I asked our Africa travel experts pick out and describe some of their most memorable safari experiences in Southern Africa. This is what they had to say. Botswana By Derek Schuurman, Africa Travel Specialist …
Rachel Dobb told us about the conservation efforts she experienced while studying in Africa in Nature Based Tourism part 1, Madagascar. In part two Rainbow Tours travel consultant Leila Kassam tells us about her upbringing in Uganda and the threats to the Gorilla population in the country. Both Leila and Rachel have worked with conservation organisations in Africa and believe that these projects are helping to make a real difference to species survival by creating jobs for local people in areas where work is hard to come by.
Leila Kassam on UGANDA
My father is Ugandan and I grew up and went to school there, so the well being of the wildlife is very close to my heart. I first went gorilla trekking in June 2012 in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and this was one of the highlights of my life so far. Mountain Gorillas are found in the Virunga Massif which spans three land borders – Uganda (Mt Gahinga National Park), Rwanda (Volcanoes National Park) and DRC (Virunga National Park) – as well as in Uganda’s Bwindi Forest in the Kigezi Highlands. Whilst the capture and poaching of gorillas for gruesome souvenirs or live animal trade has diminished recently, the threat from habitat destruction is now the greatest challenge – the Virungas and Kigezi highlands are some of the most densely populated human areas in Africa. The land is incredibly fertile and over the last century, what was once forest is now nearly all fields.
Mountain gorillas are a species that do not ‘bounce back’ easily. Their productive cycles take up to 4 years, and if an infant survives, it stays with its mother until the age of three. With such a small area of their natural habitat remaining, it’s impressive that their numbers have increased. The Uganda Wildlife authority recently announced that the number of gorillas has risen 10% in Bwindi from 786 in 2010 to over 880 in 2012.
This growth has been entirely due to conservation efforts funded by tourism. Through the sale of gorilla permits, gorilla racking in Uganda is responsible for bringing in around 80% of the annual budget of the Uganda Wildlife Authority. Gorilla tourism has created hundreds of jobs for local people – not only in the lodges where tourist stay, but also for trained Trackers and guides who take visitors into the mountains to seek out the gorillas. This employment has helped to ease the pressure on farming as the only means of support in the area.
Porters are also drawn from the surrounding communities, with a rotation system in place that allows local men and omen to be employed for the day. This distributes income as fairly as possible. Ex-poachers too have been given a second chance’ and now make a living as trackers, another positive change which brings hope to the gorillas future.
Two of Rainbow Tours travel consultants have worked closely with conservation organisations in Africa and believe that these projects are helping to make a real difference to species survival. At the same time these efforts create jobs for local people, often in remote rural areas, where work is hard to come by. In part one Rachel Dobb tells us about her experience studying in Madagascar.
Rachel Dobb on MADAGASCAR
“I lived and studied in Andasibe for nine months as part of my degree. I was working with an inspirational NGO (non-governmental organisation) called Mitsinjo, and helped with their conservation work to protect the Greater Bamboo Lemur Prolemur simus), which is found in only two of Madagascar’s national parks – Ranomafana and Andringitra. This species is classified as critically endangered on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) red list and it’s estimated that only about 300 mature individuals are left in the wild, with an estimated decline of at least 25% over the next 9 years. These numbers are shockingly low, but we were very excited as there had been sightings in unprotected areas around Torotorofotsy and Mantadia near where Mitsinjo is based.
The project obtains behavioural, ecological and genetic data that is used to develop and implement large scale conservation management plans. Often, collecting this data requires long hours in the field, so our team of researchers, students and guides camped inside the National Park for months at a time, working in the early hours when the lemurs are most active. The research looks at issues such as whether unprotected areas need to be protected, what habitat features specific lemurs require and what can be done to stop the destruction of habitats that are essential to a specific lemur species. Data collection methods often rely on the use of expensive equipment like radio-tracking collars.
Tourism provides vital funds to support the work of Mitsinjo and similar research projects through the entrance fees that are paid to the national parks by each visitor. The president of Mitsinjo allocates the money raised each year to worthy projects and scientifi c studies. Most of these projects are locally based. As well as generating hard cash for projects, NGOs like Mitsinjo also provide jobs for local people and give the guides a sense of ownership over their local environment and a duty to protect it. Everyone at Mitsinjo has a job they wouldn’t have without tourism, and the genuine desire to protect the forest and its wildlife is clear.”
