Ethiopia is one of the best kept secrets in the world for seeing an astonishing range of wildlife. While you can certainly see some of the larger and more obvious game animals such as lions and elephants in various areas of the country, Ethiopia’s main attraction lies in the sheer variety of its smaller and perhaps less dramatic wildlife.
Ethiopia was very forward-looking in designating many regions of the country as National Parks at a very early date. Today there are some 15 or more areas where wildlife is protected.
Some of these are specialist areas, like the Babille Elephant Sanctuary, but many others contain a wider range of interesting and rare animals. The different habitats of these parks very much reflect the diversity of the country itself.
Most notable of all in Ethiopia is the variety of endemic species that can be seen, both mammals and birds. Ethiopia is, for example, one of the most satisfying countries in the world for the adventurous bird-watcher, yet it does not take an experienced ornithologist to delight in the variety of colourful inhabitants of the trees and bushes, both in the town and the countryside.
Ethiopia has an extraordinary range of wildlife with 242 listed mammal species, 28 of these being endemic. The national parks are working hard to protect these creatures under often very difficult conditions of climatic irregularities and tribal disputes.
Most notable of the endemic mammals are the gelada baboon, the Walia ibex, the Menelik’s bushbuck, the mountain nyala, Swayne’s hartebeest and the Simien fox.
The Simien fox (Canis simiensis) is confined to a very few areas of the country. Although rare in the Simien Mountains themselves, it is much more frequently seen in the Bale National Park. It lives exclusively on the high mountain plateaux. Sometimes called the Simien wolf or Abyssinian wolf, it is large by fox standards with long legs.
The Gelada baboon (Theropithecus gelada) is found in great numbers in similar mountainous areas to the Simien fox. It is particularly recognisable by the heart-shaped red skin on its chest and its lion-like mane. It is particularly numerous in the Simien mountains. Global warming is having a dire effect on its habitat and it is fast disappearing.
The Walia ibex (Capra walie) is the rarest of the endemic animals in Ethiopia. Its principle area is in the Simien mountains where it can only be seen on very steep areas of high mountains. It has magnificent heavily ridged horns that sweep back over its shoulders.
Menelik’s bushbuck (Tragelaphus scriptus meneliki) is plentiful in the Bale and Simien mountains and is found in forest and bush at high altitude. The males are dark, the females brown/red. The horns are a twisted closed spiral.
The mountain nyala (Tragelaphus buxtoni) is found in the various mountainous areas east of the Rift Valley such as the Bale National Park and the Kuni-Muktar sanctuary. It prefers the high moorlands. It is, more accurately, a kudu and is recognisable by its elegant lyre-shaped horns.
Swayne’s hartebeest (Alcelaphus buselaphus swaynei) is very rare and prefers open plains and woodland. It can be found in the Awash and Nechisar parks. This animal has suffered much from being hunted during the period of the Derg when protection was poor.
Ethiopia is one of the great countries in the world for seeing diverse and colourful bird life. Well over 800 species of bird are listed and, of these, 30 varieties cannot be seen outside Ethiopia/Eritrea.
All of the designated national park areas are excellent for bird watching and yet the non-specialist will be intrigued wherever he goes by the colour and variety all around him.
Of the endemic species, particularly notable are the Abyssinian catbird, Rouget’s rail, the white-cheeked turaco and Heuglin’s bustard. The turaco is particularly endangered and elusive but has been seen recently in the Yabelo Wildlife Sanctuary south of Addis.
The Bale National Park is one of the best areas for experiencing Ethiopia’s endemic birds thanks to its great variety of habitats.
Various volumes exist on Ethiopia’s bird life for the interested reader, including an illustrated booklet published in Ethiopia by the tourist commission called Ethiopia’s Endemic Birds.
Ethiopia has been very forward-looking in its provision of national park areas and there are at present a dozen regions within the country that have been designated as protected areas for wildlife.
The Simien Mountains, north of Gondar, provide an excellent trekking area with a good infrastructure of equipment provision and guide facilities in place. This accessible area has walia ibex, gelada baboons, lammergeyers and Simien foxes (sadly few!).
Much more chance of seeing the Simien fox is had in the Bale National Park south of Addis, also an accessible area with fairly good provision for travellers. Here can also be seen Menelik’s bushbucks, mountain nyalas and giant molerats.
Less accessible but offering exciting opportunities for the adventurous traveller is the Omo National Park in the south-west, where elands, cheetahs, giraffes, elephants, rhinos and many other animals and birds can be seen. This is also a wonderful area for visiting local peoples and experiencing their cultures.
Other areas with full national park status are Yangudi-Rassa in the north-east, Senkele south of Addis, Awash east of Addis, Gambela in the far west of the country, and Mago and Nechisar south-west of Addis. Other designated protected wildlife areas are the Babille Elephant Sanctuary and Kuni-Muktar in the east and Yabelo in the south.