A Rare Look at the Ethiopian Gelada Monkey

by Kate Abderholden

September 27, 2019 Adventure Experts

High in the Simien Mountains of Ethiopia, I woke at the crack of dawn, threw on my hiking pants, strapped on my backpack, and headed out the door with 3 other researchers. I had been living in Kenya for the past year and traveling within Ethiopia for about a week, all leading up to visiting the famous endemic gelada monkeys. Every night, the geladas descend and sleep on tiny ledges, safe from predators. The research station sat on the edge of a cliff and we were perfectly positioned to watch the geladas scale the side of the canyon and climb to our very position. With the sun just rising and a chill still in the air, I sat motionless on a rock as the geladas strolled right up to me to pluck the grass from beneath my shoe.

This gelada grazing beside me looked up as I snapped a photo. I get it, not everyone wants to be watched while they eat.

A herd can be huge, ranging from 30 to 600 plus individuals. Within a herd are many harems, which consist of one dominant male and 2-12 females. What felt like an endless stream of geladas passed as I sat there in awe. Gelada moms carrying their babies on their backs and bellies passed me, juveniles climbed the rocks around me, and adult males strutted by, their long hair brushing against my pants. I was a mix of adrenaline and pure bliss. This was my happy place, I had been studying olive baboons in Kenya with Arizona State University at the Uaso Ngiro Baboon Project and was visiting my fellow researchers of University of Michigan at their site in Ethiopia. Monkeys are incredibly fascinating animals and to be so close to them is one of my favorite experiences.

A typical day doing fieldwork in Kenya with olive baboons

As the herd finished climbing the canyon, we followed as they zig-zagged their way through green fields and rocky plateaus. Living above 3,000 meters, geladas are adapted to the high altitude and the limited food sources, their diet mainly consists of grasses. They grazed throughout the morning, stopping for a bought of grooming, or greeting each other. Sporadically, a bachelor male would challenge a dominant male and a battle of showmanship would ensue with vocal barks, shaking of branches, and baring of teeth. If a female was “in heat” (or in estrus) there would be a consort of males following her, herding her away from the other males with constant vigilance.

Eventually, we made our way to a large field with expansive views of the mountains to rest. For the adults, it was prime time for grooming, which helps strengthen social bonds. For the babies, it was time to play. Baby geladas, look like little brown fluffs staggering around, attempting to get their footing or chase a friend. The juveniles are more agile; they flip, tumble, pounce, bite, scream, jump, and swing, providing endless entertainment for the on-looker.

Now able to rest and finally observe the geladas while they sat relatively still, I took in their extraordinary features. They have long, crimped hair that fades from dark to golden brown with gray along their chest. When it blows in the wind it looks like they belong in a hair commercial. This, contrasting with their red chests and necks makes them look especially intriguing. The intensity of the red-colored chests depends on their hormone levels. Both males and females have them, and the color ranges from bubble gum pink to red-hot. For males, the red deepens when they are more dominant and for females, it turns fiery red when they are receptive to mating.

Geladas are the last remaining species of their genus (Theropithecus). They are often mistakenly called baboons, although closely related, they are a species of Old World monkey found only in the Ethiopian Highlands. While many tourists visit Africa for safari, I believe Ethiopia is put to the wayside, lacking the typical big 5. But, the Simien Mountains and the geladas are not a thing to be missed. MT Sobek, sticking with its roots in seeking adventure, has developed a new trip to Ethiopia, Hiking the Simien Mountains. Our lucky travelers will trek from lodge to lodge and see these beautiful creatures that are nestled in the remote mountains. An experience you surely won’t forget; I haven’t. If you go, tell my gelada friends I say hello, and that I will be back soon. If not to watch them play and groom, then to simply figure out their secret to gorgeous flowing hair!

Interested in seeing geladas in the wild? Join us on our epic adventure in Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains!