“OK guys, shall we continue?” asked Allu, bringing our rest amid the granite boulders and giant lobelia to an end. Wrapping scarves across our faces against the unrelenting wind we struck out once more across the plain.
Ethiopia’s Bale Mountains National Park is home to Africa’s wolves. Half of the continent’s estimated 430 Ethiopian Wolves patrol the 850 square miles, an area twice the size of Kenya’s Masai Mara wildlife reserve.
Smaller than their European and North American cousins, with finer features, the Ethiopian Wolf would once have ranged over much of this eastern part of Africa. Now the species is critically endangered. As the human population has increased so has demand for food, leading to the destruction of the wolves’ habitat. Climate change has made cultivation at higher altitudes increasingly viable, and farm dogs transmit diseases to the wolf population.
Allu Hussein, a monitor with the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Project (EWCP), had agreed to lead our 70km trek hoping to observe and record wolves along the way.
We started early, our tents shedding white frost as we packed for the day’s 25km journey across the plateau. After a night of fitful sleep amid flapping flysheets, altitude-induced headaches, and an inconvenient 3am pee, dawn provided welcome respite.
Wind and altitude kept conversation to a minimum and soon our party of six was strung out over half a kilometre. Tawny eagles and augur buzzards circled overhead.
We ate lunch in a rare sheltered spot hiding from the now baking sun. After an hour or so back on the trail Allu paused and knelt. On the ground, bleached by the elements, lay a skeleton, an arc of vertebrae leading to a skull. “Here it is, a wolf. See the teeth? It was an adult.” Taking out a GPS device he recorded the co-ordinates. “What did it die of?” “Difficult to know. Canine distemper from cattle dogs is a big problem,” replied Allu, contemplating the skull before wrapping it for later study.
Approaching the evening’s camp at Rafu, basalt pillars erupted from the plain, some ranked in defensive formations, others stacked as cathedral organ pipes. The camp crew had already pitched the tents and were busy tending horses and preparing dinner. Arriving, we threw off our packs and lay down. But as daylight faded, the otherworldly aspect of Rafu demanded investigation.
Carefully we climbed…