|View of Simien National Park from Plateau|
The approach to Simien National Park from Debark, Ethiopia on a newly constructed gravel road is, at first, one filled with jagged mountain tops and plateaus. But upon encountering the plunge into valleys below, only our Grand Canyon seems comparable. Created by massive erosion, the layers of mountains, plateaus and valleys stretch for miles. Dizzying drops in altitude lie below edges of the escarpment’s grass fields. Distant shadows hint at hidden rivers. The Park contains the highest peak in Ethiopia at 15,000 feet and Africa’s highest hotel. The scenery would have been enough but we hoped to encounter some of the park’s unique animal life.
|Herd of Gelada Baboons in Simien National Park|
The endangered Ethiopian fox and Walia ibex, a wild goat, are rare sightings and stayed hidden from us. In higher numbers are the Gelada Baboons, nature’s only primates that are primarily grazers. They are more closely related to monkeys than the aggressive African cousins. Their numbers have increased from 3000 to 5000 in the park. These baboons spend nights on cliff ledges and emerge in the mornings on to plateau tops to feed and socialize. That is exactly where we found a herd of them, defined as 60 or more reproductive units.
|Herd of Gelada Baboons follow leader|
Juvenile baboons rattled branches in a large tree before dropping to earth, chasing and challenging each other. When tired, they hopped on their mothers’ backs to rest, carried to the next feeding area. These primates have small sturdy fingers for pulling grass, 90% of their diet. As they sat and tugged at grass blades and seeds, our small group circled ever closer to observe and photograph. Warned only not to look directly at their eyes, we were able to come within ten feet of the large pack. If bothered by our proximity, a baboon would simply slowly move away. All followed the lead of one dominant male as they crossed the field and disappeared below.
|Two Local Soldiers hired to Accompany tourist group|
The need to bring human activities to sustainable levels requires finding alternative livelihoods for the park’s residents. According to our guide, many are being employed by the park services, teaching them respect for the value of the baboons in tourism. It has helped eliminate the common harvesting of baboons for clothes and food for dogs. Two park soldiers were hired to accompany us on our visit for protection from dogs. After ten days of service, they would return to their home and farms. Handmade handicrafts were sold at the park’s store, giving badly needed income to local artists. These efforts have been supported by the Austrian government since 1997, a welcome and useful contribution by the international community.