*Originally published in Modern Huntsman, Vol III
I am following a web of game trails, criss-crossing through a maze of moss-covered boulders in a mature juniper woodland. Each step lands soundlessly, sinking into spongy grass and soft, wet soil. A giant Hagenia extends upwards, its pale, peeling bark glowing in the diffuse morning light. The air is sweet and Saint-John’s-wort blooms a vibrant yellow in the distance.
I notice him out of the corner of my eye—not because he has moved, but because he’s regarding me so intently. Freezing, I try to make out his shape through the dense underbrush. I sink slowly to a seated position, holding my breath. Less than 20 feet away a magnificent Menelik’s bushbuck rests. His eyes are bottomless, and small black markings dot his cheeks. Slashes of white cross his velvety muzzle and throat, giving him a tribal regality. His face is russet, contrasting with the darker, thicker fur on the rest of his body. Two slender horns twist gracefully from his head, the color growing dark towards the tips.
He doesn’t stand. He seems perfectly comfortable having me so near. A half an hour passes. We continue to regard each other. He grooms himself, long tongue cleaning the fur around his chest and neck. It begins to rain big wet drops. He stands, finally, shaking and stretching like a dog. After a moment’s pause, instead of retreating deeper into the forest, he walks toward me, under the branches, passing within arm’s reach.
I trail him for another hour. We take shelter beneath neighboring trees when the rain falls harder. He’s content to have me as his shadow, quietly drifting through this land of plenty. It’s a memory I’ll cherish, the hospitality of this bushbuck in the Ethiopian Highlands.
I first meet Dr. Justin Irvine—Ethiopia’s Country Director for the Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS)—and his wife, Sera, at the office in Addis Ababa. We make quick introductions, and then I pile my gear into their Land Cruiser and climb in the back. The seven-hour drive south to Bale Mountains National Park (BMNP) is completely mad. I white-knuckle the armrests while Irvine confidently slaloms through an endless montage of camels, horse-drawn buggies and overstuffed passenger busses blasting African pop music. All the while, he acquaints me with the country, the issues, and, most importantly, the national park—what makes Bale so unique and worth protecting.
“FZS’s main interest is conservation of biodiversity,” Irvine tells me. “BMNP—and other highland areas of Ethiopia—have very high endemism, meaning there are many species that only exist in these unique, high-elevation habitats.” The Bale Mountains consist of six volcanic cones, each well above 13,000 feet, all connected by the the vast, high-altitude Sanetti Plateau. The park encompasses 2,200 square kilometers of Afroalpine habitat—the largest in the world. These African highlands function as sky islands, isolated mountains surrounded by radically contrasting lowland environments. In 2009, the park was placed on the World Heritage Tentative List.
Chugging slowly up a steep hill, Irvine shouts over the roar of the Land Cruiser’s diesel engine. “If conservation efforts here in Bale are not successful, more species of mammals could become extinct than any other area of equivalent size on the planet.” We enter the Gaysay Grasslands. At just below 10,000 feet and spanning the Webb and Danka Rivers, these northern grasslands are important grazing areas for the mountain nyala—the last large ungulate to be described in Africa and endemic to the Ethiopian Highlands. Almost immediately we spot olive baboons, sitting like sentinels alongside the road, warthogs in the tall grass and a herd of 30 mountain nyala off in the distance. Unfortunately, however, there are plenty of livestock grazing nearby as well.
“There is a traditional transhumance system here. In the dry season, people move their livestock from the lowlands up into the park where there is more water,” Irvine explains. “That was fine 30 or 40 years ago, when the population was much smaller. Not anymore.” In the past 50 years, the population of Ethiopia has more than tripled—from 27 million in the 1960s to over 100 million today. According to a study conducted by Adigrat University, Ethiopia has lost around 90 percent of its natural forests in the last 30 years, [Deforestation in Ethiopia: Causes, Impacts, and Remedy] and the wildlife has disappeared along with the native vegetation. “Because grazing land is being increasingly converted to cropland, people have nowhere to put their livestock,” Irvine tells me. “So the the 22,000 pastoralists and agro-pastoralists living around the park push them into the park to graze. This creates a huge pressure on the park.”
The official slogan of BMNP is “One Park, Many Worlds.” Rising from 5,000 feet to just above 14,000 feet in the span of a few kilometers, this sheer altitudinal gradient encompasses a hugely diverse range of unique habitats. At the lowest elevation lies the Harenna Forest. It includes an upper section of cloud forest (the largest in Ethiopia) and an extensive band of mountain bamboo growing on steep slopes, home to the endemic Bale monkey. The lower parts of the forest are drier, famous for wild forest coffee. The Harenna Forest is so dense that many parts are poorly understood, completely impassable and host the likes of lions, leopards, giant forest hogs and several species of endemic birds. “Every taxonomic trip to the Harenna Forest usually ends up with a new discovery,” Irvine tells me.
