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  Issue Date: 2 / 2018  
 

Where Species Collide in Ethiopia



James Dorsey
 

Image Courtesy James Dorsey Click image to enlarge.

       Amongst the wonders of Ethiopia, a tiny lake begs attention.
       
       Lake Chamo (Chamo Hayk in local Amharic) sits at 1,1110 meters, ( 970 feet) in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples Region of the country in the Great Rift.
       
       Its’ location is east of the Guge mountains, and south of Lake Abaya and the city of Arba Minch. It is not only a beautiful wilderness, but home to a fascinating symbiotic relationship between three animal species.
       
       Ethiopia’s Central Statistical Agency says Lake Chamo is 32 kilometers long (about 20 miles) and 23 wide, (12-13 miles) while other sources differ on this but its size is not important. The entire lake is no more than 10 meters deep (30 feet) but it is packed with Nile Perch and Catfish that make their habitat in the thick wetlands and beds of typha that surround its borders. Nile perch are among the largest fish on the continent and have been known to reach two meters in length, (six feet) and to weigh hundreds of pounds, but in a small cove in the southern tip is where the magic happens.
       
       The cove is shaped in a semi-circle, separated from the rest of the lake by a long finger of sandbar that sticks out into the lake about a hundred feet, giving the appearance of an enclosed enclave for its denizens.
       
       Naturally the local people are very productive fisherman and rather than bushwhack through the dense undergrowth that surrounds the lake at this point, I hired one of them to take me there by small boat. His name was Gao and he told me his father and his father before him; in fact as long as his people remembered, had all been fishermen. These are the people I travel to meet, full of wonderful stories and local history. As we paddled out he filled me with legends and lore, stories about the spirits that lived upon the land and a beautiful story about how long ago the local animals agreed to live in harmony with man, allowing him to take fish from the lake as long as they showed respect to the creator who watched over all, but if that respect was ever withdrawn, the animals would rise up and drive man away.
       
       In a few minutes, I could see in the distance what resembled numerous rocks or tiny islands with a white horizon behind them.
       
       When we stopped paddling and floated silently closer I realized the rocks were dozens of lounging Hippos, the white horizon was a giant flock of white, fresh water pelicans, and the entire shore was lined with massive crocodiles. These are Nile crocs, some of the largest and most ferocious in the world. Gao told me it has always been this way, with all three species living together.


Image Courtesy James Dorsey Click image to enlarge.

       
       Hippos are considered to be the most dangerous animals in all of Africa, responsible for the loss of more human life annually than any other creature, while crocodiles come in a close second.
       
       We hunkered down in the boat, letting our momentum carry us closer and hoping that the hippos would consider us nothing more than an errant log floating into their domain. They seemed to be paying us little attention when suddenly a large bull broke the surface, coming up out of the water like a submarine in emergency blow no more than thirty feet from us. His massive head filled my view finder and I am amazed I had the presence of mind to snap his photo, or maybe just did it without thinking because I am no longer sure, but it is one of the finest shots of a wild animal I have ever taken. Fortunately he was simply curious, or just bluffing, otherwise I would not be here now to tell this story. After giving us a good scare, he settled back down into the water to wiggle his ears as we passed by.
       
       No sooner had I got my heart pounding again than I picked up the low, almost imperceptible silhouette of a croc, eyes just above the water keeping pace with us no more than ten feet away. At this point I was praying that we really did look like a log!
       
       We floated almost onto the shore to find it a veritable pile of crocodiles, lazing in the sun; some were sound asleep with their mouths open. Crocs pass off excess heat through their mouths since they cannot sweat, much like a dog does through its tongue or an elephant through its ears, so an open mouth usually means it is asleep and not getting ready to pounce.
       
       We floated easily along without fear. The animals all seemed to be quite used to human presence and I thought of Gao’s story and how they were allowing us to approach them as long as we were humble. Not all of them were on shore though. Looking around I realized we were surrounded by over a dozen crocs, all keeping an almost imperceptible profile with just their raised eyes above the water, taking in these strange looking creature who invaded their domain. Behind them were close to fifty hippos and it suddenly occurred to me that if any of these animals had been truly aggressive I would never make it out of their alive, and yet I never felt myself in danger and obviously my fisherman guide was quite at ease as he had a large smile on his face all the while, obviously enjoying his latest visit to this place. I followed his lead and relaxed.
       
       I was just settling in to begin photographing the hundreds of beautiful pelicans that formed a solid line across the long finger of sand bar when the entire flock took off en masse, did a great 360 degree circle and landed almost exactly in the same spot. In doing so they passed over the trees that lined the shore and set several blue Herons and snowy Egrets to flight also. I was so awestruck by the spectacle I almost forgot to raise my camera. It was a wildlife cornucopia.
       
       There were literally hundreds of these great birds with their bright yellow beaks trimmed in blue, pink face masks and red tinged eyes, and most of them were within a few feet of crocs resting on other sand bars or with their heads poised on top of logs stuck in the mud. Crocs are known to eat birds, but obviously this population had come to some sort of mutual peace agreement long ago.
       
       I doubt that this entire cove is more than a hundred meters wide and yet, within its confines reside easily a thousand animals, not counting the ones I could not see in the heavy brush along the shore.
       
       Lake Chamo is a bit out of the way for most tourists, but for wildlife enthusiasts, it is a rare spectacle and worth any effort it would take to get there.
       


James Michael Dorsey is an award winning author, explorer, photographer, and lecturer who has traveled extensively in 46 countries. He has spent the past two decades researching remote cultures around the world. His work can be seen on the web at jamesdorsey.com.
 
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