My first taste of Latin America was in 2007 when I went on a research trip to Peru. I quickly found that the country is bursting with variety, colour, wonderful sights, welcoming people, fascinating wildlife and handsome architecture – the perfect mix for never ending photo opportunities!
I started in Lima and explored Plaza de Armas (the main square) which is flanked by the historic centre, the Government Palace, the Archbishop’s Palace and the magnificent City Hall. The old streets with colonial mansions and Moorish balconies are striking and incredibly beautiful. Another popular site which I didn’t get the chance to see on my last visit is Santo Domingo Convent, an icon of colonial architecture, which was completed in the late stages of the sixteenth century and has been restored recently.
Next I headed for Trujillo which is still relatively undiscovered. In Trujillo you don’t feel like you are on holiday, more as though you are on an adventure. The archaeological sites of Huaca Sol y Luna and Chan Chan are still being excavated and but are none-the-less impressive and fuelled my interest in archaeology. Another interesting place is Chiclayo, which is situated close to some further impressive archaeological sites including Tucume and the Brunning museum, which houses gold artefacts. They date from Moche times and some archaeologists consider them to be one of the most important archaeological discoveries in the world as the main tomb was found intact and untouched by thieves.
Further south I visited the Chaucilla Cemetery. This is the only archaeological site in Peru where ancient mummies can be seen in their original graves. The bodies are buried along with ancient artefacts which date back to 1000 AD. This is an eerie but incredibly fascinating insight into Peru’s history.
Another place I would recommend to anyone planning a trip to Peru is the town of Yura, the National Reserve of Salinas/ Aguada Blanca and Pampa Cañahuas. Here you can see South American camels as well as many bird species in their natural habitats. Another highlight in the Arequipa District is spotting a Condor flying free in the immense Colca Canyon. This species is the largest flying land bird in the Western hemisphere. These massive birds are so heavy that they live in windy areas, such as the Andean mountain ranges, as the wind currents here allow them to glide with little effort.
Nobody visiting Peru for the first time would want to miss out on Machu Picchu. From the Sacred Valley I went to Aguas Calientes on the Vistadrome train. The Vistadome has panoramic windows that give you a superb view of landscape and great photographic opportunities. I then took the bus up to the ruins of Machu Picchu for a guided tour with time to explore on my own. The site was much larger than I expected but just as awe-inspiring. I returned by bus to the town of Aguas Calientes a lively market town that has grown up around the railway. This is a great place to get to meet the locals and see their way of life firsthand.
I asked our Africa travel experts pick out and describe some of their most memorable safari experiences in Southern Africa. This is what they had to say.
By Derek Schuurman, Africa Travel Specialist & wildlife author
One enduring memory of the Okavango Delta is flying very low over the vast swamp, and seeing hippo running under the crystal clear waters of the shallow channels. Another is watching a Pel’s Fishing Owl – like a huge ginger tom cat, it’s the Garfield of the avian world – sitting quite still in a tree for more than 45 minutes.
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By Kirsten Woolley, Southern Africa Travel Specialist
One thing that makes visiting the vast, newly restored Gorongosa National Park special is that you never run into another vehicle. It’s good for spotting unusual wildlife, such as slender oribi and bushytailed mongoose. However, my highlight was a daytime sighting of a porcupine and her offspring. It had been pouring with rain, but as the sun came out, so did the little baby to dry off.
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By Chania Hemsley-Smith, Southern & East Africa Travel Specialist
It was early evening in the Madikwe wildlife reserve, and our guide noticed a pack of wild dogs that were about to start hunting. It was a case of hold on tight as our 4WD went off road, literally through the bushes. Following the pack, we could observe their hunting technique, splitting into a V formation, giving chase, then closing in on their prey – military precision in nature!
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By Candice Buchan, Southern Africa Travel Specialist
We’d got up before dawn to see animals arriving for their early morning drink at one of the main waterholes in Etosha National Park. A herd of elephants was already there, and as far as the eye could see there were more elephants, all in an orderly queue. When one herd had quenched their thirst and moved on, the next entered the water, and the queue shuffled up. Amazing to see the cooperation, no pushing or queue jumping, just an occasional trumpet reminding those at the front not to dilly-dally.