Above the forest, you encounter a band of tree heather that looks like something out of Lord of the Rings. Erica arborea, tree heath, is common throughout the world but grows to staggering proportions in Bale. Bedecked with moss and lichen, this habitat is highly endangered in Ethiopia due to exploitation for firewood and overgrazing of the understory.
Seven thousand vertical feet above the forest is the Sanetti Plateau. This landscape is massive. The giant lobelia—with its thick stalk and waxy leaves—punctuates the open vistas. This curious plant grows to nearly 20 feet and flowers only once every seven years. Large birds—tawny eagles, bearded vultures, augur buzzards—wheel high in the sky above. At this altitude you’ll likely contend with high winds and temperature fluctuations as great as 50 degrees. The sun is intense by day, and by night frosts are common, even this close to the equator.
The plateau is full of peculiar animals, ranging from the rock hyrax to the Starck’s hare. And BMNP’s flagship species, the Ethiopian wolf, is supported by a staggering density of Afroalpine rodents (of which the giant mole rat is a favorite food item). This endemic wolf is the rarest canid in the world and less than 500 remain. Yet a trip to the Sanetti Plateau all but guarantees a sighting of this distinctive, red-coated wolf.
“Originally the idea was to support the park in order to more effectively conserve the wolf populations,” Irvine tells me as we turn off the main road in the town of Dinsho and pass through the gates of the park. “But it became increasingly obvious that the threats to the wolves were human-derived. So FZS got more interested in trying to work with people to develop sustainable livelihoods that are more compatible with conservation.” The hope is that through increasing the productivity of livestock and crops outside the park, people won’t need to seasonally graze within the park boundary.
I spend the next three days at the park headquarters, located at just under 10,000 feet on the northern end of the Bale Massif. Detached from the main body of the park, this 28-hectare piece of heavily forested land is brimming with exotic wildlife (my encounter with the bushbuck proves to be just one of many close encounters). I sleep in a room adjacent to the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Project office, a pleasantly musty collection of buildings that evoke nostalgic memories of an old summer camp. Although bare-bones, there’s a hot shower—it is the kind of place that makes you feel like you’re outside when you’re in. It’s wonderful. In addition, there is a visitor center under construction, a small campground, a series of trails, and an old two-track road from which to explore the area. On the night of my arrival, while drinking a beer with the FZS crew, I glance down to see a warthog by my side. Just one of the guys.
On my third day at the headquarters, I walk along a dirt road with Neville Slade. He’s the project manager for the Bale Mountains Conservation Project and lives in the park. Like Irvine, Slade is British but has spent the majority of his life in Africa, beginning at age six. The son of a missionary who worked with the Maasai in Kenya, Slade speaks Swahili and Maasai and lived in Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique and Zambia before landing in Ethiopia.
We are talking about the importance of establishing BMNP as a tourist destination when a black-and-white blur darts across the road in front of us and then shoots up a large juniper tree. Startled, I look to Slade. “Colobus monkey,” he says with a relaxed, easy smile. Hustling over to the base of the tree, I crane my neck, staring up between the dense, dark branches. It takes me a moment to understand what I see: A large free-falling monkey is heading straight toward me. Arms and legs spread wide like a skydiver, mouth agape, long white fur flapping wildly, like the fringe on a leather jacket. A short distance above me, he grasps a thin branch, slowly arresting his dissent as it bows beneath his body weight before flinging him once again into the air. He soars through open space—a flying rock star—landing in another juniper and quickly disappearing deeper into the forest.
One answer is tourism. “With improved management and a bit of stability in the country, this place has a massive potential for tourism,” Slade tells me as we climb the steps to his modest home amidst the junipers and Hagenia. Bale’s unique species have few natural predators, so they are relaxed around people and visible at close proximity. The local population is predominantly Muslim and only eats meat prepared in accordance with Islamic law. Which means that, unlike a lot of national parks in Africa, poaching isn’t a huge threat. Instead of requiring armed guards or the protection of a vehicle, visitors can travel on foot or horseback (or bicycle!) for days through a constantly changing landscape—surrounded by some of the planet’s most unique wildlife—accompanied only by a guide.
