The Bale Mountains National Park is one of the last bastions of the endangered Ethiopian wolf. Wildlife photographer and conservationist Latika Nath travels to the biodiversity hotspot to study the threats the species faces and the possible solutions at hand. By Latika Nath
The Ethiopian Wolf is the rarest canid in the world. As a wildlife photographer, it had been my long-standing dream to capture this elusive, beautiful creature. In pursuit of this goal, I visited the Bale Mountains National Park (BMNP), 400 kilometres southeast of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, where I met Claudio Sillero-Zubiri. Claudio and I had been colleagues almost two decades ago at the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (wildcru.org) in the University of Oxford, where I was working towards my doctorate on tigers, and he had completed his dissertation on Ethiopian wolves.
I was received at the airport by an intrepid team of a guide and a driver, who helped me load my many bags of camera gear before we could set off for our destination. We stopped en route for a hot cup of coffee, and the driver looked horrified when I asked for tea instead. His reaction was not unwarranted. Coffee originated in Ethiopia, and nearly everybody in the country drinks the brew. Bale Mountains National Park also holds much of the wild stocks of coffee indigenous to Ethiopia. Aptly, my tea turned out to be a shot of extremely sweet black liquid, with some spices added.
After about three hours on the road, the landscape began to change. We came upon grasslands and signs welcoming us to the national park. The park covers 2,150 square kilometres and comprises five major zones: Gaysay Grasslands, Juniper Woodlands, Afro-alpine Meadows, Erica Belt, and Harenna Forest. The Sanetti Plateau, rising up to 4,000 metres above sea level, is also an important watershed for the country, and over 12 million people depend on the water from these mountains for drinking and power generation.
The Harenna Forest, also the second-largest forest in the country, is home to 14 endemic mammal species and is often rated as one of the top five birding sites in Africa. Most significantly, it shelters 250 of the 400 remaining Ethiopian wolves in the world. Their small number is due to a wide array of threats, including habitat loss and deterioration, fire, disease, poisoning, and even road accidents. And so, it was in Bale that Claudio founded the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme (EWCP, ethiopianwolf.org) to monitor the wolves. This was also the raison d’être of my visit—to study and photograph the wolves and to understand what is being done for their conservation in the area.
Even if you were to set the wolves aside, Bale Mountains has more endemic and rare species than almost any other similarly sized place on the planet. As we drove along the Gaysay Grasslands, I began to spot some of these amazing animals and birds. The Abyssinian longclaw was the first. While I stood on the side of the road getting the perfect frame of the little bird, a worrying amount of traffic passed by us. On enquiring, I was told that there was still a sizeable human population living within the park. It is this population that has inadvertently encouraged feral dogs to enter the area, leading to the spread of diseases like canine distemper and rabies in the wolf population. Open trash bins in tourist areas also attract dogs, creating hotspots for disease transmission and aggressive interactions with the wolves. The EWCP has recently been given the permission to use oral rabies vaccine on the wolves to safeguard them.
We drove through the incredible Sanetti Plateau and the Harenna Forest to the Bale Mountain Lodge. The passion project of Guy Levene and Yvonne Carole, the property showcases the amazing park from a remote clearing in the forest. Involving the local community, Guy and Yvonne have built an 11-room environmentally conscious lodge that runs on a micro hydropower plant harnessing the river that flows east of the property. The water used on the property also comes from this river. The lodge has an efficient waste management programme and a biogas plant as well, thus adhering to all the ethos of a responsible property. The Bale Mountain Lodge works closely with the EWCP to ensure the long-term survival of the wolves. But their work doesn’t stop with the canids. As many as 22 species of butterflies and moths, a snake, amphibians, and several insects have been identified by the property’s staff in collaboration with the Technical University of Munich, and a moth and a frog have even been named after Guy Levene.
Meanwhile, as the lives of the wolves become more intertwined with that of the people in the Bale Mountains, conflicts are emerging. For example, shepherds (typically children) repeatedly chase wolves away to protect their livestock, and in doing so, interfere with their foraging as well as access to shelter and breeding sites. Shepherds block dens with stones, tourists get increasingly close to these sites to see pups, and occasionally, wolves are poisoned, run over, or hunted for their skins (a rare but serious threat).
In the national park, the last wolves are disconnected from each other. A new project has started to assess the feasibility and risks of bringing the wolves back to the Gaysay Grasslands from other regions of the BMNP. This small grassland and artemisia heath, where majestic mountain nyalas reign, was inhabited by wolves until 2010. Claudio told me that talking to local farmers made him realise everyone knew the threats faced by the wolves. While many acknowledged that the wolves would prey on livestock, most reacted overwhelmingly positively to the possibility of them returning. Crucially, he said, local communities did not see the reintroduction as a potential conflict issue. They valued the park for providing environmental protection, such as clean water, but perceived access to its grazing lands as the primary benefit.
But this outcome raised another issue, he pointed out. The introduction of wolves could collide with the current usage patterns of the land. According to his team, similar concerns were raised by the park staff and conservation organisations, which were otherwise largely supportive of the idea. Interestingly, the communities see it as their responsibility to protect the wolves if they come back, revealing a sense of pride and willingness to engage with the programme. Some portend that the resultant tourism revenue will be important, and most professionals think that the wolves will add recreational value to Gaysay, which is conveniently located at the park gates and accessible from the main road.
Environmental degradation is not just bad for the wildlife; it compromises the highland sources of water, pasture, firewood, building materials, and medicinal plants, affecting local communities as well. Directing people to alternative livelihoods like honey production, grass collection, manufacture of fuel-saving stoves, and helping kebeles (administrative units) in managing grasslands will not only save the Ethiopian wolf’s habitat and hence its numbers but also aid the community’s ways of life. It seems the rarest canid’s future lies, as it so often does, in the hands of the humans with whom it shares a surreal land. The wolf’s greatest chance of survival then is in an unlikely pack.
Fly Ethiopian Airlines (ethiopianairlines.com) to Robe or Awasa, and drive from there to Bale Mountains National Park (balemountains.org). Robe is an hour away from the park; Awasa is a 3.5-hour drive with better connectivity. There are also domestic flights three days a week from Addis Ababa to Goba, which is one hour from the park headquarters at Dinsho.