Ethiopian Wolf Photography

The Ethiopian Wolf (Canis simensis) is the main attraction for nature lovers visiting southern Ethiopia, the icon of the Bale Mountains, an infinite means of fundraising, and a heraldic symbol of conservation in this country.

Indeed it is one of the most endangered canids of the world, and, given the small and decreasing number of its population, certainly one of the most endangered large mammals in Africa. Although it resembles a jackal, the Ethiopian Wolf has been proved to be a relative of the Grey Wolf (Canis lupus), hence being the only “real wolf” on this continent. Currently, Ethiopia is the only country in the world where this species lives. It is not the most impressive species among canids and of course can’t compare with larger carnivores that live in Africa and Eurasia. It looks very much like an oversized red fox, with longer legs.

The entire world population of the Ethiopian Wolf is estimated to have around 500 individuals, and it is fragmented: While its largest part lives in Bale Mountains, other smaller subpopulations are isolated on plateaus and mountain ranges in other parts of the country. The population dynamics is negative due to deseases, habitat loss, and probably to lack of genetic variety. Personally, I don’t believe that this species will survive at long term, hence all attempts that are currently made by so many organisations to save it may be in vain. In my opinion, Ethiopian Wolf’s symbolic value is greater than biological: It helps to attract the public attention to conservation issues in Ethiopia and hopefully to achieve improvement of the situation of other, less vulnerable, species of animals that are sympatric with the wolf.

It is hard to estimate when the Ethiopian Wolf goes extinct but under present circumstances it certainly will. Therefore, everyone who wants to see or to photograph this animal is advised to hurry. Certainly, it remains an interesting and challenging subject for a photographer although already many good photographs of this animal were published and new are made every year. Unlike other critically endangered but already iconic African mammals, such as mountain gorillas, who are visited and photographed by thousands of tourists every year this species remains more or less exclusive subject for a serious photographer.

On this picture you see a female wolf photographed with a 600 mm lens from the closest distance that she allowed. (Click on picture to enlarge.)

Due to their social life in packs and loud vocalisations, Ethiopian wolves are quite easy to locate but much more difficult to approach. Like other canids in most areas of the Earth, they are shy and usually run away long before you get close enough for a good shot even if you have a very long lens. If you like me avoid cropping as much as possible, most images you’ll will be “animalscapes”, i.e. of wolf in habitat. The picture on the left shows what you see through a 600 mm lens: This female wolf was standing at least 150 m away and ran away as soon as I did another step in her direction.

Having seen so many good photographs of Ethiopian wolves in the Internet but having had myself troubles with approaching them in the wild I was asking my guide about reasons and how other people did solve this problem. He told that the photographers come to Bale Mountains during the season when the wolves are raising their cubs. In this period of the year they can be easier found and approached near their dens. Also the young are less mobile and less shy than the adults. In late February and early March, when I visited this area, the cubs were already grown up and had left the dens: The packs were re-united and moving around again.

Only thanks to hard work of the guide and of the horse assistants who were helping me I got some quite good photographs of the Ethiopian Wolf that you find in the species gallery Canis simensis — Ethiopian Wolf and in the theme Jedol’ Fard’ on this site. Nevertheless all images of the wolves had to be cropped for better composition because the animals had every time been still too far. I assume, however, that other photographers have done the same with the most images of this animal found all over the Internet. Since I avoid cropping my photographs below 50% the wolves on the images that I brought from this trip are still quite small (particularly those that were made with a 8 Mp camera). This is the main reason for me to plan further trips and to continue my attempts of getting closer to the animals.

In the complete version of my report about this trip Nature Images by Arthur Tiutenko: Field Notes – Ethiopia, 2012 you’ll find my suggestions of itineraries going to the best locations for Ethiopian Wolf photography in Bale Mountains. Two weeks should be enough time if you focus your attention only on this one subject and wouldn’t loose time frequently changing location.

I tried both, shooting from a hide and on the move. I also experimented with hidden automatic and remotely controlled cameras — with mixed results. In this season, the best way to locate the wolves is to find out where they sleep. Every pack has its own territory with a certain place where they spend the nights. The most reliable method is to observe the movements of the animals in the evening and to follow them. After you have noticed the place, come there again in the morning — before sunrise — hide nearby and wait for the wolves.

This heap of stones once served me as a hide — a rare opportunity on highland plains in Bale Mountains. It was like a small bunker — with about 1 m2 of space inside, enough to accomodate me. On this picture you see my lens showing out. (Click on picture to enlarge.)

A young wolf at a decoy in front of a hidden camera (red arrow). Though I tried a release per movement sensor, I achieved better results releasing the camera manually via radio remote control. (Click on picture to enlarge.)

Hiding may be difficult because the terrain offers too few natural objects such as stones or shrubs that are large enough to cover or obscure the shape of a human body. On plains where the wolves spend most time, the vegetation is low and large stones are usually absent. Artificial camouflage such as net or portable hide may help in this case. Unlike undulates who notice a new object at once and become very alert and cautious, wolves don’t pay attention to hidden camera or photographer when there is no movement. Not only the remotely controlled camera itself that I had set up for nyalas at Dinsho but also the sound of the shutter were scaring the antelopes. The wolves didn’t react at the shutter sound and at the presence of a camera even when it wasn’t well hidden, but they left the place as soon as they noticed the least movement. Also the good sense of smell is a problem with canids: You have always to be aware of wind direction when you are hiding, and avoid using body cosmetics or soap. To additionally obscure my smell, I put near me a blood soaked and strongly smelling bag that we carried the decoy in — a sheep that I had bought from local pastoralists.

Once an Ethiopian wolf is frightened it will warn the others. After that all wolves will leave the place immediately and won’t return to it any time soon, thus your photo session will be finished for that day. Therefore, be extremely careful not to reveal your presence when the wolves are around and not to scare them.

For the first time, I learned about the Ethiopian Wolf from the Guide to African Mammals by Jonathan Kingdon about 6 years before this my first Ethiopia trip. Then I couldn’t even think that I ever would have an opportunity to meet this animal live because Ethiopia didn’t appear to me politically stable and safe for travellers. The more I was thrilled to have such an opportunity so soon. I saw the Ethiopian wolves many times during this trip but every such encounter was exciting, surreal. As I already mentioned, the Ethiopian Wolf isn’t the most impressive creature; it is the thought that you are a witness of something unique and vanishing that makes every moment that you spend in its presence unforgettable.