The habitat of the Walia Ibex is the High Semyen,
Ethiopia's dramatic high mountain terrain. In the earth's long history
of violent geographical change, the most recent volcanic upheavals
took place in eastern Africa, followed by torrential rains which
created the thousand gushing waterfalls which in turn eroded away the
newly formed mountain massif, creating the great gorges and gulleys
which are so typical of the region. South west of Axum the land
descends gradually southwards toward the Takazze river. At the lip of
the gorge at about 1,400 metres (4,600 ft.) one can look across the
chasm to a similar plateau beyond. On top of this plateau, adorned
with steep turrets and bastions rising in three distinct steps, is
perched the north wall of the Semyen.
The mountain massif is a broad plateau,
cut off on the north and west by this enormous single crag over 60 kms.
(40 miles) long and 1,000-1,500 metres (3000-5000 ft.) high. To the
south the table]and slopes gently down to 2,200 metres (7,000 ft.)
divided by deep gorges 1,000 metres deep and taking two days to cross.
Time has not yet been sufficient to soften the contours of the crags
and buttresses of hardened basalt. As far as the eye can see looking
north from the escarpment, the fused volcanic cores stand starkly
defying the elements. Overhead stretches the vast dome of a sky of the
deepest blue, which spreads downwards as clear as sapphire to the
mauve of the horizon.
In this scenic splendour, lives the
Walia Ibex; here and nowhere else in the world. Forced by Man to
retreat, and to retreat again, it has been driven in its extremity to
inhabit the most inaccessible (except to a bird or a Walia), cliffs of
the Semyen escarpment. The Walia once existed in significant numbers
probably several thousands in the highland massif, feeding on the
cliff faces and coming up to roam the plateau at rutting time. Large
herds wandered unmolested on these chilly heights.
Even up to 50 years ago there were well
over a thousand. With the Italian agression in Ethiopia, the species
started its dramatic decline to the brink of extinction. Guerrillas
fighting the Italians and living off the country found the Walia a
convenient source of meat. Later, the local people again took i up
arms against the Walia, killing perhaps five in order to reclaim the
meat from one. Most of them, whose wounded bodies spin and crash from
the narrow ledges where they feed, into the abysses a thousand ieet or
more below, are never recovered. Rarely, a rope descent will bring to
the surface the meat and parts of the skin, but the trophy, the
splendid horns desired by locals to make drinking mugs, and by
sportsmen to decorate their sitting rooms, are usually lost forever.
First recorded in 1835 by Ruppell, and first
properly observed by Powell Cotton at the beginning of the century
(l900), the Walia at that time was a mythical beast and little was
known of its numbers and status. The inaccessibility of its habitat
combined with various historical events such as the Italian occupation
and World War II, which made visits to the region out of the question
for longish periods, has prevented the keepiug of a continous record
since then. So until Leslie Brown made his preliminary study in the
early sixties, little was known of its behaviour or habits.
A remnant of the early incursion of Palearctic
fauna into the tropics, the nearest relative of the Walia is the
Nubian Ibex (C. nubiana). There is a gap of several hundred
miles of lowlands between the southern- most limit of the Nubian and
the highland habitat of the Walia. The Walia differs in being 1arger
and more massive, with dark brown as opposed to pale brown fur. The
horns of the males are more massive but not quite so long, and have
the knobs or ridges on the anterior surface reduced. The Walia has a
bony process on the forehead. The anatomical differences together with
the differences in habitat have lent weight to the argument that the
Walia is a distinct species.
The terrain which the Walia inhabits is from
2,300- 4,000 metres (7,500-13,500 ft.) but chiefly above 2,500 and
below 3,000 (8,000-9,500ft.). The tiny remnant population which
remains is now con- fined to a range of about twenty miles of the
highest and steepest bays and buttresscs of the northern escarpment.
They are already extinct in all other parts of their range which once
stretched from Byeda along the escarpment to Geech and Adis Gey.
