Simien Mountains – The Critically Endangered Walia Ibex
by John Downey
After returning from the Simiens and reviewing these images, I had no clue the Walia Ibex is a critically endangered species. Our guide never spoke of them as such and while endemic to Ethiopia, we assumed they were common. According to Wikipedia, if you trust the sources, there are only 500 left. Having personally witnessed the widespread, rapid destruction of habitat in Ethiopia over the past two years, I can believe the Walia is subject to the same threats. The government, under the theme of development, is rasping the country’s landscape for sugar production and allowing for the unchecked private production of charcoal. Protected areas like the Simiens are poorly policed and bribes likely bend the rules when scouts are present and charged to enforce them.
Since arriving in Ethiopia in 2010, I witnessed commercial and private enterprise wipe out an entire preserve of Awash National Park. What consisted of robust Acacia and scrub, home to colobus monkeys, warthog, guinea fowl and an untold number of other fowl, is now flat and barren, smelling of dusty, stale diesel. I’ve never been exposed to such rapid land degradation and it’s shocking.
When you have the privilege of spending long, intimately-close hours with wildlife like the Walia Ibex, you can’t help become angry, knowing the species’ time is finite. Like the Abysinnian Wolf, the Walia could disappear in as little as a few years. I wish more of my friends and colleagues had access to what I have seen to understand the urgency. But understandably, international travel has become prohibitively expensive and the level of understanding is of course stunted without some genuine, intimate, physical experience.
I’m far from a Nat Geo staff photographer but I hope a few of my images drive a few to action. The worst someone could do is throw money at yet another blind and uninformed cause. Funds are absconded by those in need and greed. Maybe a few readers will go to Ethiopia, study and encourage international protection of this magnificent wildlife.
The Walia Ibex, I’m sorry to disappoint, is essentially a goat. But it’s a regal goat that sports a nifty chin puff. And having been within a couple of meters of a few, it is a gentle and amazing animal, hardly deserving of disappearing from the Earth a few years from now. Am I just ranting or is the Walia worthy of a better chance for survival?
Regarding the photography, I used a 200mm 2.8L lens for all frames (not those behemoth white things that cost as much as a Honda). For the first and third images, I found it convenient to turn off the autofocus and go manual in order to filter foreground scrub from the animal. In post, I applied local sharpening to bring interest directly to the eyes, reduced exposure to increase density in the shadows and for the b/w images, exported to SEP2 and applied a personal blue-yellow, high structure (clarity in Lightroom) preset.