Mammals on The Roof of Africa

February 2020
view over Sanetti Plateau, Ethiopia

The day dawned bright and calm: somehow we had managed to avoid the low cloud and strong winds that so often affect the high mountains of Ethiopia.

Leaving the town behind, we climbed up through eucalyptus plantations and native juniper forest, past flaky-barked Hagenia trees, draped in pink and brick-red flower heads, like rusty Spanish moss, and out into agricultural areas, scattered with Hypericum trees and the asphodel-like tufts of Kniphofia leaves. 

Permits checked, and we were through the gates of Bale Mountains National Park and onto the Sanetti Plateau.

As we were driving across a hillside recovering from a burn less than a year ago, with freshly sprouting Erica arborea, our driver spotted an animal running: a mongoose? No, black and white striped, and legging it through the bush… amazingly, we all got brilliant views of a speedy Zorilla, a relative of the Saharan Striped Polecat that I’d hoped (but failed) to see back in January, and a spectacular start to our day on the plateau!

Up onto the plateau proper, white cushions of Helichrysum covered the landscape, looking for all the world like ashy rocks. Scattered amongst them were Giant Lobelias, looking for all the world like out-of-place palm trees.

The moorland was amazingly alive with rodents. Blick’s Grass Rats bounded from clump to clump, rock to rock, like hyperactive Pikas. A larger, greyer rodent was Black-clawed Brush-furred Rat, while a smaller, more rat-like species was Ethiopian Meadow Rat. 

But the most entertaining of the lot led us a merry dance, a game of ‘whack-a-mole’, or should that be ‘spot-a-mole-rat’, the Giant Root Rat who would stick his big head up out of a burrow, nibble on some grasses and then just as quickly disappear underground again. Eventually we all got a look at this giant gingery fur-ball, but it definitely took some doing!

Zorilla walking through short grassland, Ethiopia
Zorilla, Ethiopia - Philip Precey
Giant Root Rat eating vegetation, Ethiopia
Giant Root Rat, Ethiopia - Philip Precey
Ethiopian Wolf standing in short grassland, Ethiopia
Ethiopian Wolf, Ethiopia - Philip Precey

All these wonderful mammals were certainly great to see, but we’d be lying if we said that was why we had come up to an altitude of 4100m… The Sanetti Plateau is famous as the last refuge of the world’s most endangered wild dog, and all of a sudden there she was: the unmistakable gingery outline of an Ethiopian Wolf, busy feeding. She had obviously just caught herself a meal, one of the Giant Root Rats who stuck its head above ground just that split second too long…

Step by step, across the moorland, we were able to approach her to pretty close range while she was intent on her meal, while still very much aware of our presence. Eventually she finished eating, stood up and decided to head off, hunting for her next Giant Mole Rat or Grass Rat snack, trotting through the Helichrysum bushes in a very relaxed manner, even walking towards us on a couple of occasions, before crossing the road and heading off across the plateau. An amazing experience, made even more so by the knowledge that perhaps as few as 150 adult Ethiopian Wolves still call these rodent-filled high passes their home.

Heading down from the plateau at the other side, we delved into Harrena Forest, the largest remaining contiguous block of forest in the country. As well as providing a delightfully shady picnic spot, the forest offered us the chance to catch up with another of Ethiopia’s endemic and range-restricted mammals. After a little searching, our local guide led us into the forest where we were able to follow a shy troop of Bale Monkeys. A densely-furred, stockier version of the more familiar Grivet Monkey we had seen earlier in the trip, the Bale Monkey is ‘the panda of Ethiopia’, a specialist feeder on the bamboo that makes up much of the understorey of this forest, to which the entire species is now apparently restricted…

Time to head home, back across the plateau, where we had one last wolf sighting to finish off a long day spent in a beautiful and little-visited corner of Africa, in the company of some superb wildlife.

Bale Monkey sitting in a tree, Ethiopia
Bale Monkey, Ethiopia - Philip Precey