The highlands are home to three of Ethiopia’s larger endemic mammals: the walia ibex (population estimated around 1100), the gelada monkey (5000) and the elusive Ethiopian wolf (100). While wolves are rarely encountered (Bwahit and Ras Dashen offer the best chances) you’re nearly guaranteed to meet hundreds-strong troops of gelada monkeys (often erroneously called gelada baboons). These gregarious monkeys, said to be the most sociable of all primates, are also the highest-dwelling primates on the planet, ranging up to 4500m above sea level (it's a close-run thing: mountain gorillas are thought to make it up to 4300m). Other possible primate sightings include black-and-white colobus, Hamydra baboons and others.
You also stand a good chance of seeing the walia ibex (especially around Chenek), which is found only in the Simien Mountains. Other notable mammals are rock hyraxes, jackals, Menelik’s bushbucks, klipspringers and leopards; the last is extremely difficult to see.
The often-seen thick-billed raven and the less common black-headed siskin, wattled ibis, spot-breasted plover and Abyssinian woodpecker are some of the 16 Ethiopian–Eritrean endemic birds. Though common, one of the most memorable sights is the soaring lammergeyer.
The Lammergeyer's Trick
Aside from being one beautiful bird, the lammergeyer has a trick or two up its sleeve. Lammergeyers are extremely fond of the bone marrow they scavenge from carcasses. But these birds are unable to break open the bones with their beaks to reach the marrow. Their solution? Carry the bones high above the rocks of the Simien Mountains and then drop them from a great height. When the bones hit the rocks, they break open, whereupon the lammergeyer sweeps down to retrieve its prize.
Geography & Geology
Comprising one of Africa’s principal mountain massifs, the park extends from 1600m to 4543m in elevation and much of its 412 sq km lies within the ‘Afro-alpine’ zone, above 3200m, but there’s also heath forest and high montane landscapes.
A number of peaks rise above 4000m, including Ethiopia’s highest, 4543m-tall Ras Dashen. (It’s actually Ras Dejen, though to avoid confusion we use the common-but- incorrect name.) It’s touted by Ethiopian tourism officials as the fourth-highest mountain in Africa; it’s actually the 10th.
The Simiens’ landscape is incredibly dramatic. It was formed by countless eruptions some 40 million years ago; layer upon layer of molten lava piled up. The subsequent erosion produced the mountains’ jagged and spectacular landscapes. The famous pinnacles that sharply and abruptly rise from the surrounding landscape are volcanic necks, the solidified plumbing of the ancient volcanoes.
World Heritage Site At Risk
In 1978 Unesco inscribed Simien Mountains National Park on its World Heritage List. But less than 20 years later, in 1996, Unesco added the park to its List of World Heritage in Danger. And there it remains.
The reasons for the listing have everything to do with the presence of human populations in the park and the pressures exerted upon Simien landscapes and wildlife (particularly the Ethiopian wolf and walia ibex, the populations of which were declining dangerously) by people in and around the park. Such pressures are nothing new – when the park was first granted World Heritage status, an estimated 80% of the park was under human use in some form. Although things have improved, the park remains on the danger list because 60% of the park remains under human use, with 4500 people living inside the park and a further 30,000 in the immediate surrounds. Encroaching agriculture, overgrazing by domestic livestock, deforestation thanks to firewood collection, and human-wildlife conflict (including killings of wildlife in retaliation for loss of livestock) remain the major concerns.
Locals aren't happy with the current situation – posters calling for the park to be removed from the Danger List adorn the walls of the park Headquarters. To try to address the situation, park authorities called in the African Wildlife Foundation (www.awf.org), which prepared a five-year plan, the Simien Mountains Landscape Strategy 2015–2020. The strategy seeks to address the fundamental issues underpinning the problems, among them a lack of resources available to park authorities, a lack of alternative resources available to impoverished local communities and poor long-term planning. Practical measures include vaccinations for domestic animals to avoid the spread of diseases to Ethiopian wolves and other wild species, and education to improve both livestock management and agricultural practices as well as living standards for those living within the park. The local authorities have also in the past expanded the park's boundaries into areas with low human density in an attempt to alleviate pressures within the park.