Gelada Monkeys of Ethiopia STEVE RICHARDS - Kahu Nature Photography
As the first rays of sunlight peeped over the horizon, our four wheel drive vehicles steadily climbed into the highlands to the north of Addis Abba. We had left our hotel in Debre Birhan, where we were staying for the next couple of days, an hour or so earlier. The road to Gemasa Geden was becoming narrower and steeper, then gradually the 4x4's climbed out into a high mountain pass, with a deep escarpments falling a way into darkened gorges.
Our adventure had started three weeks earlier in Addis Abba, the bustling capital of Ethiopia. Since that time we had travelled south through the rift valley lakes, the Bale Mountains, further south to the desert country on the Somalia and Kenya borders and back to very dry Awash area and finally to Addis Abba. I was with a group of other birders on a tour with Rockjumper Birding Tours, a South African company, who organize birding and photographic trips all over the world.
The group consisted of Arthur Grosset from England, Marilyn Nasatir, Inge Svoboda and Paul Hayes from the USA, Henning Lege from Germany, our guide David Erterius from Sweden and myself. The earlier part of the trip had been in a mini bus, which I initially thought was not ideal. But as we continued I realised its value, with large sliding windows and plenty of room for the seven of us, all our gear in a twenty seater bus. Back in Addis Abba we changed into four wheel drive vehicles, because the last part of the adventure was in the mountainous highlands to north of the city.
From the high pass a deep gash dropped to either side down into the respective valleys which were shrouded in cloud. We left the vehicles and climbed over to the edge of the escarpment looking towards the rising sun. We glassed up and down the escarpment for Geladas. At night fall, these monkeys climb down the steep sides to escape any marauding predators, particularly hyenas and leopards. During the day light they climb up onto the meadows on top of the escarpment and fed on the grass which grows there. At the first sign of danger the quickly descend down the side to safety.
We climbed around towards one side and out onto the top of a bluff. We could see several large raptors using the thermals from the early morning sun to circle high above us. David also pointed out a small localised seed eater, the endemic Ankober Serin, which had only been discovered in the 1970's.
A few of the raptors gradually descended and were soon only just 30 metres above us. There was a Ruppells Vulture and a couple of Lammergeiers or bearded vultures and a few fan tailed crows. Several species were seen at great distance including Lanner Falcon, Long-legged Buzzard, Yellow-billed Kite, Wahlberg’s Eagle, Booted Eagle, Hooded Vulture, Tawny Eagle.
Lammergeiers are very specialised feeders, interesting that mainly eat the bones of dead animals. They are a wide spread species through from Africa through Europe to Asia. It is said that the acid in their stomachs about Ph1, which dissolves the bones in 24 hours, leaving the marrow for nourishment.
We searched high and low, but could not find the location of any groups of Geladas. Suddenly a Klipspringer - a small antelope - exploded from the rocks below us, and quickly bounced and bounded it's way across the gut and out of sight. We decided to move on and returned to the vehicles, and look at some other areas.
We continued to search the escarpments as we travelled down the ridge towards the valley floor. As we descended we were gradually enveloped in cloud, and no Geladas could be located. We got to the valley floor and had 3 hours birding along the side of a small stream. Here we saw a lot of small birds coming down to catch the many insects around the slow water and to drink and bathe in a small side stream.
After another wonderful lunch prepared by our drivers we were ready to head back up the hill and see if we could locate any Gelada monkeys. There was villages and houses pretty much all the way as we slowly gained altitude. Farmers were busy tending stock, ploughing fields using their oxen, and some where busy threshing grain, outside their huts.
The group of Geladas we could see consisted of about 60 animals, with half a dozen adult males right down to a dozen small babies still clinging to their mothers. For the next two hours they gradually moved up onto the top of the ridge in front of us. We were initially about 400 metres from them, so I wanted some closer photos, so keeping low and using what cover I could, I began to stalk in on them. Once I got to about 50 metres from them they began to become nervous, with four of the males placing themselves between me and the rest of the group. I would edge forward and they would edge back, I had obviously reached the distance that they were comfortable with. They began to settle down, feeding in the short grass, some where preening each other and the youngsters were playing, chasing each other around.
The diet of the gelada depends on what is available seasonally, but is generally grasses, with the blades, seeds, roots and bulbs all being eaten. Grasses are picked by rapid, dextrous hand movements as the gelada sits and shuffles along the ground. The young are very much the focus of the female Geladas, and are never far from their mothers, but if I got too close, they moved away.
Although often referred to as gelada baboons, these monkeys actually belong to a separate genus and are not true baboons. They are in fact the only member of their genus and the last surviving species of a once widespread group of grass-grazing primates. The fossil group to which the gelada belongs was once widespread throughout eastern and southern Africa, but all except this species vanished as the grasslands upon which they relied shrank. The gelada can be easily recognised by the unusual hairless patches of skin on the chest, which blaze a bright crimson colour, when the animal is sexually mature and coming into the breeding season.