Giant mole-rats were the main dish on the menu in Bale Mountains National Park. They are perhaps the weirdest rodents on earth, with an enormous head, big goofy teeth, a long bendy body, and legs as short as a sausage dog’s. Thankfully, looks aren’t important to the Ethiopian wolves that depend on these ugly creatures for sustenance: an estimated 5,000 giant mole-rats per square kilometre help keep the world’s rarest canids alive.
Only 450 Ethiopian wolves survive today. Some 220 live around Bale’s bleak yet beautiful Sanetti Plateau in southern Ethiopia, a six-hour drive south from Addis Ababa. Despite their rarity, spotting them along the roadside through the National Park is almost as easy as spotting an urban fox in London. They look like foxes too, with deep russet coats and black-tipped tails, but they’re sleeker, taller, and incredibly handsome. In just 15 minutes on the plateau, we saw our first wolf, a juvenile, skulking low, then waiting patiently to pounce on his living lunch.
You would never see this scene outside Ethiopia – both the wolf and giant mole-rats are endemic to the country. But they’re not the only endemic animals in the National Park, which is the size of Herefordshire. On the Dinsho Trail, we walked along tracks on undulating hillsides with massive juniper trees sheltering mountain nyala and Menelik’s bushbuck, both antelopes unique to Ethiopia. We saw the impressive twisted horns of the male mountain nyala poking from the top of a bush before the rest of him appeared, running ahead to protect his ladies. The smaller Menelik’s bushbuck, almost black with a fluffy coat and shorter horns, was more skittish, dashing into undergrowth on hearing us approach.
“A lot of things pop up mysteriously here,” resident naturalist James Ndungu commented as we drove through the spectacular Harenna Forest on the Park’s southern slopes. “The other day, we saw a pack of 20 African wild dogs with young ones, so they’re obviously breeding. And a guest saw a black leopard here too.” Harenna is dripping with moss, giant heather and lichen: it’s the kind of place where you feel that trees have eyes and come alive at night.
Bale is known to be home to 78 mammal species and around 300 species of birds, but who knows what truly lives here? Largely unexplored yet potentially full of exciting discoveries, researchers have recently found 22 previously unknown species of butterflies and moths.