Why and How the Ethiopian Wolf is a Great Subject of Photography
The opportunity to shoot images of the Ethiopian Wolf on camera remains a dream for many wildlife photographers. As of today, the species as a whole lives under the constant looming threat of premature extinction, a situation due primarily to the wolves specific environmental needs to ensure its survival, making them an increasingly challenging subject to photograph. The action of shooting high quality images of this animal is therefore a testament to the photographer’s patience, determination and the aide of an experienced guide to find them.
In a previous blog post, we discussed about how to photograph gelada monkeys who live in Ethiopia. In Simien, the geladas live in harmony with wolves in Ethiopia.
The rarest canid on Earth
The Ethiopian wolf (scientific designation - Canis simensis) is currently the rarest canid in the world, with only some 400 to 450 individuals remaining globally and all living exclusively within Ethiopia’s borders. Their numbers are divided between the Bale Mountains and the Simien National Park. The Ethiopian wolf is also called Abyssinian wolf (Abyssinia is the former name of Ethiopia), Simien fox, Simien jackal or red fox. It is true that when viewed for the first time, the animal looks more like a jackal than a wolf.
As wildlife photographers, the Ethiopian wolf has long represented to us the Grail because we had heard many stories about it and its lifestyle. Photographing it was for us the realization of a dream and the culmination of several years of waiting.
An endangered species
The Ethiopian wolf lives only on the high plateaus of Ethiopia between 3000 and 4300 meters. The last census reported a dozen areas where the species can be observed. We went photograph some of them in the Bale National Park where about 150 animals live.
Two threats to the Ethiopian Wolf: Diseases and pastoral activity. Dogs shepherds transmit to the wolves of the diseases they can not stand: the case of rabies. The shepherds encroach increasingly on the territory of these animals that roam over large areas.
Although the Ethiopian wolf is a protected species, we believe that in a few years, it will have totally disappeared. We think this the right time to observe and photograph this beautiful animal before it is too late.
Dinner a la Ethiopian wolf: the giant mole rat
The favorite dish of the Ethiopian wolf is the giant mole rat which digs burrows for shelter from predators. When we photographed the giant mole rat species in the highlands of Bale, we used a hide. We posted near a burrow and we waited about one hour before a first mole rat showed up. It is a very fearful animal. When it feels ground vibrations it remains holed. Once the vibration stops, it starts to get out of the burrow to feed.
We were fortunate during our research and observation to see one Ethiopian wolf hunting a mole rat. He initially seeks a hole. Then he waits without moving. All his muscles are on alert. It looks the burrow entrance for several minutes. When the mole rat shows out the tip of its snout, the wolf leaps with his feet and immediately digs to capture its prey. It is an extraordinary and fascinating show.
We also laughed a lot watching this hunting scene because behind the wolf, we saw mole rat running from one hole to another looking at the wolf. The speed of a giant mole rat running is impressive.
Two territories to photograph the Ethiopian wolf
To observe and photograph the Ethiopian wolf species, two huge areas are available: the reserve of Bale and the Simien plateau. Bale is the best place to see them. The only problem is that there is no accommodation in the reserve. A small hut is available but it is occupied by the guards the reserve. The first village is about 2 hours’ drive.
We rented this little cabin for one night. We have thus been protected from the intense cold during the night. Temperatures are often negative at this altitude. It was not very comfortable but we were too happy to observe these extraordinary animals.
Meeting the animals are more difficult and more uncertain in the Simien plateau. But wolves can be observed with geladas.
A good guide is necessary
As we mentioned in the article devoted to how to photography gelada monkeys, it is almost impossible to find wolves in Ethiopia if you travel alone. A good guide is absolutely necessary because the areas are arid and difficult to access. The guide must not only know where the wolf’s territories but he must know the locations of dens and living habits of the animals.
Indeed, the territory occupied by one group is immense. The ground is rocky and the terrain is rough. On our first trip, our experienced guide needed hours to locate a female and her young.
Photographing the Ethiopian wolf – tips & tricks
The Ethiopian wolf is essentially a diurnal animal even if it starts to go out only at night in the Simien because of the development of the pastoral activity. For us, the ideal times are in the morning and late afternoon as the low sun on the horizon highlights the brown and white coat.
A long lens of at least 400mm is necessary because it is a very shy animal difficult to approach easily. The photographer often has to stay 150 meters (450 feet) away.
The technique of photo walk is very uncertain because the area where the species he lives is immense. You can walk for hours without noticing one. The ideal is to locate a burrow and wait using a hide. It is essential to be in a sitting position to break the human form. On our first trip, our guide showed us a terrier with young cubs. We set up a hide 200 meters (600 feet) away. The wolf came behind us. We had been spotted. We had to pretend to leave. Then we hide. Then the wolf moved to join its burrow. If we had not moved, she would have waited for hours and the cubs were in danger.
Temperatures on the high plateaus of Ethiopia are very cool especially in the morning. The north wind is cold. We recommend enough warm clothes to keep warm. In wildlife photography, we always use a tripod to get the sharpest possible pictures. To photograph the Ethiopian wolf it is essential because the wait can be very long.
The real challenge is to locate wolves in an interesting environment. The highlands are often deserted and covered by rocks. Shooting a wolf in such an environment represents only a little interest. We had a chance to shoot a pack of cubs on a cliff. Wolves were silhouetted on the horizon. This is definitely the meeting which will remain for us the best memory.
Photographing the Ethiopian Wolf is the dream of many wildlife photographers. This dream has a high price because Ethiopia is the only place where the species can be observed and photographed. As it remains only 500 animals living in the highlands above 4000 meters, this trip requires a solid preparation and s significant logistics as a competent guide.
But it is an experience that we recommend to all because having the chance to observe them even few minutes in their natural habitat remains for us an extraordinary and unique experience.