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 Land Cruisers and telephoto lenses, were subject to someone else’s rules in the wilderness. If we see something, it will probably be when we least expect it. We were up at almost 4,000m, at the end of a long dusty day’s drive, crossing the Sanetti Plateau in Bale Mountains National Park, southern Ethiopia. I was thinking about a hot shower as a squall of icy rain clattered against the windscreen.
I hadn’t expected to feel cold in Africa. Then we saw them, just 15m away, noses and tails tilted skywards, inquisitive, alert: two Ethiopian wolves. Our quest for these exceptionally rare canids wasn’t supposed to start until 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, werewolves: wolves occupy a particular place in our collective psyche. They’re bad.
They are to be feared. Would my blood run cold when I saw a real one? Would some atavistic memory spur me to run screaming for my life? In truth I was rooted to my seat – not in fear but in fascination. The unexpectedness of the sighting meant I was just there, taking it in; I didn’t even reach for my camera. These weren’t the Baskervilles beasts that inhabited childhood nightmares. They were beautiful. They had bright russet coats, attractive black stripes on their tails and noses. 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. And then they were gone. Spooked by our presence, they scampered into the rock and heather. What an amazing start.
A rare breed – As far as lupine bragging rights go, the Ethiopian wolf is top dog. There are just 500 or so left, confined to a handful of sites at high altitude in north and south Ethiopia. Before entering Bale National Park we’d stopped to meet Edriss and Zegeye, two of a small, dedicated team working for the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme to protect this highly endangered species. “There are multiple threats to the wolves’ future,” Zegeye explained. “The biggest is contact with domestic dogs. Many dogs carry rabies, which is fatal for the wolves.” The last rabies outbreak in 1991 decimated the population, killing 70% of the wolves in one fell swoop. A similar outbreak could wipe them out. The team spend much of their time vaccinating strays and educating locals to control their dogs.
But it feels like they’re swimming against a considerable tide. In a typical month they vaccinate upwards of 500 dogs. “There’s already evidence of dogs interbreeding with the wolves too,” added Edriss. Perhaps the only thing that has ensured the wolves’ survival is their habitat. They’ve adapted to live up on a high plateau that’s cold and inhospitable, and where no locals are hardy enough to build homes. As night began to fall, we continued our bumpy journey to Bale Mountain Lodge where we were staying for the duration of our wolf hunt. We stopped on the lip of the plateau before plunging down the tight hairpins to look across a vast, craggy cloud-filled valley, backlit by the setting sun. We were literally on top of the world, and in that rarified atmosphere it felt fantastic to be alive.
Bale Mountain bolthole – Until late 2013, the only way to see the wolves was to rough it under canvas, sleeping at the mercy of the mountain elements, hiking serious mileage at breath-sapping altitude. Not anymore. Bale Mountain Lodge is the brainchild of retired British 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. Huge luxury hotel chains do this, but a couple with just their savings and a heap of ambition? I was in awe. “We’d lived for years in Ethiopia and grown to love the place. We wanted to give something back and create something of lasting value,” explained Yvonne that evening, over a glass of genuinely drinkable local wine.
“We came down here and camped in this spot and immediately felt this was the place.” I realised why the next morning when I saw it in daylight. The central thatched roundel and the clutch of cosy bungalows nearby nestle in the palm of a fist of mountains. An elephant-shaped peak rises in front, fringed with cloudforest at its base. A stream gurgles across a meadow in between. Shimmering in hot morning sunlight after an early downpour, the place felt ethereal. The area is teeming with unique species too. Guy and Yvonne have built a separate accommodation block for research teams because so many have projects here. We coincided with scientists from Kew Gardens who were researching wild coffee plants; a few weeks previously a team from Munich had discovered 22 new species of moths and butterflies in a study lasting just ten days.