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By Lisa Fisher, Africa Product Manager
One evening, returning to our camp by the Zambezi at Mana Pools, our guide spotted a leopard trying to drag its prey up a tree. But a hyena was attempting to take the kill away too. It was a fascinating struggle. At one point, we thought the hyena had given up. But no – the sneaky thing was using our vehicle to hide behind before springing another attack. Eventually, the leopard won and the hyena skulked off to scavenge elsewhere.
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By Des Walsh, Rainbow Tours General Manager
Zambia is home of the walking safari and nothing beats the South Luangwa National Park. Being on foot with our experienced armed ranger really let us immerse ourselves in the sounds and smells of the bush. We got up close to herds of antelope, zebra and giraffe and carefully negotiated our way around an elephant herd. I felt so alive and alert, and loved spotting the signs that other animals hadpassed along the same route. This is definitely something I’d recommend to seasoned safari goers.
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Our guest blogger Alberto Santin celebrates UNESCO declaring that the art of weaving a Panama hat in Ecuador would be added to their list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. This is a term used for when knowledge, traditions and rituals which make up the everyday life of a community are passed down through generations and form an inherent part of their culture and Individuality. Other forms of cultural expression which have already received this title include Spanish Flamenco and Chinese acupuncture.
The sombrero de paja toquilla or ‘Panama hat’ as it’s incorrectly known is in fact an Ecuadorian creation. It was widely worn in the coastal regions of Ecuador but nowadays it’s mainly produced for export. The best hats are made by hand in Montecristi, a fishing village located in Manabi province. The quality of the sombrero is measured by the number of fibres – with more fibres meaning more flexibility. This is why you can roll the hat and put it in your back pocket without damaging it. It also goes without saying that the finest hats can be very expensive and cost up to £1500.
The hats are made from the leaves of a small palm called Toquilla. This palm grows in abundance around the Ecuadorian coast near rivers and lakes and when the Spanish conquistadores arrived in Ecuador they saw the indigenous wearing head pieces made of this material. These early hats looked like helmets rather than the European appearance we now know and love. The Toquilla hat reached international notoriety when during the construction of the Panama Canal vast numbers were shipped to be worn by the workers and it was there that President Roosevelt was photographed wearing one during a visit to the building site.
From then on the Ecuadorian hat became fashionable. Anyone who was someone wanted to have one and amongst the famous who have being photographed sporting it are: Prince Harry, Prince Charles, Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, Winston Churchill, Barak Obama, Madonna, Daniel Craig and Harry Truman.
On Ecuador holidays you can pick up your own hat and learn more about this countries rich cultural heritage. I personally believe donning blue jeans, a white shirt and an Ecuadorian hat is a timeless look!
Tierra Patagonia beautifully overlooks the Lake Sarmiento which can be seen from all the rooms. There is a living room, bar, presentation room, television room, dining room and wireless in the public areas. After a day of excursions such as trekking, mountain hikes and horseback riding, guests can relax in the outdoor Jacuzzi, indoor swimming pool, sauna and Uma Spa. The guides at the hotel will even take you to the less visited areas of this beautiful national park.
Tierra Atacama is one of a new generation of boutique lodges in the oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama.
Tierra Atacama has two family suites and 30 rooms, all of which are spacious and extremely comfortable. Rooms are furnished in a minimalist style but with materials sourced from the local area. The public areas of the hotel include a lounge, bar, restaurant, swimming pool and a multi-treatment spa. With so much to see surrounding San Pedro, the hotel organises many excursions by van, mountain-bike or horseback to explore the local villages and natural landscapes.
Trying out the local dishes is all part and parcel of any trip abroad and it’s no different when on holiday in Madagascar. Although there are strong French influences in Malagasy cooking (Madagascar was a French colony from 1896 to 1960), most dishes are rice based and on any drive through rural Madagascar, and even in the suburbs of the capital Anatananarivo, where there’s water you’ll see rice paddies. Rice or ‘vary’ is often eaten three times a day, so no surprise then that the national dish, Ramazava, is based on rice. This popular dish is cooked in one single pot, often on an open fire, with rice added to a sizzling mix of beef, greens, tomato, onions and ginger.
