Capturing images of beautiful alien species at risk reminds Canadians of what to protect at home
Aside from shrubs and heather, there isn’t much growing on the Sanetti Plateau in the Bale Mountains of Ethiopia. There are no trees. The windswept terrain reaches its highest point at Mount Tullu Dimtu, at 4389 meters above sea level. This, however, is the best place to find canis simensis – the Ethiopian wolf.
It was an early November morning with a temperature still in single digits that I had my first sighting of a wolf six years ago. I had been to the Bale Range hoping to photograph them, but this could not be guaranteed – unfortunately the Ethiopian wolf was listed as “endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN ).
This time, however, as he paced back and forth nervously on the side of a hill, it was easy to spot one, with its reddish-brown fur and pointed muzzle resembling that of a huge fox.
There was a waterhole nearby and my guide Alex and I quickly realized that our presence had made her fearful. Alex climbed back into the van, out of sight, leaving me alone on the road. A few minutes later, the wolf trotted down for a drink. Then I watched her dig in underground tunnels where African mole rats, the main prey of the Ethiopian wolf, hide.
At the time, I couldn’t understand what “in danger” really meant. When I returned home, I consulted the IUCN Red List, which is seen as “a wake-up call” to alert governments and scientists to species that are in danger of extinction. More than 138,000 species are now on the assessment list, of which 38,543, or 28%, are threatened with extinction.
IUCN has been following nature since 1964 and meets every four years to update its data and take action. The most recent meeting was in September. 3-11 in Marseille, with French President Emmanuel Macron and Harrison Ford just two of the speakers.
“Extinction is a natural process,” Craig Hilton-Taylor, who heads the Red List unit, told me last week. “You would expect a number of extinctions over time. But if you look at the current extinction rate, it’s 100 to 1,000 times the normal rate. It’s all because of human activities.
He cites habitat loss to agriculture and urban expansion, as well as climate change. Does this sound familiar to you?
IUCN estimates that fewer than 500 Ethiopian wolves remain, giving the animal the dubious distinction of being Africa’s rarest carnivore. Several agencies are working with the Ethiopian government to increase their numbers.
As farmers settle on their land, grazing their cattle, wolves are pushed higher and higher into the mountains. Inevitably there are conflicts with humans. Rabies and distemper also wreak havoc as domestic dogs spread the disease. It is not uncommon for farmers to use poison to target wolves and other livestock predators such as jackals. (Education programs are underway to reverse this trend.)
The lessons learned from observing Ethiopian wolves are relevant here at home, but they are not the only endangered species I have found during those three days in the Bale Mountains – a fact that I now view with ambivalence. While walking in the forest near the entrance to Bale Mountains National Park, we came across several mountain nyalas, a member of the antelope family. Again, I had no idea this species was on the IUCN Red List – I was just delighted to see these magnificent creatures.
On the way back to Addis Ababa, we encountered a “wake” of vultures feasting on a donkey that had probably been hit by a vehicle. These were Ruppell’s Vultures and White-backed Vultures, which play a vital role in nature: preventing diseases that can be spread by rotting carcasses. Incredibly these two species are endangered, but here too farmers sometimes leave out poison to kill predators, and vultures ingest it.
On a subsequent trip to Ethiopia, I took a four day trekking trip to the Simien Mountains to the north. These stunningly beautiful mountains are home to a small number of Ethiopian wolves, a huge population of Gelada baboons, and another endangered species, the Walia ibex.
My guide Yonas warned me that in six years as a guide he had never seen a Walia ibex in this region. Agriculture and road building had pushed them further into the remote mountains. Yet one evening, after a particularly grueling 16 km hike taking us above 3,900 meters, he enthusiastically pointed out a young ibex on a mountain trail below us.
The animal had been separated from its family in some way and had run along the path below us, desperately looking for them. Yonas feared he might not survive the night, considering the predators.
Although Ethiopian ecotourism is in its infancy – not necessarily a bad thing – there are other parts of the world where landowners have understood its potential benefits. Before the pandemic hit, I spent five days at Estancia Laguna Amarga, a 7,000 hectare ranch in Patagonia, photographing pumas.
The ranch, which sits just outside of Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park, had been a sheep farm for decades, but with the highest concentration of cougars in Patagonia, the owners have jumped into it. ecotourism. Although these cats are the same species as our Rocky Mountain puma, they are bigger because they are the supreme predator in this region – they don’t have to deal with wolves and bears.
Every day we left at 4.30am and, with the famous tracker Roberto Donas in the lead, we quickly found pumas at every opportunity. Indeed, we spent a morning with a mother and her four cubs (at a distance, but close enough to capture beautiful images).
The species is “Least Concern” (the lowest of seven ranked risk levels) according to the IUCN, and although their numbers are declining, it was inspiring to see these big cats thriving in their natural environment. The jaguars of the Brazilian Pantanal are not so lucky. The Red List finds them “near threatened”, a higher level of danger than pumas.
After my job at the Rio Olympics, I traveled to Porto Jofre on the Cuiaba River and spent four days in one of the many lodges built for wildlife tourism. Most of the land is privately owned or simply abandoned. I was with arguably the most respected guide in the region, Fabricio Dorileo.
“Most of the lodges here in the Pantanal were livestock farms,” Dorileo told me recently. “They found that, thanks to tourism, they didn’t have to sell their land and protect the animals instead. “
Dorileo says there are always conflicts and the guides know there are few or no jaguars upstream from Porto Jofre, because farmers shoot jaguars they suspect are endangering their cows. He is working to implement a program, similar to those used in western Canada and the Rocky Mountain states, to compensate farmers who lose livestock to predators.
“I said to the farmers, ‘If this jaguar doesn’t kill a cow, don’t kill it. It can protect against other jaguars if it does not have the behavior necessary to kill a cow, ”he explains. Some farmers, he said, thanked him.
Canada is a vast country and we are envied for our wildlife. My favorite species, the snowy owl, which I have observed over the past eight winters near my home in Cambridge, Ont., Is listed as “vulnerable,” two levels more endangered than pumas.
“This is a species with a fairly wide range and which is found in all species of the northern hemisphere, from North America to Europe and across Russia,” a Hilton-Taylor said about this species. “It’s extremely prevalent, but in many places it is affected by human activity. Their habitat is shrinking as this part of the world is affected by climate change. “
With IUCN and world leaders increasingly aware of the dangers presented to wildlife, let’s hope that snowy owls don’t face the same situation as the Ethiopian wolf.
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