In Ethiopia’s Bale Mountains, lions and wolves prowl and humans make honey

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An Ethiopian wolf in the Bale Mountains National Park, Ethiopia. Photo: Daniel Allen

  • Home to the rare black-maned forest lion and the even rarer Ethiopian wolf, the range is known as ‘the rooftop of Africa’
  • As humans encroach on indigenous animal habitats, all residents are learning how best to coexist

(Post Magazine) — After a seven-hour drive south from the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, past camel markets, shimmering Rift Valley lakes and seemingly endless fields of wheat and teff, the asphalt ends. A rust-red dirt track takes over and begins to climb, its heavily rutted surface slowing buses, four-wheel drives and firewood-laden donkeys to a crawl. As the air chills, driver and guide Demiss Mamo winds up the window of his well-used jeep.

“Welcome to the rooftop of Africa,” he says, swerving to avoid a giant pothole. “When most foreigners think of Ethiopia, they don’t imagine snow-clad volcanoes, cloud forest and alpine lakes. But then again, the Bale Mountains have always been a pretty unique place.”

Part of the Ethiopian Highlands, the Bale range is made up of mountains built upon mountains, with the highest volcanic peaks soaring way above 4,000 metres. These look down on the high-altitude Sanetti Plateau, a vast, undulating, largely treeless tableland that towers over the rest of southeastern Ethiopia, its southern slopes draped in the lush and mysterious Harenna Forest.

Mamo drives onwards and upwards, switching on his headlights as tendrils of mist drift across the rock-strewn land­scape. Outlandish giant lobelias begin to appear beside the track, their thick, trunk-like stems adorned with headdresses of green fronds, while fields of red hot pokers thrust upwards from the surround­ing heather with a fiery-hued dash of colour. In the distance the shallow, brooding bulk of Mount Tullu Dimtu frames the horizon.

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A cow on the Sanetti Plateau. Photo: Daniel Allen

With the light beginning to fail, Mamo pulls over and points towards a nearby rocky outcrop. Sitting next to a giant lobelia, its tawny-coloured, fox-like face fixed intently on the jeep, is an Ethiopian wolf. The striking animal rises slowly on white-socked legs and lopes elegantly towards another collection of boulders, pausing every so often to look back at the vehicle.

“I think it’s a female,” says Mamo. “Her den must be nearby. You’re looking at the rarest carnivore in Africa, so it’s not a bad way to begin your Bale Mountain experience.”

The Bale Mountains might not be well-travelled by visitors to Africa (or even Ethiopia), but they should be. From African wild dogs and mountain nyala to Bale mon­keys and Menelik’s bushbuck, an incredible number of rare species owe their survival to the isolated and diverse nature of this high-altitude region. The 2,200 sq km Bale Mountains National Park (BMNP), which encompasses much of the Sanetti Plateau and Harenna Forest, is a nature-lover’s paradise.

The most iconic species of the Bale Mountains is undoubtedly the Ethiopian wolf. Today, with just seven populations scattered across the country, there are fewer than 500 individuals left in the wild. The Sanetti Plateau is their last stronghold, with about 200 of these slender, coyote-like creatures feeding almost exclusively off the appropriately named big-headed African mole-rat (also known as the giant mole-rat).

The most immediate and real threat to Ethiopian wolves comes from domesticated dogs, which are an increasingly common sight in the BMNP, as humans and their livestock encroach on park boundaries. Ethiopia has the fastest-growing human population in Africa, and such encroach­ment is common in many of the country’s national parks.

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An Ethiopian black-maned lion in the park. Photo: Daniel Allen

While many species in the Bale Mountains have been able to coexist with highland shepherds and their cattle, “When dogs interact with wolves they transmit rabies and the canine distemper virus to their wild cousins,” explains Eric Bedin, field director of the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme (EWCP), which was set up in 1995 to prevent the endangered animals from disappearing altogether. “Disease outbreaks can and have decimated wolf populations in Bale and other locations.

The EWCP monitors and protects a number of wolf packs in the BMNP, with pre-emptive vaccination programmes and a team that can rapidly respond to rabies outbreaks.

“The wolves are still in a precarious position, but the population is now slowly increasing,” says Bedin. “We’ve seen animals exploring parts of the park where they were absent for many years, which is really good news.”

Soon after dawn the following morning, Mamo lifts a length of plastic drainpipe to his mouth and blows. The sound that reverberates through the dense, dripping foliage – a kind of guttural woof – starts a family of giant forest hogs crashing through the undergrowth while birds and colobus monkeys set up a chorus of alarm calls and nervous chattering.

Mamo’s lifelike calls might be a piece of ingenious fakery, but the effect they generate is all too real. Because nothing raises the adrenaline levels of the Harenna Forest’s animal community like the sound of a black-maned lion.

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An inhabitant of Rira, gateway to the Harenna Forest. Photo: Daniel Allen

Today there’s no feline response to the guide’s efforts, but a series of outsized footprints on a nearby forest trail reveals the big cats’ presence.

Current estimates place the Harenna Forest’s population of black-maned lions at about 50, but Guy Levene, British owner of the fantastically sited Bale Mountain Lodge, believes it could be larger.

“The Harenna Forest is a place so little explored that research teams invariably emerge with long lists of previously unknown species,” says Levene. “We see lions fairly regularly, and so do our guests, which leads me to believe there are more than people think. But even if there are, they’re undoubtedly under pressure.”

Just like the Ethiopian wolves of the Sanetti Plateau, the black-maned lions of the Harenna Forest have to contend with a growing human presence in their habitat. While some research has been conducted on the so-called kings of the forest, comprehensive conservation efforts are urgently required to guarantee their survival.

On the way back to the Bale Mountain Lodge, Mamo points out a number of strange tubular structures, wedged high up in the forks of surrounding trees like giant cocoons.

“Beehives,” he explains. “Local bee­keepers carve them by hand. They hollow out two pieces of tree trunk, pack one side with grass, then bind them together with bamboo and vines. Then they smoke the whole thing over a beeswax and moss fire to make sure it smells good to the bees.”

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Honey collected from the Harenna Forest. Photo: Daniel Allen

Honey production is a key industry within the Bale Mountains, and beekeepers with many forest beehives enjoy a high standing within each community. In the village of Rira, the principal gateway to the Harenna Forest, the local blend is renowned for its smooth texture and nutty tang.

The forest is also one of the few locations in the world where truly wild coffee plants can still be found. A considerable amount of wild forest coffee is harvested here, providing a significant income. Those visiting Rira can pay a small fee to watch the Ethiopian coffee ceremony, an integral part of the country’s colourful social and cultural life.

While honey production and coffee harvesting are more-or-less sustainable activities, other practices, such as livestock grazing, slash-and-burn agriculture and firewood collection, have a far more negative impact on the diverse habitats of the BMNP and its wolves, lions and other endangered fauna and flora.

“I sincerely hope humans and wildlife can find a way to coexist in the Bale Mountains,” says Mamo. “People need to survive, but a park without wolves and lions would be like a crown without its jewels.”

With no airstrip nearby, the only way to reach the Bale Mountains National Park is to drive from Addis Ababa. A four-wheel-drive vehicle with a driver/guide can be hired for about US$100 per day.

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