A quick poll at our London office however, shows that our Madagascar team unanimously vote ‘fish in coconut sauce’ as the most tasty, traditional dish. Anywhere on Madagascar’s coastline visitors will find that seafood dishes predominate. And Madagascar has a lot of coast – it’s the fourth biggest island in the world with a tropical coastline of 3000 miles, a mix of idyllic white sand beaches, rocky headlands and lush vegetation.
Our second favourite dish is chicken with vanilla sauce. Over 80% of the world’s vanilla is produced in Madagascar, and whilst most is exported to the USA, many local dishes, both savoury and sweet use the spice. Vanilla is actually a Mexican orchid and it has to be hand pollinated as the insect that naturally pollinates it, a specific type of stingless bee, is only found in Mexico. After saffron, labour-intensive vanilla is the second most expensive spice word-wide. Madagascar together with its Indian Ocean neighbours, Reunion, Mauritius and the Seychelles, are collectively called the Vanilla Islands.
One last ‘must try’ is Ravitoto, a dish made from a spinach-like green leafy green vegetable, often cassava leaves, which are ground up and boiled with small pieces of fatty pork and ginger root. Cassava leaves can taste a little bitter, so this dish needs to be boiled for quite some time, and either a little sugar or coconut milk can be added. Eat it with hot rice of course!
The quality of fresh fruit and vegetables in Madagascar is remarkable, even though there is little use of pesticides as yet, and whilst the individual fruit may look smaller than we are accustomed to, in many cases the taste is considerably richer. On the west coast the mango season is October to November, and the same time of the year on the more humid east coast it’s lychee season. There can be a massive surplus of both in season, with stalls lining the roadside villages. So expect delicious fresh fruit at every meal and follow the locals who use a handy twig to floss their teeth after dinner.
Don’t miss the opportunity to try the mangosteen, our favourite of all Madagascar’s exotic fruits. The outside is purple with a bright white edible inside, shaped rather like a tangerine. It only grows close to the equator and is our contender for the accolade of ‘tastiest fruit in the world’. We aren’t the only ones who have taken a shine to this delicious fruit; legend has it that Queen Victoria offered £100 to anyone who could bring her fresh mangosteen.
Our Madagascar holiday team here at Rainbow Tours are passionate about all things Malagasy and believe that travel should involved the local community, so that visitors receive the very best welcome and genuinely experience the real Madagascar. Food can serve as a window into understanding other cultures better and sharing a meal is a great way to promote conversation and forge real relationships.
Singled out in the latest Attenborough programme, Africa, the Shoebill (Baleiniceps rex) looks like an extraordinary throwback to prehistoric times. Fitting in somewhere between pelicans and storks on the taxonomic tree, the Shoebill is an inhabitant of Central and East Africa’s swamplands, standing at almost 5ft (152 cm) with a wing span of over 8ft (260 cm). It’s one of the most sought-after birds on people’s ‘must-see lists’, appealing not only to birders but anyone fascinated by Africa’s incredible wildlife. It’s really up there with seeing wild chimpanzees and the Mountain gorillas made famous by the work of Dian Fossey, and it never fails to leave a lasting impression on those who see it.
The Shoebill is generally a solitary creature, only breaking this pattern in order to breed or if food is scarce. Both parents incubate the eggs and tend to the chicks, with females contributing slightly more. Inter-sibling rivalry is thought to be the reason for only one chick ever fledging. It tends to frequent shallow, oxygen-starved waters where fish surface more often to breathe. Its formidable, shoe-shaped beak is adapted for dealing with its favoured prey – catfish and African lungfish. An ambush predator, the speed and force of its attack is awe-inspiring, as the Shoebill quickly seizes and crushes its tough, slippery prey.
This giant bird is fiercely territorial and mostly silent: when it does vocalise, it sounds rather like a mooing cow or whining human. More often though, it performs bill-clattering displays.
