Ethiopia trip offers encounters with rare animals

A cabin at Bale Mountain Lodge overlooks the mountains.  (Bale Mountain Lodge)  A cabin at Bale Mountain Lodge overlooks the mountains. (Bale Mountain Lodge)
Tim Johnson Special to the Star

BALE MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK, ETHIOPIA-At first, it’s little more than a flash of fur, just a blot on the far side of the road, trotting hard and moving fast.

Its auburn coat standing out against the lunarlike landscape, the small animal pauses just for a moment, turns to face us, mouth set in what looks like a toothy grin, and eyes our Land Cruiser’s sleepy band of travellers. Then, in a moment, it dashes off before we can scramble for our cameras, running at a steady pace up and over a ridge, out of sight. By the time we spill clumsily out of the vehicle and walk with our sleep-stiffened joints across the frozen ground to where it once stood, that lone wolf is long gone.

I’ve just seen the Abyssinian red wolf — the world’s most endangered canine. With a habitat that’s now largely limited to the high plateau of Ethiopia’s Bale Mountains National Park — a forbidding, otherworldly place some 4,000 metres above sea level — estimates vary on how many of these wolves remain, but everyone agrees it’s a few hundred, at most.

Cousins of both coyotes and jackals, some experts peg their population at fewer than 300, and dropping fast. I’m here to spot as many as possible, as well as a wide variety of other strange creatures that thrive in the rarefied air of this remote corner of Ethiopia.

With various ecosystems and altitudes packed into one park, the roughly 2,000-square-kilometre Bale Mountains National Park provides opportunities to view some of Africa’s most unusual animals, including the endemic big-headed mole rat, mongoose, jackal, honey badger, black-maned lion and the mountain-adapted leopard.

Arriving here after a long drive, 400 hard km down from the capital, Addis Ababa, with Australian-based Peregrine Adventures, we overnight in the nearby city of Goba.

Rising early, we wind up to the Sanetti Plateau in our hardy Land Cruisers, passing the tree line and entering Africa’s largest uninterrupted high-altitude zone. We skirt frozen ponds and spot one of Ethiopia’s highest peaks — Mount Tullu Dimtu, which rises almost 4,400 metres — and quickly enjoy that fleeting glimpse of the wolf. Before descending into more hospitable climes on the other side, where we stop for a pleasant hike through green pastures and forest to a waterfall, we tarry in Rira, a bustling, ramshackle village inside the park, where we buy a few supplies and stop to snap some photos with the residents.

Soon we’re sitting down for lunch at Bale Mountain Lodge, which is set in a valley below a craggy ridge. Unlike more heavily tourist parts of Africa, safari lodges are rare in Ethiopia, but this one, built in 2014, is aiming to place visitors in the heart of the animal action.

The only wolf in Africa, the Abyssinian is facing extinction. According to the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme, which is headed by an Oxford University zoologist, four consecutive rabies outbreaks — the most recent in 2014 — have precipitated a sharp drop in numbers, with the total population plummeting as much as 75 per cent since the early ’90s. Solutions aren’t easy; transplanting the village of Rira outside the park would be difficult, and moving the vast herds owned by local, rural pastoralists, harder still.
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