“It’s a bit of a catch-22 really,” Slade explains as we sit. “In order to get people to come, we first must have a protected park.” More tourism means more money for the local economy. People living around the park could substitute income from livestock with income from tourism. “But, just one bad experience—like yours—and it’s ruined for many others.”
The experience Slade refers to happened during my first week in Ethiopia, far from the park. I had planned to accompany three friends for a two-week bikepacking trip from Addis Ababa to Bale. Instead, on day six, we rode into a tiny village around 4:30 in the afternoon and were surrounded by a mob. It was a surreal experience. We had stopped to consult our route when a young girl threw a handful of stones at us. I had just enough time to identify the source before the village erupted around us with angry, shouting people. During the worst of it, the mob swelled to 60 or 70—it felt like the entire village was upon us. I remember thinking, Oh. This is the exact situation you hope you’re never in while traveling. The attackers struck two of us with sticks—not badly—and we all managed to escape relatively unscathed. But It was an awful situation I hope to never find myself in again.
This incident illustrates, albeit indirectly, the challenges facing Slade and Irvine. If safety and stability are essential to developing tourism, they are equally essential to long-term conservation goals. Creating new opportunities for local people and shifting the economy around the park first requires a mutual trust. But trust is hard to come by where the stressors of political instability, unemployment and corruption exist. Furthermore, Ethiopia’s burgeoning population and dependency on land-based livelihoods means that there is an ever increasing demand for land, particularly from the jobless youth. The immediate need to survive supersedes the importance of safeguarding natural resources for future generations. Thus, the protected area of the park is not seen as having any value, unless it can provide some benefit for the communities living on it’s border. Tourism has a great potential to contribute to this community benefit-sharing.
At this juncture, Bale needs adventurous souls, travelers willing to abandon the beaten path. It needs people who will ignore a bit of bad press and come anyway. More than anything, it requires attention from the outside world—a global patronage casting a vote in favor of its survival.
Dr. Irvine navigates the FZS Land Cruiser at speed along a primitive mountain road. After three days at park headquarters, we’re heading to Sodota, higher up on the plateau. Sera is crammed in the backseat along with our guide, Omar, our cook, Awol and enough provisions for a five-day trek across the Sanetti Plateau. At camp, we’ll meet two more local men who will handle a string of packhorses, allowing us to hike unencumbered through the park.
Unique and rare species aside, BMNP deserves protection for an altogether different ecological reason: its role as a water tower. Because the Bale Massif is so high, it attracts large amounts of rainfall annually. Functioning like a sponge, the mountains absorb moisture in the wet season and slowly give it back throughout the dry season. Four rivers flow out of the park, and they supply water for the rain-fed agriculture of anywhere from 12 to 15 million people downstream in southeastern Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya.
“Wildlife populations are an indicator of the overall health of an ecosystem,” Irvine tells me. “If the species are present in viable numbers, that generally means the habitat is in good condition.” In a strong rain year, the Bale Mountains absorb enough rainfall to keep all four rivers flowing throughout the dry season.
But at the moment, the park is under enormous pressure from humans. In the rainforest, people cut down trees for firewood and clear space for crops. Overgrazing threatens the plateau. These activities destroy essential habitat for wildlife, but also they leave less vegetation to hold moisture. “If it’s not managed properly, you end up with bare ground,” Irvine tells me. “The rainfall in the wet season runs off much faster. Floods take the soil away, and you end up with drought.” A punctured tire briefly interrupts our conversation. Irvine and Omar have the vehicle jacked up, tire off and replaced in a few minutes.
Back on the move at a slightly more conservative pace, Irvine resumes his train of thought. “If you can protect the habitat for the wolves, mountain nyala and the Bale monkey, then you’re also protecting these vegetation types. That’s important for wildlife and for the water management for the millions of people living downstream.” To keep the water flowing, the environment needs protection at its source. Livestock numbers entering the park have to be controlled. To do that, rangers must fully appreciate the importance of the park and feel motivated to consistently enforce the rules.
It is crazy to think that this huge water source could be destroyed by a relatively small population living along the borders of the park. Slade says that usage of the park for grazing purposes by local communities can be allowed, but that they would need to control the number of animals in any given area. “The biggest complaint we get from people is that we are trying to keep them out of the park,” Slade says. “They don’t understand that we want them out—not so we can have it for ourselves, but in order to protect it. They gain no obvious advantage. The only way we can change that is through tourism.” But that brings us back to the catch-22.
