Bleeding Hearts

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

May 1, 2001
Outside Magazine
I WAS THE FIRST TO spot the walia ibex. We had left camp before it was light and hiked out to a point called Imet Gogo, the Great Cliff. It is a blade of rock that glides straight out into nothingness. In places it is no more that three feet wide: Imagine a long, narrow diving board sticking out from the summit of El Capitan. We cautiously tiptoed to the end and sat down.

We were inside the dawn. The radiating purples and pinks and oranges were not over there, on the horizon, but all around us. We could stick a hand out into it as if the sky were liquid.

I wouldn't have seen them without my monocular—a group of four, one male, with the distinctively tall, black, backward-arching horns, and three females. They had intelligent faces, dark-brown coats, and white socks. They were skipping along a sheer face, occasionally jumping into space and landing perfectly on a lower ledge. It didn't seem possible.

They were masterful, almost gay, in their footwork. Springing up or down, trotting along rope-thin trails, wheeling and knocking heads with each other. Performing without a net and never with less than a thousand-foot death sentence for one mistake.

We watched them, spellbound, until they disappeared around a buttress. Like the baboons, the ibex had somehow learned to defy the odds. We saw three more bands of walia ibex that day, the last of which was so close we could watch their playful bounding with the naked eye.