If you want to protect the world’s only grass-eating monkey, saving the grass is a good start. But Admassu Getaneh’s forebears weren’t in it for geladas.

By Craig Welch (National Geographic) |

It’s daybreak at 11,000 feet, and somewhere below, the monkeys are stirring.

Admassu Getaneh marches past flowering herbs and thick grass along the edge of a plateau in the central Ethiopian Highlands. Morning sun glints off his Kalashnikov rifle. At his feet basalt pillars plunge down to East Africa’s Great Rift Valley. Soon an unearthly screeching will begin as hundreds of primates awaken from their nightly cliffside slumber and vault onto the plateau like an army of furry circus performers. But Admassu Getaneh isn’t here to see that.

Short and slight in camouflage gear, Admassu Getaneh turns his back to the escarpment. He raises his binoculars. “I can see all the action this way,” he explains. Theropithecus gelada, sometimes called the bleeding heart monkey, may not draw Admassu’s attention. But his presence helps explain why geladas here thrive.

On and off for nearly half a millennium, rural enforcers have done what he’s doing today: patrolling the perimeter of a 42-square-mile high savanna called the Menz-Guassa Community Conservation Area, or simply, Guassa. Admassu Getaneh, a hired gun and former soldier, is here to make sure that no one steals or ruins the grass.

If you want to protect the world’s only grass-eating monkey, saving the grass is a good start. But Admassu Getaneh’s forebears weren’t in it for geladas. They were trying to save themselves. Native vegetation is everything in the highlands. Slender, sturdy stalks get strung into thatch and used for roofs. Men braid grass into rope. Women and children tie blades, sheaths, and stems into brooms and torches. Grass gets stuffed into mattresses. The prickly shafts even drive off fleas.

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