New species are being found on an almost weekly basis. We spent our first morning exploring the cloudforest with the lodge’s naturalist, James Ndung’u. We wound our way between eons-old hardwood trees, their buttress roots like the ruins of great cathedrals. James reeled oft’figures. “There are 280 bird species, 82 mammal species and some 1,600 different plants,” he explained. “The forest continues for 1,200 sq km, so imagine what we’ve yet to find.” A startled bushbuck darted away from us. Then 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 endemic Bale monkeys. We crashed and sweated through a tangled forest of bamboo, trying to get closer, but to no avail. Later, we saw platoons of baboons on an open field, and a solitary bushpig grazing alongside some local cattle. Noisy hornbills honked and flapped above. There was wildlife everywhere.
Creatures, great and small – That afternoon we set off on our wolf hunt. As we drove back up to the Sanetti Plateau, cultivated land with huts and cows gave way to moody giant-heather forest. As we climbed, bushbuck skidded away and, remarkably, two jackals dived into the undergrowth. “You normally only see them at night,” said James. The trees were now cloaked in dark-green mossy coats, thick creepers hanging from their boughs. Hairpin followed hairpin as the Land Cruiser ground on up. Lower level heather announced our arrival at higher altitude. Moments later we were enveloped in cloud; when we burst through at the top, the scenery had changed again – vast plain with steep mountains on either side, covered in a carpet of scrubby white everlasting flowers. James pointed out Stack’s hares and blue-winged geese flapping and splashing in an icy pool. Both are only found here.
This habitat is exceptionally unusual, which means a particularly high occurrence of endemicity. “Given the extreme conditions, some plants and creatures are smaller than usual, but there are also examples of gigantism,” explained James. So along with the tiny everlastings, there were also giant lobelia, spiky cacti atop stalks taller than men, the cells of which have evolved to freeze and thaw without suffering damage. Rodent life is particularly plentiful, including the giant mole rat – a favourite prey of the wolves. But would we see them? Sure, I was enjoying James’s descriptions of the plateau’s unique facets, but what about wolves? The tight confines of the plateau, combined with an abundance of small mammals for the wolves to eat, means they are highly concentrated here.
But the clouds had 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 was when I saw him. “Wolf!” I cried, dangerously close to falling over in my state of undress. The animal loped across the moorland and dropped down towards a small lake. He waded across, glancing at a small goose floating precariously close to him. But he ignored it and continued towards us. We waited, hardly daring to breathe. But then he spied us and let out a series of high-pitched yips. “That’s his danger signal,” said James as the wolf splashed back across the lake.
Mission accomplished – Continuing our quest the next day, we met two men walking on the road. Sultan and Gobe work for the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme’s monitoring team. The monitors spend seven-day stretches living up here in a basic mud hut, cooking on an open fire by the light of a dim solar-powered bulb. It was another cloudy day and we ended up huddled around their fire, drinking hot, sugary tea and sheltering from squally rain. “I miss my wife and family, but I love being out here,” Sultan told us. He showed us a tablet computer. A bespoke app on it allows him to record every detail of every wolf-sighting: GPS location, sex, which pack it’s from, what habitat it’s in, even its posture. It’s a crucial part of the conservation programme.
Over the next few days we were rewarded with quite frequent wolf sightings. And I couldn’t get enough of watching them. They are attractive, noble creatures; they seemed to almost bounce along on their toes. But they were always at a distance. No matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t get within 20m before the wolves spotted us and dashed away. Eventually it was time to leave, a long day’s drive back to Addis Ababa ahead. Mixed with a glow of satisfaction at seeing these rare creatures, I felt a hint of disappointment. I shouldn’t have. We’d managed around 30 sightings. But we’d not got those top shots of a wolf staring straight down the lens.
We were halfway across the plateau, talking about our plans for the evening, when we saw him. A lone wolf, much closer. We inched forward in low gear, expecting him to dash off. But he was oddly unworried by our presence. He sniffed around the heather; focused on tracking down prey, he ignored us. He was successful too – I watched, fascinated, as he pounced on a grass rat. A couple of gulps and he’d swallowed it whole. We eased out of the vehicle -still he didn’t run away. And we took heaps of photos: mission totally accomplished. Just when we least expected it.