The few existing residents were not compelled to leave when Simien National Park was created in 1969, nor when it became a UNESCO site in 1978. The existence they have eked out for centuries at this unforgiving altitude is one reason for the park's World Heritage designation. We passed a few settlements (it would be exaggerating to call them villages)—stick or earth rectangular huts with thatched roofs. Women wearing flowing robes carried sacks of grains, bundles of firewood, and plastic jars filled with water. Slender young men in faded western pants and t-shirts, and older men in robes, carried similar bundles and held staffs to herd their cows, goats, or sheep.
Aside from the young men's clothes and the plastic containers, the setting was Biblical. Loaded donkeys moved through harsh peaked landscapes led by graceful women in flowing robes with head shawls and men, often bearded, with loose garments, staffs, and turbans. When the roads and telephone poles were out of sight, we had dialed back 2000 years.
We arrived at the starting point of our four-mile hike, blinking as we exited the van into fierce morning sunshine, a little breathy from the 11,000+ foot altitude. We followed Gebre to the left of the road and a barely perceptible trail as it began a twisted descent along the escarpment. The trail was not steep, but was punctuated with stones, rocks, boulders, and gravel. It was not very stable and the drop felt very deep.
I focused mainly on my steps to avoid a fatal slip. Occasionally I would look up and see deep green valleys interspersed among the red-brown peaks and sheer plummeting cliffs. Or I would look up and find children and women positioned along our trail trying to sell us woven trivets, knitted wool hats, carved crosses, and speckled wooden birds that resembled no indigenous species. Not one budding capitalist thought to carve out a gelada.
We were well into our second hour of walking when the trail led us away from the edge and into a glorious green meadow...filled with 200 geladas.
These primates live as families of eight or so females and their offspring, and one alpha male chosen by the females. The alphas were obvious; they were the larger animals with thick flowing leonine manes. But they don't run the show. The females decide when mating rights are allocated, and to whom. When two males fight for possession of a harem, the females adjudicate the winner.
Since the women decide, it is common for several families to congregate together, including alpha males, where grass is plentiful and there is no real competition for food. This was evident in the scene before us. Moms, dads, young studs, coquettish girls, playful toddlers, clinging infants—every imaginable tableau was being played out on that meadow.
Geladas are unusual among primates in the size of their communities. Up to 1,000 animals live in relative harmony. Also unusual is the fact that more than 90 percent of their diet consists of grass: their eating habits are more like zebras than apes. They spend the majority of their time foraging for food since they need 10-15 pounds of grass per day to meet their nutritional needs.
We stood and watched them, squatted and watched them, took photos and videos and came closer and closer. Although they have tails, like all monkeys, they spend their time moving around on land, not in trees or bushes. We saw firsthand that their fingers are extremely dexterous, well-adapted to the task of plucking grass from the ground and directing it into their mouths. Their thumb development is considered to be the most advanced of all primates except man.
They verbalized congenially as they shoved grass in their mouths with mechanical efficiency. The youngsters would play in between mouthfuls, and the adults would stop periodically to groom each other. An alpha might casually engage in sex with a female as he passed by. The red markings on their chests were clear and glowing. The intelligence in their eyes was equally clear.
The adults watched us with bored resignation, the babies with open curiosity. We were able to come close enough to see females grooming, babies nursing, youngsters cavorting, adolescents playing, thick-maned alpha males ever on guard. The geladas weren't bothered by us but Gebre told us they do not like locals, who chase them off their lands and away from their crops.
We wondered why the monkeys didn't seem distressed by our guide, whose skin is also dark. "I don't look like a local farmer," Gebre explained. "They know who their enemies are."
We observed this selectivity in action. A sudden noise imperceptible to us—probably a farmer's dog—prompted a series of chattering comments, and then the entire community moved aggressively down the sloping meadow. It was a controlled version of the stampede scene in Jurassic Park, and those of us who were in the middle of the action stood very quietly as the animals flowed around us. They weren't fazed by our presence, though we were a little unsettled by theirs.
What the geladas don't know, but local farmers do, is that the penalty in Ethiopia for killing a gelada is 7-10 years in prison. This is a convincing deterrent in theory because the absence of a breadwinner can easily impoverish a family.
It is not infallible, however. Ethiopia has the second largest population in Africa (102 million) and continues to grow. As the population increases, the gelada's native habitat is being overrun by agriculture, livestock grazing, illegal hunting, illegal timber usurpation, and the introduction of animals not friendly to the gelada (like domestic dogs). The boundaries of Simien Mountains National Park are pressured on all sides, and government is understandably hard-pressed to rank the needs of its wildlife above those of its voting citizens.
In 20 years' time, guides may not be able to promise a 95% chance of seeing geladas here. But today, at least, I had my close encounter of a friendly kind.
Claudia Flisi is a dual citizen writer based in Milan, Italy. Her stories have appeared in the International New York Times, Newsweek, Fortune, Variety, and many others. She has visited more than 100 countries, fallen off horses on six continents, and trained dogs in three languages. Her book about an Italian dog, Crystal and Jade, was published in 2016.
Jumping Into Matrimony in Ethiopia - James Michael Dorsey
Touring Arusha with the Flycatchers in Tanzania - Claudia B. Flisi
Orangutan Warfare in Borneo - Marco Ferrarese
A Quick trip to Hell in Ethiopia - James Michael Dorsey
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