At first glance the landscape is barren, lifeless but a closer inspection tells a different story. Thousands of rodents scurry between holes, one eye on the ground for tidbits and one eye on the sky. The rats need to be ever-vigilant because the wolves aren’t the only predators around… high on the cliff tops sharp eyed Auger buzzards watch and wait for a chance at a tasty meal. It should be noted that Will has developed a rather wolf-like obsession with the mole rats in camp. He is relentless in his quest for the perfect photograph of these lovable burrowers.
Mole rats are about 1kg in size with huge incisors and Groucho Marx eyebrows. We’re never quite certain where they will pop up but when they do they rarely stray more than a meter from their hole. I’ve yet to see one run forward but they are extremely speedy in reverse! Trying to photograph one is an elaborate game of whack-a-mole, up-down-up-down. An Ethiopian wolf needs to eat around 3 giant mole rats daily or 5-6 grass rats and there are plenty left over – the sheer density of rodents is astounding.
Our days begin with a 4:30am wake up call and the challenge of getting out of a nice warm sleeping bag to face the -5˚C (23˚F) frost covered day. We are very lucky to have our cook Mamoush who keeps us well supplied with coffee and warm oatmeal before we head out across the valley in search of a den site, the closest is about 35 minutes away across rugged, rocky and often wet terrain – that is if we don’t get stuck in the mud en-route… twice so far.
When we arrive at the den site all is usually quiet. The sky begins to turn a beautiful shade of pink as our guide Muzeyen, one of EWCP’s wolf monitors, hops out to scout. Shortly after the sun begins to warm the landscape the wolves wake and begin to stretch, the pups often ambush the adults, spinning summersaults and acrobatics until the poor adult has had just about enough. A quick baring of teeth quells the pups long enough for the adult to move out of reach before the bouncing and tumbling begins anew. All members of the pack care for the pups and it’s heartwarming to see the greeting each adult receives when they return from patrol.
Around 9am the light begins to get harsh and we head back to camp. Downloading, backing up, playing with the mole rats and grass rats, lunch and then we head out again. The pack members tend to return and call the pups out from the den about an hour before sunset. We shoot until there isn’t any light left, pushing our cameras to the limits of their ISO. When we finally concede that it’s too dark to shoot we return to camp for more downloading and dinner. If we have any energy after that it’s outside for star trails. The skies are amazingly bright with no light pollution. After that it’s time for bed and repeat!
Tarura pack has been amazing to work with and the three rambunctious pups have gotten so used to us sitting quietly at the den that they have approached within around 5 meters (~20 feet). On other outings we have encountered the two remaining wolves from the Meggity pack. They have been very hard hit by rabies and canine distemper. Muzeyen tells us that three years ago the pack had 23 members. Now only the subordinate female remains. She and a male from another pack have puppies this year and they are doing a very good job of providing for them but Alandu pack and a group of floaters are moving into Meggity’s territory. Still, there is room for all.
One thing we weren’t quite prepared for is the sheer number of domestic dogs. We knew they were a huge problem as disease vectors but even in the remote Web Valley we see between 8-12 different dogs a day!! Apparently the seasonal pastoralists don’t even like the dogs but they need them as alarms in case hyena or leopard try to attack their herds of goats or cattle which are also far more numerous than we were prepared to witness.