With a global population of only 8,000 and officially classed as ‘vulnerable’, the Shoebill is fairly scarce through most of its range and can be found in a number of Uganda’s swamps including those in Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, Murchison Falls National Park and the Lake Edward Flats in Queen Elizabeth National Park. But the most accessible place to seek it out, Mabamba Wetland, is only a 40 minute drive from Entebbe. A short (1 ½ hour) canoe trip into this papyrus swamp can be incorporated into most Uganda holidays, and it is something we would highly recommend.
Botswana is wildlife heaven and really is a top safari destination. The Okavango Delta is out of this world, so lush with crystal clear streams, all the more incredible as it flows through the desert. The house boat on the Zambezi was a fabulous way to watch all the river activity as animals come to drink. Don’t miss the Kalahari if time allows as these vast flatlands are breeding grounds for huge flocks of birds and attract thousands of zebra in the Spring.
With an estimated population of 70,000 elephants, Chobe National Park is the perfect place to visit if you want to see the largest land mammals on the planet.
Traditionally a means of transport for the locals, a mokoro is the perfect way to experience the tranquil Okavango Delta. The mokoro allows you to gently glide through the Delta and is perfect for birding and finding the smaller creatures while on your Botswana safari.
2 young male lions had claimed territory from an older male. The young male must then mate with the lioness which can happen 20 – 40 times a day and only lasts about 15 – 20 seconds.
Wild dog are endangered species. I was fortunate to see 3 different packs at Vumbura Plains, Selinda and Chobe National Park. It is amazing how the whole pack start to wake with the pups first and then the older dogs waking slowly over about 30 – 60 minutes.
Impala are also known as the McDonalds of the bush. The rutting or mating season begins in April/May at the beginning of the wet season. The young are usually born 6 or 7 months later but more specifically as the first rains fall in October or November. The female has the ability to delay giving birth until the rains begin.
As terrifying as light aircrafts are to some people you cannot argue that this is the best views of the Delta. You can also choose to do a helicopter trip from certain camps in Botswana.
When you think of Rwanda, what is the first thing that comes to mind? I bet it’s gorillas, and hardly surprising as these are very special creatures that have become synonymous with the fight to protect endangered wildlife. I have just returned from a trip to experience meeting the gorillas for myself and I was completely blown away.
Rwanda’s mountain gorillas inhabit the spectacular Virunga Mountains within The Parc National des Volcanoes (PNV), an area covering more than 125 sq km. The PNV is home to five volcanoes, all extinct and covered with dense vegetation that includes significant amounts of bamboo forest. Bamboo is hard to trek through but it’s the Mountain gorillas favourite food so it has to be done in order to reach the goal of a sighting.
On the morning of my gorilla track, everybody congregated in the park headquarters at 7am. Here we were warmed up by a ‘blow-your-socks-off’ cup of Rwandan coffee, as a traditional Rwandan dance group entertained us. Once everybody had assembled, we were allocated into one of eight groups, introduced to our guide and given a briefing on how to behave when close to the gorillas – a sort of ‘gorilla etiquette’! We then set off on our hike up the mountain. One of the most enjoyable things about all of this preparation is that you don’t know quite where the gorillas are going to be. The tracking might involve clambering for two hours up 45 degree slopes, avoiding biting ants and low hanging branches, or you may take a gentle stroll for a mere seven minutes across open farmland before suddenly stumbling upon them, as one of the groups in our party did!
On finding the group your trekking struggles are instantly forgotten and nothing quite prepares you for the humbling feeling that washes over you. In our group, the Hirwa, meaning ‘lucky’, there were 17 members, including a silverback and twin babies. Looking into their eyes, you feel you are actually being understood – in fact this is evidenced through the guide/gorilla vocal communication that is essentially a series of grunts, but they did seem to be understanding each other! The gorillas’ playful nature and the twins’ keenness to be the centre of attention for the entire hour (bouncing on trees as if they were trampolines and playing roly-poly down the hill) was an absolute delight to see and made the gap between primates and humans seem very narrow.
The way each gorilla has its own personal name is also very significant. A naming ceremony is held in the village each year where all members of the community can put forward name suggestions which helps to reinforce the relationship between the local community and the gorillas, helping to enshrine community ownership and the protection that results. In fact, the conservation of the Mountain gorilla in Rwanda has been a huge success in recent years, as the local community have become local ambassadors for their protection.
