On Top of Africa: in the Bale mountains

13.01.2009 // Walking to a crystal clear blue sky, you sit atop a rocky outcrop, the early morning rays warming your back as your eyes scan the wide expanse of alpine splendour in front of you. Through the crisp morning air your gaze is suspended as a flash of movement catches your eye. A family of wolves trots into view, prancing, nipping, sniffing. The lead wolf halts, your red jacket has caught her eye, now locked on yours. Time stops, heart beats rise, young wolves continue to play. The wolf turns, loosens up, and has a long stretch. There you sit, sharing this exceptional moment, on top of a magnificent plateau on the "roof of Africa", in a most extraordinary place - the Bale Mountains.

The Bale Mountains, in the highlands of Ethiopia, are a hotspot of biodiversity and a centre of endemism - home to an assemblage of species that evolved in complete isolation: mammals, birds, amphibians, and plant species that occur nowhere else on Earth. Flowing from this spectacular massif are rivers, streams, and swamps vitally important to the lowland regions of south-eastern Ethiopia, Somalia and northern Kenya. Water which slowly trickles from the spongy mountains and forests of Bale combine to support approximately 12 million people and are essential for the unique semi-arid and arid Horn of Africa ecosystems to function.

These mountains are also the only place in the world where you can trek on foot or on horse-back to above 4,000 metres, see Africa's most endangered canid, the Ethiopian Wolf, hunting Africa's largest mole rat, the giant mole rat, in Africa's widest expanse of Afro-alpine vegetation, and within a short drive drop more than 2,000 metres to find yourself in the rare, Afro-montane, Harenna forest, where, if you are lucky, you may see lions, African wild dogs and the rare Bale monkey.

The Bale Mountains National Park

At the heart of this breath-taking and rugged landscape is the Bale Mountains National Park (BMNP). Established in 1971 BMNP has had a mixed history, being variously managed and supported by, among others, the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Organisation, the US Peace Corps, WWF, and most recently by the international conservation NGO, Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS).

At its inception there were few permanent settlers in the park. However, agricultural expansion in the surrounding areas has pushed pastoralists - who have traditionally used the lower slopes of the mountains as seasonal grazing grounds - up into the higher, more sensitive areas of the park. Seasonal grazing now takes place throughout the park and agriculturalists have begun to settle in larger and larger numbers in all but the highest and most remote areas. Just as the Ethiopian wolf and the mountain nyala regard this Park as home, so now do over 40,000 people. The inevitable competition for space and for resources has put many of the native fauna and flora at grave risk of extinction, and threatens the future of the National Park itself.

The Harenna forest, in particular, is shrinking at an alarming rate. The conversion from natural forest to small agricultural plots threatens the future of many endemic species, among them the Bale monkey, which relies almost solely on the bamboo patches found in the forest, as well as a number of known, and most likely unknown, amphibian and plant species. Overgrazing in the Afro-alpine vegetation belt is causing a significant deterioration in the habitat quality for giant mole rats and other endemic rodents on which the Ethiopian wolves rely for food. Human settlers also bring with them domestic dogs, which, through disease transmission, pose a further threat to the Ethiopian wolf population. With such a high diversity of wildlife and endemism, the BMNP is a crucial protected area for a significant portion of Ethiopia's and the world's biodiversity.

All is not lost however. Significant numbers of most of Bale's endemic species exist, many at very high densities, and remnant patches of all Bale's major habitat types are still represented. As signatories to the Convention of Biological Diversity, Ethiopia has declared its commitment to protecting important conservation sites, such as Bale, and a new-found political will is emerging. The combined effort and resolve of Federal and Regional government, NGOs such as the Frankfurt Zoological Society, and local communities, is beginning to pay off. A steady stream of both local and international researchers regularly visits Bale, infrastructure is improving, and agreements concerning the use of resources in the park are being developed. BMNP has recently been included on the IUCN tentative list for World Heritage Sites and should now, more than ever, be included on any visitor to Ethiopia's must-see list.

The BMNP sustains the largest and only protected population of mountain nyala on Earth. This magnificent antelope, mistakenly identified as a kudu by early European explorers, flourishes in the high-altitude woodlands in the northern Gaysay section of the BMNP. It is not uncommon to walk to within 30 metres of a browsing nyala, where one can quietly observe their graceful features.

In these same woodlands, and in the surrounding grasslands - both of which can be visited by road, foot, or horse-back - Bohor reedbuck, grey duiker, warthog, and Menelik's bushbuck (an Ethiopian endemic) are common sightings. An evening or early morning stroll through the woodlands surrounding Dinsho Lodge, situated at the park HQ, is often very rewarding. Besides the species mentioned above, serval cats, caracal, common jackals, black-and-white colobus monkeys, and spotted hyena are regularly seen.

For many the highlight of a trip to the Bale Mountains is seeing the Ethiopian wolf. With approximately 500 animals remaining throughout the country, the Ethiopian wolf is arguably the rarest and most endangered wild canid in Africa, if not the world. The species exists in only seven small, isolated mountain ranges in Ethiopia. An estimated 300-350 Ethiopian wolves inhabit the vast expanse of Afroalpine habitat above 3,000 metre in the BMNP. The Afroalpine is also dominated by a staggeringly high density of rodents - the primary food item for the Ethiopian wolf. A total of 16 species of rodents are found in the park, eight of which are endemic to Ethiopia, including the giant mole rat which is found nowhere else but in Bale.

The abundant rodent fauna of the Bale Mountains is also primarily responsible for sustaining the incredibly high density of raptors. Golden eagles, Augur buzzards, Imperial eagles, black eagles, tawny eagles, steppe eagles, lanner falcons, kestrels, and bearded vultures are all found here. The Bale Mountains are also one of Ethiopia's most important bird areas with seasonal concentrations of water birds in addition to the diverse raptor assemblage. Among Bale's 16 Ethiopian endemic bird species, sightings of wattled ibis, blue-winged geese, thick-billed raven, Rouget's rail, and spot-breasted plover are exceptionally common.The largely unexplored Harenna forest harbours a completely different variety of flora and fauna from that found on the Afroalpine plateau. A walk or drive through the forest may reveal giant forest hogs, large groups of baboons, black and white colobus monkeys, and the recently described Bale monkey. Uncommon but regular sightings of leopard, lion and African wild dog occur along the road through the forest near the campsite at the Katcha clearing.

Perhaps the best way to see Bale is on horse-back. A popular activity with tourists visiting Bale, it allows one to travel deep into the heart of the Bale Mountains, most of which is inaccessible to vehicles. The most spectacular landscapes are found in the Sanetti plateau and central peaks areas of the park. Deep valleys and rocky peaks - a result of volcanic activity during the Miocene and Oligocene periods - glacial lakes, waterfalls, caves, and magnificent vistas can be explored by foot, horse-back, or a combination of the two. Wildlife is also abundant and easily seen in the open landscape. A group of wolves patrolling in the distance or a lone wolf stalking a giant mole rat hole are frequent sights for trekkers in the Web Valley or on the Sanetti Plateau. Bird enthusiasts are equally rewarded with spectacles of augur buzzards and tawny eagles soaring in the thermal currents overhead. An eight hour drive from Addis Ababa, the BMNP headquarters at Dinsho offer both basic hotel facilities (bring your own food) and camping. The town of Goba, the gateway to the Sanetti plateau, has a number of hotels, including the comfortable Goba Wabe Shabelle. Whether it's rare wildlife, spectacular scenery, or a distinct form of African wilderness you are looking for, the Bale Mountains National Park is truly a unique place - and not to be missed while in Ethiopia. To find out more about the BMNP visit.


Written by Thadaigh Baggallay and posted in Ecotourism, Latest News 16th of December 2008


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