Bleeding Hearts

Of baboon lust, ibex ballets, and the necessity of the African wolf.

May 1, 2001
Outside Magazine

DOURÉ IS STRIDING along the edge of the escarpment, a thin figure silhouetted against the lavender dawn. He is nimble, his pace swift and economical. A Kalashnikov is slung from one shoulder, carried easily, almost as though it were not real. The path arcs along the curve of the precipice, a 3,000-foot drop just inches away, but Douré is surefooted, singing quietly, insouciant. This dry, deeply riven country is his homeland. We are hiking through the Simen Mountains of northern Ethiopia. Douré, our armed scout, is out in front, followed by Mulat, our guide; Sue, my wife; and me.

The first look over the escarpment, even if one is accustomed to the vertigo of mountains, is shocking. In a nanosecond the eyes gauge the fantastic drop, the mind imagines the plummet to death, instinct secretes a warning into the blood, and the body recoils.

There are chasms of air beside us. The scalloped rim presents a series of sheer walls ahead and behind, but to our left there is an utter falling away, a dropping and dropping until a dissected badlands finally looms up. The black shadow of the escarpment cuts jaggedly across this netherworld far below.

"It's like the Grand Canyon," says Sue. "Like looking off the South Rim without a North Rim on the other side."

Douré and Mulat stop and pass the binoculars back and forth, glassing the walls. They are searching for ibex. They find nothing, and we continue along the escarpment. The trail drops down a hundred feet, paralleling the scythelike curve of the canyon rim, and then begins ascending.

There's something ahead of us on the trail: a shaggy mane silhouetted against the skyline.

"Lion baboon," Mulat whispers.

We move forward in a crouch, halting behind a bush. It is a troop of baboons, perhaps 50 in all. They are warming themselves in the morning sun, picking lice from one another's fur, cavorting, chewing grass.

"Gelada baboons," Mulat explains. "We name them lion baboons, or bleeding hearts."

The males have great lionlike manes of tawny fur. "Bleeding heart" refers to a distinctive triangle of bare pink flesh on the chests of both males and females. Unlike some African baboons, these lion baboons are afraid of humans. As soon as Sue and I try to approach, the dominant males curl their lips back and bare their teeth. We immediately freeze, but now they are agitated. The big males are nervously cocking their heads. They begin to scream. It's a signal: Suddenly every animal in the troop flies to the edge of the precipice and flings itself off.

We're stunned. It seems they have committed suicide en masse. I spring to the edge, drop to my hands and knees, and peer over the rim. I expect to see several dozen primates flailing down through thin air.

Instead, they are all perched on tiny ledges along the sheer face of the cliff. I can't understand how they have landed safely. Then one of the baboons spots my white face. Shrieks echo along the rock and the entire troop leaps into space, allowing itself a free fall of ten or 20 feet before reaching out impossibly powerful hands, grabbing hold of tufts of grass, and gracefully swinging itself back into the cliff. It is the most dazzling display of agility and sangfroid I have ever seen.

THE SIMEN MOUNTAINS stretch from east to west across the far north of Ethiopia, 75 miles south of Eritrea, 100 miles east of Sudan, 350 miles west of the Red Sea. The range is actually a wildly incised plateau with a vertical, north-facing escarpment.

The Simens have had a battlement view of the interminable war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. In 1962 Ethiopia attempted to absorb Eritrea, precipitating a 31-year civil war. Although Eritrea eventually prevailed, declaring itself an independent state in 1993, sporadic fighting continued. Last July a cease-fire was negotiated, and in December, Eritrea and Ethiopia finally signed a peace treaty that may endure.

Since working as a newspaper reporter in Kenya in the mideighties, I'd been dreaming of a trek in northern Ethiopia. For the Simen Mountains are not only home to an amazing landscape and an ancient enclave of Amhara farmers, but they are also one of the last pinpricks of habitat left for three endangered mammals: the gelada baboon, the walia ibex, and the Simen wolf.

Gelada baboons and their relatives once roamed the African savanna from Ethiopia south to the Cape; today they live only in the Afro-alpine ecological zone of Ethiopia. They are the only primates in the world that subsist on grass, and they have the greatest manual dexterity of any monkey on earth.

The walia ibex exist only in or near the miniature (69-square-mile) Simen Mountains National Park. The walls of the escarpment are their final redoubt. At last count, only about 400 animals remain.

As for the Simen wolf, it is one of the rarest and most endangered canids on the planet. There are none in captivity; the total population in the wild is less than 500. No more than 50 and possibly far fewer individuals survive in their namesake range.

The spillover effects of war, coupled with overpopulation, disease, and poverty—the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse that have ravaged so much of Africa—have left the wildlife in the Simen Mountains balanced on the brink of oblivion. In 1996, the United Nations designated the park as an endangered World Heritage Site, and it is one of the precious few places on the planet that desperately need foreign visitors—their money and their encouragement.

A month after the peace treaty was signed, Sue and I flew to Ethiopia.