The narrow vertical range which they tend to
occupy today would seem to be the result of persistent hunting. They
have become extremely wary and shy and chosen to be not get-atable
from top or bottom. With protection maybe they will once again emerge
on to the plateau.
Mountain sheep and goats have feet that are
special- ly adapted for living in mountainous terrain. Their hooves
have sharp edges and the undersides are concave, enabling them to
adhere somewhat like suction cups. To watch even the youngest and
smallest of the Walia kids gambolling about on slanted rocky ledges in
a cliff face of terrifying steepness, a 500 metre drop only inches
away, makes one catch one's breath with anxiety. They never fall.
The males and the females both have horns, but
the males' are more massive. Curving back in a graceful arc to the
withers they sometimes attain a length of over 110 cms. The females
are smaller in body and lighter in colour with shorter thinner horns.
They live in small parties of two to half a dozen and the big old
males often live solitary except during the mating season. Because of
the rarity of the animal, it is not often possible to observe a large
male and one feels privileged to do so. The magnificent horns and
striking colouration make it an unforgettable sight.
They are sturdily built animals standing about a
metre high at the shoulder and weighing up to 120 kgs. Their beautiful
chocolate to chestnut brown coats shade to greyish brown round the
muzzle, paler grey around the eyes, lower flanks, legs and rump, and
pale grey or white on the belly and inside of the legs. There is a
black stripe down the outside of the legs and a white garter on each
fetlock broken in the hind legs by a black streak into the cleft of
the hoof. Mature males sport an elegant black beard. The tail is short
with a brushlike tuft of black hairs.
You can usually observe them when come out on to
the rocky ledges to sun themselves in the morning and evening. Little
herds of females and young are not uncommon, or even single females
with a kid at foot. Sometimes you will see a yearling group of young
males which can be distinguished by their paler greyer colour and the
thickness of their small short horns. They eat grass and herbs, but
prefer to to browse rather than graze, standing up on their hind legs
like domestic goats to reach the tender shoots of giant heath. There
is no shortage of food, as inside the forest of heath there is
abundant forage of herbs and sweet soft grasses. They tend not to
drink although water is plentiful; it is assumed that they get
sufficient moisture from the green stuff on which they feed. They
usually lie up in caves or thickets during the day, although this is
not an in- fallible rule and I have observed them at lunchtime - a
group of youngsters playing in the sun.
The Walia's story is not yet ended. In 1963 it
was classified by the IUCN as in danger of extinction. In that year
the total number remaining alive was estimated at less than 200,
probably 150. Indiscriminate hunting and destruction of habitat by
local people had combined to drive the few remaining animals on to the
vertical cliff sides for survival- (Only four adult males have been
taken since 1956 by legitimate shooting). Fortunately before the end
came the Ethiopian Government recognized the danger and, in 1965, drew
up plans to establish a national park to protect both the habitat and
its fauna, and the park was gazetted the same year. It was found that
numbers had remained steady for two years, indicating that with
protection they might increase fairly rapidly. Guards were appointed
from Geech to Mietgogo to curb local poaching and illegal cultivation
and burning of habitat. In the past fifteen years, numbers have
increased steadily, as the females are still ready and willing to
breed in the caves in the cliff face.
At the present time, not less than 10% of the
cliff surface is composed of broad ]edges or green gullies in which
Walia can feed. Brown estimates that this amount of land space can
support a population of two or three thousand. The Walia has no
natural enemies apart possibly from the occasional bird of prey, and
thus with complete protection from Man they could be expected to
recover their numbers and to double the present population in ten
At present it is still difficult to properly
enforce the protection laws, and the local people cannot be expected
to know that this animal exists only here. Nor could they realize that
it could be anticipated to generate a far larger income if allowed to
live and breed, than its dead parts will ever earn. It can only be
hoped that the precipitous terrain in which the last survivors live
will enable a nucleus herd to survive until such time as visitors from
all over the world will be able to come and observe this rare creature
in the magnificence of its mountain habitat.