by Nick Crane
“It’s one of the cubs,” he whispers, directing his binoculars between the giant lobelia trees. I try to follow his line of sight and, sure enough, about 80 meters away the young wolf appears, his fur more fluffy than the sleek coat of his mother nearby.
The cub pounces on rodent holes; he has not yet learned to hunt properly. Suddenly, he pauses and looks right into my lens. I manage to get one photo before, in a flash, they are gone; the black tail of the youngster is the last thing I see disappear down the mountainside.
“They saw us,” Getachew whispers again.“We won’t see those two again today.”
Getachew Assefa is known as the “Wolf Man of the Simien Mountains,” and he is dedicated to ensuring the animals’ survival. For the past 15 years, he has patrolled the jagged peaks of these Ethiopian highlands, checking the wolf numbers and watching for signs of both illness and poaching. For though thousands once roamed the country’s mountains, today roughly 400 adult wolves remain — making the Ethiopian wolf Africa’s rarest, and most-threatened, species of canid.
Getachew’s eyes shine bright when he speaks. He has the physique of a fly-half but with the quiet charisma of a man who has found his destiny. Currently, he serves as the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Program’s project leader for the Simien Mountains, where he directs the area’s “wolf monitors” to assess the animals’ demographic trends and measure levels of threat.
On this sunny afternoon in March 2017, I’ve joined Getachew to help gather updated census numbers. While the image of the cub still lingers in my mind, Getachew sets off at a blistering pace to find the rest of the pack — leaving me breathless as I attempt to follow. We are at over 4,000 meters altitude and the lack of oxygen is noticeable.
Despite the difference in color and jaw shape, the Ethiopian wolf is a close relative of the European wolf, having been separated from it during the last ice age. As the world’s weather became warmer, the species retreated to the higher parts of Africa and became trapped in Ethiopia’s mountainous areas, evolving gradually and adapting to the conditions of the Afro-alpine environment. Its fur turned color from grey to a russet brown, so as to match the dry season vegetation, and its snout became pointed to drill down into rodent holes to catch prey.
Yet despite these evolutionary advancements, Ethiopian wolves live in relatively few areas of the country, and their numbers are indeed dwindling. Now encircled by an ever-expanding human population, the animals are forced to survive in the highest and most remote locations of Ethiopia; these Simien Mountains are one of the places where they maintain their fortress existence, while the largest population lives in the Bale Mountains to the south. Only a few packs still live in Menz Guassa, Arsi and the Wollo areas.
Disease is also unfortunately ever-present, as domestic dogs bring with them rabies and canine distemper viruses that are easily transmitted among wolf packs. In 2015, an outbreak of canine distemper struck a large number of the wolves in the Bale Mountains, reducing the area’s total population by more than half to around 130. This season it is believed that the population has started to recover, but the recovery is never 100 percent — like a bouncing ball that never regains its initial inertia.
“I reckon there are just 58 wolves now in the main part of the park,” says Getachew, referring to the surrounding Simien Mountains National Park — one of the very first UNESCO World Heritage Sites. “There used to be over a hundred, so things are getting fairly critical.”
He notes that in 2015 his team counted another 17 wolves on Silky Mountain, a massive peak in the distance that’s probably a day’s walk away, and says that he doubts that number has changed much.
He pauses again to scan the hills with his binoculars, leaning back against the rough trunk of a giant lobelia tree. He is not out of breath despite the steep rocky outcrop that we have just ascended. He informs me that this is just the sort of terrain the wolf packs prefer to select for their dens, but he does not show me the dens; I respect his discretion, understanding that there is a need for secrecy.
“So that means there are only about 75 wolves left in these mountains?” I ask, questioning my own math at this altitude.
“That’s right,” Getachew says despondently. “Let’s say a maximum of 75-80 wolves in total. In the case of canine distemper or rabies we might find the carcass. However, in the case of poaching the animals just vanish.”
He goes on to explain that in Sudan wolf skin is believed to have magical powers. Poachers flatten the skin, making it wafer-thin like Egyptian parchment. Inscriptions are added to convey special powers of sorts, it is believed, and then the skin is folded as small as possible and hung like a pendant from the wrist.
Poachers can make the equivalent of a whole year’s salary for the average Simien inhabitant off a single skin, so the temptation is clearly strong. Additionally, it is hardly surprising that some mountain people also try to kill the wolves. Life is harsh, and the inhabitants naturally feel a need to protect the domestic animals on whom their livelihoods often depend. And while Getachew explains that generally the people are tolerant of the wolves, knowing that the animals bring tourism revenue, not all of the farmers feel the same way about the benefits of tourism or the Simien Mountains National Park.
In fact, in a massive conservation effort to protect the park — now on UNESCO’s “Endangered List” — park officials, farmers, and the government are currently working together to relocate whole villages to surrounding towns. A year ago, for example, several hundred families were moved out of the park’s central area and into the valley where there are schools, medical facilities and — above all — electricity. However, the families complain that although they have received their compensation, the utility company has not yet connected their new dwellings to the electricity grid. They are now shouting “foul play.”
And while humans continue to argue among themselves, the unfortunate reality is that wild animals in the Simien Mountains become increasingly endangered. The clock is ticking, and when park management is not coherent, poachers can secure an advantage.
I ask Getachew how the poachers catch and kill the wolves, and he tells me about the various ways — including poisoning and lighting a fire over the den to suffocate the animals. I think back once again to that beautiful cub, and the thought of him being burnt alive or asphyxiated makes me shudder.
Getachew is also deep in thought, gravely concerned about the future of the species that he has come to love. Has he become their guardian, a man who might one day be renowned for having helped save the Ethiopian wolf? Or is he just the coroner waiting to report on why the world’s rarest canid finally went became extinct?
An early morning frost covers a wolf’s fur. Aside from disease and competition with local farmers for land, the wolves also face a significant threat from poachers. M. HARVEY / ALAMY