Friday, 2 November 2007

In the company of wolves

Phew, we survived, but only just!

After ten years of working in Ethiopia, Diana and I kept saying we ought to take some time to see the rest of the country - we finally did it. We organised a trek with 'Walks Worldwide' through the Simien Moutains in the far north of the country, on foot (but with four hill mules to help us out).

It was wonderful, but I have to admit, it was so knackering that there were three or four days when I really thought I wasn't going to make it.

At one stage we climbed over a col at 4200 metres high - I felt sick and ill, and very, very old! I am eternally grateful to Simon (one of the mules) who gave me a helping hand one afternoon when I was struggling up through a thousand foot of alpine forest.

But of course the payback for all that suffering is the stupendous view you get from the top.

And the wildlife.

We lay on our stomachs on a bed of pungent wild thyme, perched on the edge of a two thousand foot cliff, looking down at a group of Walia Ibex (the males equipped with enormous semi-circular horns) grazing on a ledge below amongst giant lobelia trees. At the same time, lammergeiers ('bearded' vultures) and Lanner falcons swooped and soared on the up-currents, whizzing unconcerned a mere twenty feet in front of us.
Then one morning, as we were again struggling upwards, we heard that distinctive bark, answered by a yowl. Wolf! Frantically we searched the hillside with our binos, then suddenly, with his eagle-eyes our scout spotted one.

The Abyssinian Wolf, or Simien Fox - now one of the rarest animals in the world, is reduced to probably only twenty or so individuals in the Simiens, though there are probably still about a hundred in the southern Bale mountains.

'Our' one, a beautiful pinkish-orange with white throat and chest, trotted up to the skyline, before posing for us, silhouetted against the dawn sky, and calling occasionally to his mate, before finally disappearing again, as suddenly as he'd appeared.

They feed on small rodents, particularly the Abyssinian rat - which needs long tussock grass, and so is suffering from the overgrazing of villagers' goats and sheep. They also prey on the beautiful Gelada baboons, adapted to the freezing cold of the high places by their long, thick coats. The baboons also feed on the grasslands, but sleep at night on the cliff ledges for safety. So a battle of wits develops between wolf and baboon - hunger or safety?

Sadly though, for once it is not loss of habitat that is wiping out the wolf, but his cousin the domestic dog. Or more accurately the diseases the village dogs carry and spread to them - distemper, parvo and perhaps even rabies. These diseases have already wiped out the Golden Jackal from the mountains. A simple, cheap programme of vaccinating the local sheepdogs would go a long way to preserving these wonderful creatures.

The flowers were breathtaking. Whole hillsides of red-hot pokers, lillies and exotic shrubs, with African marigolds filling in the spaces, and of course hosts of butterflies and small birds, including irridescent Sunbirds drinking the nectar.
The people were fabulous too. For them we must appear as if from outer space, and with unbelievable wealth compared with their simple lifestyles. Yet we met nothing but kindness and hospitality.

But the starkness and brutality of life in the mountains was brought abruptly home to us one night, as we camped in an isolated village at the edge of the plateau. We were woken at midnight by groans and moans from a grass-thatched hut about fifteen feet away. A young woman was in labour, and there was nothing that could be done to help her. Mercifully nature did not need any help that night, and about five o'clock in the morning we heard the little cries that said another life had come into the world. But twenty miles from the nearest track, and even then perhaps a day's drive to the nearest doctor - it was very clear to us how hard life is for everyone, animals and humans, in those magnificent, towering, mountain fastnesses.

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