, along with a black leopard. A new species of snake has recently been discovered, and there could be all kinds of weird and wonderful creatures living here: dense and draped with moss and lichen, this fairy-tale forest is mostly unexplored.

Bale Mountain Lodge sits in the Katcha clearing within Harenna Forest, offering views of glades and mountains ripe for exploration. From here, it is possible to drive to the lively market town of Dola Mena that sees few tourists, or hike, fish or go birding (the national park is ranked the fourth best birding area in Africa). But most come to see the Ethiopian wolves on Sanetti plateau.

There are other residents on Sanetti, notably the distinctly ugly, but ubiquitous giant mole rat, a favourite wolf snack. With about 5,000 per square kilometre, the ground almost wobbles with their constant digging and burrowing, as they chuck out earth and bob in and out of their holes.

Resembling large foxes, Ethiopian wolves are also relatively visible on this vast, flat expanse. Even in the distance, these rare animals looked elegant and exquisite. We see our first within minutes of arriving at Sanetti: lying in the sun cleverly camouflaged by rocks dusted with russet-coloured lichen. Moments later, our second wolf appears on the horizon, trotting in with a giant mole rat the size of a cat swinging from its jaws. Throughout the morning, we see more, either hunting alone or sleeping off a hearty mole rat meal.

Fittingly, our best sighting comes just as we are leaving. Driving out of the park, I spot a young wolf standing quietly at the side of the road. We stop and watch him as he watches us, so close I could reach out and stroke him. His luxuriant rust coat looks thick and soft. On full alert, he stands perfectly still, his ears prone, his pert black nose twitching for scents, and his deep amber eyes staring at us inquisitively. It seems hard to believe so few of these wolves survive: I leave fervently wishing Guy’s dreams of saving Bale and its beautiful wildlife are realised.

View Cox & Kings' holidays to Ethiopia.

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All images by William Whitford.

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