During my recent photographic journey to Ethiopia (with intrepid African Photographer Piper McKay), our small band of photographers climbed into Simien National Park which contains Ethiopia’s highest peak, Ras Dejen at 15,000 ft. Over millions of years the area’s plateaus have eroded to form precipitous cliffs and deep gorges of exceptional natural beauty. While we appreciated the spectacular surroundings, we were there to photograph some of the park’s most famous residents, Gelada baboons. And I couldn’t have been more excited….after all how often do you see Italian ice cream loving baboons?
The identifying mark of these wonderful animals is a red heart on their chests which cause some to call them “bleeding heart monkeys”. They are actually monkeys in genus…the last surviving branch of the Gelada ancestral tree.
Geladas spend much of their morning grooming each other to make sure that they are looking good as they venture out onto the grasslands to feed. Here a female grooms a sister Gelada as a little one is sheltered.
Gelada are herbivores but have very large predator like teeth and can look fierce when they draw back their lips and show off their bicuspids.
We saw several large troupes of Geladas each day with each group being at least one hundred animals. To protect themselves from predators, Geladas spend their nights perched on steep cliffsides and emerge at dawn each morning as they make their way up and over cliff rims to spend the day socializing and feeding.
Each troupe featured large numbers of youngsters from newborns to teenage equivalents. The babies often travel on Mom’s back and resemble jockies riding in a race.
If you remain still and unthreatening the Geladas will become comfortable with your presence. This duo was within 6 ft. as they passed by.
The troupe would move over large distances during the day in search of pristine grasses. I found a favorite photographic tactic which was to plant myself on the ground in the direction the troupe was heading and wait for them to arrive. Soon I was surrounded by animals who completely ignored me as I furiously snapped my shutter.
Mothers keep their newborns very close and are wary. I found that if I was quiet and moved slowly I could get quite close to this pair and spent 10-15 minutes photographing them after they came to ignore me.
These two young boys followed us one day in hopes of selling their portrait to us. I couldn’t resist. Those blankets weren’t for show…it was cold at 10,000 ft!
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