Monday, July 20, 2015

Bale Mountain Lodge, Ethiopa, where a rare wolf roams free

Hungry like the wolf
Ethiopian wolves will be seeing more tourists now that the lodge has opened. Picture: Will Whitford. Source: Supplied

It isn’t the bleak beauty or the bitter cold of Sanetti Plateau that takes my breath away on a chilly November morning. It’s my first sighting of an Ethiopian wolf, the world’s rarest canid.
Only about 500 survive, yet it is the animal’s demeanour, not its rarity, that makes me truly savour this moment. The male wolf has crept up to us while we’ve been looking into the distance through binoculars; suddenly we realise what we’ve been searching for is loitering right by our Land Rover.

Looking more like a fox than a wolf, but taller and sleeker, his long muzzle sniffs the air, so close I can see his black nose is wet and shiny. His ears are pricked bolt upright, alert to every sound; his eyes are bright amber with flecks of green and he studies me with quiet curiosity. The wolf’s inquisitiveness is probably justified — tourists, too, are rather rare in Bale Mountains National Park. It’s in the southeast of the country and an area with one of the highest occurrences of animal endemicity of any terrestrial habitat. But hopefully it will see a lot more visitors if all goes to plan for the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority and the park’s new accommodation.

Bale Mountain Lodge is the dream child of Guy Levene, a former British Army colonel and his wife Yvonne, a schoolteacher. Tucked into the Katcha clearing of Harenna Forest, it is the only lodge in the park, with eight stylish chalets overlooking open glades and mountains, and a large, thatched tukul housing the bar and dining room.

The couple fell in love with the area while posted in Addis Ababa, and their ambitions go beyond running this beautiful, eco-friendly lodge. “We’re here because we want to save Bale,” Guy Levene says. “We hope to have a direct impact on the management of the national park. All our activities are geared to reducing deforestation, educating locals and guests about the special nature of Bale, its role as a ‘water tower’ for 12 million downstream users and its unique wildlife.”

The mix of fauna in this 2200sq km park, tentatively listed by ­UNESCO as a world heritage site, includes black-maned lions, African wild dogs and giant forest hogs. A black leopard has been sighted; some of the 310 varieties of birds and 78 mammal species ­living within its boundaries can rarely be found outside, such as the handsome mountain nyala, the skittish Menelik’s bushbuck and the giant mole-rat, which is the Ethiopian wolf’s favourite meal.

With yellow protruding front teeth that hang down their chins and a neck as fat as a rugby prop forward, giant mole-rats are the size of domestic cats with short, stubby legs. With 5000 mole-rats per square kilometre, the wolves should be thriving, yet they face serious threats.

Although tourists are still few, farmers and their families have moved into Bale illegally as Ethiopia’s population has exploded to more than 90 million. They have brought livestock, dogs, and pets’ diseases of the ilk of ­rabies and canine distemper, which spread to the Ethiopian wolves. Wolf numbers crashed to fewer than 200 adults in 2010.

But thanks to the work of the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Program, populations have recovered. Established in 1995 by Britain’s Oxford University, with financial support from donors ­including the Born Free ­Foundation, Frankfurt Zoological Society and Wildlife Conservation Network, the EWCP employs “wolf ambassadors” to raise awareness of habitat and wolf ­conservation. It has vaccinated about 4200 dogs in Bale in the past two years and is testing a ­rabies vaccine for wolves.

Ethiopian wolves are found in six highland areas of the country, but about half the global population lives in the Bale Mountains. The national park also has one of the most diverse habitats in Africa. Ascending steeply to the outskirts of Harenna Forest, Ethiopia’s largest cloud forest, the landscape changes from eerie moss and ­lichen-drenched trees to slopes swathed in heather and everlasting flowers. Between June and September, the hillsides are a mass of red hot pokers but at the end of November tiny white blossoms look like a blanket of frost.

Finally, we reach the largest tract of Afro-alpine moorland on the continent, home to the Sanetti Plateau where striking giant lobelia juts into the cold, thin air all the way to Tulu Dimtu, Ethiopia’s second highest mountain at 4337m. “We’re into wolf territory,” says James Ndungu, Bale Mountain Lodge’s resident naturalist, as we cross a stream and start looking in earnest for the canids. The wolves live in packs and move their lair every day unless they are denning with pups, when juveniles will guard them while the adults hunt.

They are blind at birth, all black and fluffy, turning russet as they age; and parents feed them by regurgitating their food in their dens. “At night, they sleep huddled together to fend off the cold,” Ndungu says. “And every ­morning they kiss each other when they wake up as part of their socialising.”

The wolves hunt alone and are most often spotted looking for food in the morning and late afternoon. After that first sighting, we see another, just 20m away, stalking a giant mole-rat. His long, slim legs are perfect for skulking low, and we wait silently for him to pounce on his prey. “He’s a juvenile, his tail is still black,” Ndungu whispers. “And he’s learning how to hunt.” But this wolf clearly has more to learn. As he lies motionless by the burrows, another two giant mole-rats pop out of their holes, and seemingly spoiled for choice, he saunters off.

Had that wolf stayed a few minutes longer, he would have seen how the experts do it. An adult ­female appears, stalks for a few seconds, then quickly snaps up her lunch, grabbing the mole-rat around its fat neck before it has a chance to retreat. We see others in the distance too, one with a rat dangling from its jaws and another sleeping in the sun, cleverly camouflaged by rust-coloured lichen on the rocks.