Jobs created from gorilla tourism have been a pivotal step in conserving these animals – many of the trackers and guides are ex-poachers who through education and opportunity have been steered away from their past lives. It’s clear when you speak to them that they now have such a warm genuine desire to protect the Mountain gorilla and more specifically the individual families with whom they spend so much time.
However, the conservation of the gorillas still has many hurdles to overcome and the groups require constant monitoring, in particular their health. Any gorilla with a health problem (including respiratory infections transmitted from humans) must be treated in situ and not removed from the group as individuals will be rejected on their return. Similarly, any rescued orphans cannot be introduced into a new family and are destined to live under the care of humans for the rest of their life. One opportunity the guides discussed was the option of introducing several orphans so that they could form their own group, but there would be many obstacles along the way if this is tried. An exciting idea none the less.
For now, you can personally help by going on a Rwanda holiday and tracking these fantastic creatures. In doing so you are directly contributing to gorilla based tourism and giving local communities a reason to protect and conserve them. After my wonderful experiences I am hopeful that this will continue for many years to come.
What better way to celebrate a good friend’s 40th birthday than to take him to the ‘end of the world’ on board a luxury cruise ship? Cape Horn is the most southerly point of continental America located in Chile’s barren and remote Patagonia. One of the best aspects of working in travel is being able to experience first-hand the incredible holidays that we offer our clients, and we were lucky enough to travel on the newest boat in the Australis fleet, the Stella Australis.
Although Punta Arenas is the most populated city in this region of Patagonia you wouldn’t realise this as you wander the deserted streets. It’s so windy everyone tends to stay tucked up inside or pack themselves into the bustling and cozy coffee shops. We boarded the Stella in the early evening and after settling into our comfortable cabin, we ventured to the top deck lounge to meet our new travelling companions.
Over the next four days and nights we sailed from Punta Arenas to Ushuaia via the ‘pancake’ flat waters of the Strait of Magellan and the famous Beagle Channel. Each day we set off on inflatable zodiac boats to get closer to the wildlife and explore the wilderness landscapes. We spotted Magellanic penguins, wandered through the verdant Patagonian forests and hiked to a view point where we could fully appreciate the huge awe-inspiring glaciers and the spectacularly endless mountainous vistas.
My highlight of the expedition was setting foot on the rocky promontory of Cape Horn and then taking the short walk to the very end of the earth! Due to the unpredictable weather in this wild and desolate outpost we had to don our bright orange life jackets for the customary photos, but none-the-less the picture bear witness to this truly spectacular and memorable experience.
Wildlife enthusiasts visiting the Sanetti Plateau in Ethiopia’s Bale Mountains National Park, have a good chance of seeing the world’s rarest canid, the Ethiopian or Simien Wolf. With a total population of just 500, this long-legged, diurnal wolf is the top predator in the fragile ecosystem where it exists. Highly specialised, it is adapted for life in Afro-alpine moorlands where it preys mostly on rodents such as the comical Giant mole-rat, another mammal unique to Ethiopia. Driving along the plateau on Africa’s highest-lying road, much of which is above 4000 meters in elevation, is a quite exhilarating experience and one of my favourites.
Supported by the Born Free Foundation, Zoologist Dr Claudio Sillero-Zubiri of the IUCN/SSC Canid Specialist Group, has spent more than 20 years studying Ethiopian wolves here. The wolves face a number of hazards such as habitat destruction and persecution and diseases introduced by dogs which villagers keep to ward off hyenas. In 1991, rabies killed almost 75% of the Ethiopian wolves and their stronghold, Bale, is under increasing pressure from the 300 or so families that live and farm in the area.
Dr Sillero-Zubiri’s team have vaccinated more than 40,000 dogs and continue to do what they can to combat canine diseases. For an engaging glimpse into the lives of a pack of Ethiopian wolves – and a rare sighting of a cub at a den – watch British comedian and TV presenter Graham Norton, who travelled to Bale to present an episode of Saving Planet Earth, highlighting the plight of one of the world’s most endangered carnivores.
For more information on the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme conducted by the Born Free Foundation, visit the Born Free Website.