Jeremy Head tracks down the world’s rarest wolf, high in the mountains of Ethiopia.
Sometimes, the harder you look, the less likely you are to find.
This is particularly true for rare wildlife. A reminder that no matter how smart we are with our shiny Landcruisers and our telephoto lenses, we’re subject to someone else’s rules in the wilderness. If we see something, it will be when we least expect it.
We were at close to 4000 metres, the end of a long dusty day’s drive, crossing the Sanetti plateau in Bale Mountains National Park in deepest south Ethiopia. I was thinking about a hot shower and dinner. A squall of icy rain clattered against the windscreen in the high altitude sunlight. I hadn’t expected to feel cold in Africa.
Then we saw them. Just 15 metres away, noses and tails tilted skywards; inquisitive, alert. Two Ethiopian wolves. Our quest for these exceptionally rare canids wasn’t supposed to start till the next day. They’d shown up early. We’d found what we’d come for, without even looking.
Little Red Riding Hood, Three Little Pigs, full moons and werewolves – wolves occupy a particular place in our collective psyche. They’re bad. They are to be feared. I’d wondered how I’d feel if I did come face-tomuzzle with a real one. Would my blood run cold?
In truth I was rooted to my seat not in fear, but in fascination. The unexpectedness of the sighting meant I was there, just taking it in. I didn’t even reach for my camera. Quickly, I realised. These weren’t the Baskervillesque beasts that inhabited childhood nightmares. They were beautiful. They had bright russet coats, attractive black stripes on their tails and noses. There was no getting away from it; they looked rather… foxy. We watched as they played, frolickingly alert. One looked full at us and shook himself, just as a dog does. A halo of droplets flashed off his rain-logged coat in a sudden flurry of sunlight.
As far as lupine bragging rights go, the Ethiopian wolf is without doubt top dog. There are just 500 or so left. They’re confined to a handful of sites at high altitude in north and south Ethiopia. There are multiple threats to the wolves’ future. The biggest is contact with domestic dogs. Many carry rabies which is fatal for the wolves. The last outbreak in 1991 decimated the population, killing 70% in one fell swoop. Perhaps the only thing that has ensured their survival is their habitat. They’ve adapted to live up on a high plateau that’s cold and inhospitable where no locals are hardy enough to build homes.
As night began to fall, we continued our bumping journey to Bale Mountain Lodge where we were due to stay for the duration of our wolf hunt. We stopped on the lip of the plateau before plunging down the tight hairpins below and looked across a vast, craggy cloud-filled valley, backlit by the milky hues of the setting sun. We were literally on top of the world and in that rarefied chilly atmosphere it felt fantastic to be alive; the threshold of an adventure.
Bale Mountain Lodge is the brainchild of retired Army Colonel Guy Levene and his wife Yvonne. It’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime projects that many people dream they might do, but few actually make happen. The lodge is miles from anywhere. Everything had to be trucked in: stones, steel, cement, generators, chairs, tables, king-sized beds, cookers and more. It was a task of epic proportions to create this comfortable bolthole from scratch.
We spent our first morning exploring the cloud forest close to the lodge with resident naturalist James Ndung’u. We wound our way between eons-old hardwood trees with buttress-roots that made them look like the ruins of cathedrals. A turaco bird flashed overhead its wingtips fiery red. Minutes later James brought us to a hushed standstill. He’d spotted a family of colobus monkeys, high above. They clattered through the trees, a blur of black and white fur. Soon after, we caught glimpses of bale monkeys - a species unique to here.
That afternoon we set to with our wolf hunt. The climb back up to the Sanetti plateau took about 45 minutes. Would we see them? The tight confines of the plateau, combined with an abundance of small mammals for the wolves to eat, means they live in high levels of concentration here despite their small number. But today the clouds descended and the high road across the plateau became shrouded in gloom. We rolled
on slowly, trying to see through the murk. After an hour we’d seen nothing. I asked for a pee break.
And, of course, that’s when I see him. “Wolf!” I cried, dangerously close to falling over in my state of undress. He lopes across the moorland and dropped down towards a small lake. He wades across. I’m fascinated to see him glance at a small goose floating precariously close to him, but he ignores it and continues towards us. We wait, hardly daring to breathe, fingers itching on our camera triggers. But then he spies us and lets out a series of high pitched yips before scurrying away.
Over the next couple of days we are rewarded with quite frequent sightings. I can’t get enough of watching them. They are attractive, noble creatures. And it’s just us, on this wide plateau of lichen-covered rocks, sparkling pools and tiny bright flowers. Just us and the wolves.
But they’re always at a distance. No matter how hard we try, we can’t get within about 20 metres. So we pack to leave. There’s a long day’s drive back to Addis ahead. Mixed with a glow of satisfaction at seeing these rare
creatures, there’s a hint of disappointment. There shouldn’t be. We’ve managed around 30 sightings. But we’ve not got those top shots of a wolf staring straight down the lens.
Maybe we’d been looking too hard? We’re halfway across the plateau, talking about our plans for the evening. Then we see him. A lone wolf - much closer. We inch forward in low gear, expecting him to dash off. But this one is oddly unworried by our presence. He sniffs around the heather. Focussed on tracking down prey, he ignores us. He’s successful too. I watch, fascinated, as he pounces on a grass rat. A couple of gulps and he has swallowed it whole. We get out of the car. Still he doesn’t run away. We take heaps of photos. Mission totally accomplished - just when we least expected it.
Photos by Jeremy Head
Getting there: Ethiopian Airlines (www.ethiopianairlines.com) flies daily from London Heathrow to Addis Ababa
Reading: Bradt Guide to Ethiopia (www.bradtguides.com)
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