The next morning we rise early. It is cold. I remain in my sleeping bag until the rising sun begins to warm the dark-green rainfly of my tent. Slipping into my puffy jacket, I leave the tent and am delighted to find hot coffee, thin pancakes and granola awaiting us. We eat and then repack our gear. When I begin breaking down my tent, I’m gently told this is the job of the horsemen—a luxury I’m completely unused to. Awol gives us each a packed lunch and water for the day and sends us on our way.
We walk nearly 30 miles over the next two days, weaving through canyons and dense, low-cropped heather to emerge further up onto the main plateau. The views are enormous, ranging all the way to the far edges. Approaching the escarpment, where the plateau plummets into the forest, feels like drawing near to the edge of the world. The view of what’s beyond—if there is anything—is completely obscured by a sheer bank of thunderclouds that build dramatically throughout the day.
On day three, we leave the flat, wide-open plateau and enter the vertical, contorted world of Rafu. Volcanic rock pinnacles of all shapes and sizes tower above us. We weave our way between their bases, and the rocks radiate the warmth absorbed in the midday heat. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced before—otherworldly, a moonscape, outside of time. After hours wandering through the maze of rock, we pop out and reach our camp for the night. The tents are already pitched tidily amidst the boulders. Evening tea, cookies and toasted barley are laid out picnic-style on a large piece of burlap. We gratefully stretch out on the ground, propped against the rocks, and enjoy our post-hike ritual cup of tea with sugar. On top of the world.
Awol cooks dinner inside a mud-and-dung hut near the tents. It provides seasonal shelter for a family who brings their livestock into the park to graze, but it currently stands empty. The structure is partitioned into two rooms, and Omar has built a fire in one. We pack inside, sitting on a low bench around the flames, greedily accepting both warmth and hot food. We make jokes and talk about the day’s hike while eating. Slowly the room fills with smoke. Eventually, I can hardly keep my eyes open. Tears stream down my face, and I’m forced to excuse myself. Before leaving the hut, I glance back into the room. I can barely make out the four Ethiopian men, sitting comfortably, wreathed in a nearly opaque blanket of smoke.
On the fourth day of walking across the park, we reach an elevation of 14,000 feet, and even the slightest incline cuts all conversation, pulling us deep into our thoughts and daydreams. But here in the Afroalpine, even thought slows. I feel removed from the world, above it all, incredibly remote. So it’s startling when I hear the distinct whine of a two-stroke engine. A moment later, three men on a tiny motorcycle bump around a bend into view. They smile and wave as they pass, one man dismounting to push as the motorcycle bogs down in some mud. He’s wearing a sport coat.
Later that day, we crouch among a burned out patch of heather. Omar thinks someone intentionally fired it to discourage leopard predation on livestock. Before us, the open plateau extends for miles. Paralleling our position is an Ethiopian wolf. Long-legged and slight, with a reddish-orange coat and elongated snout, these wolves typically hunt alone during the day, but they live in much larger packs.
As she disappears around the edge of the heather belt, I crouch and follow quickly, hoping to close the distance while hidden from view. But suddenly, she comes back around the bend at a trot. She sees me immediately and gracefully changes direction to keep some distance between us. I watch as she unhurriedly makes her way further out onto the plateau, occasionally pausing to look back at me. We meet each other’s gaze. I’m but one of nearly eight billion of my kind. She represents a population of less than 500 remaining in the world.
I spot a herd of goats in the distance. In the last three days, we have seen a concerning amount of livestock within the park. The mud huts of seasonal grazers blend naturally within the landscape, popping up where you least expect them. We’ve even passed a few full-blown villages—complete with mosques, their metal roofs and minarets candescent in the sunshine. Seasonal grazing is one thing—it’s still totally illegal. But once a group of people has squatted on a piece of land, built a village and a mosque, it’s nearly impossible to remove them.
On the final night, we camp on a cliff band below a large cave. While the sun sets, klipspringers—tiny, gregarious antelopes with short spiky horns—spring nimbly from rock to rock along the precipice above. Omar builds a fire of dead wood. We eat pasta and share a half bottle of wine dragged along for such an occasion. Afterwards, we sit quietly—humans in a cave in the cradle of civilization—one of many species to call this mountain home tonight. The flames leap wildly in the thin air, casting frantic shadows about me. I edge nearer the warmth as the temperature plummets. Looking through the flickering fire at our guides, I see the future of Bale: jobs built on tourism, tourism built on conservation. A core of trained and dedicated people directly responsible for the maintenance of the water tower, and thereby the protectors of the millions it feeds downstream. Protect the wolf, conserve the water, safeguard the people.
*For more information, visit www.balemountains.org
Big thank you to Dr. Justin Irvine, Sera Irvine, and Neville Slade!