The rarest (and prettiest) wild relative of man’s best friend!

Addis Ababa, 26 August 2017

In contrast to other canids, Ethiopian wolves are highly specialised to life on the roof of Africa. Only a handful of mountain enclaves now harbour the right conditions to support viable populations of Ethiopian wolves. They are Africa’s rarest, and most threatened carnivore, and most of their populations are tiny. A mere 450 wolves, to nearly one billion dogs worldwide!

Ethiopia is the cradle of humanity, and farming has been modifying its surface for millennia. The need for arable land brings about an incessant pressure on natural habitats. Barley crops and potato fields are slowly encroaching the last relicts of Afroalpine diversity, and the wolves and other endemics wildlife such as the walia ibex, the mountain nyala, the wattle crane, down to the giant molerat, are seeing their habitat shrink and bringing local extinction a step closer.

By and large people in the Ethiopian highlands are relatively tolerant of wildlife, but their priority is one of survival. Unless their livelihoods can be brought into line with sustainable practices, the meadows and moors they need to graze their stock, gather firewood and tend their crops will soon be all degraded to bare rock. And while many highland wildlife can coexist with shepherds and their livestock, free-ranging dogs bring in an additional challenge, posing the most real and immediate threat to the wolves. Coming from many surrounding villages and towns dogs not only compete for food and chase wolves. They are inexorably drawn to each other and interact, inevitably transmitting rabies and distemper to their wild cousins, and even hybridising.

Disease ultimately determines the dynamics of the last remaining wolf havens, with three out of four wolves typically dying in populations hit by outbreaks, their numbers a rollercoaster. The Bale Mountains plateaux harbour the largest number of wolves; in the last three years they have endured back-to-back rabies and distemper outbreaks. Smaller populations are at even greater risk; last year disease decimated the smallest wolf population.

In a way these wolves are victims of their own success as Afroalpine specialists. But because of the warming continent, and the pressure of humans, livestock and dogs, now they are restricted to tiny mountain pockets and pushed ever up the slopes. There are reasons to be optimistic about their future though.

In 1995 Born Free Foundation helped me to establish the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme. With their help we have since vaccinated in excess of 80,000 dogs to prevent rabies getting across to wolves. And when the deadly virus strikes, swift wolf vaccinations have taken place. In a shift from reactive vaccination to a preventive approach an oral vaccine has been trialled that will offer protection from future rabies epizootics. These vaccination campaigns not only protect the wolves, but also the dogs and their owners, saving lives and preventing financial loss.

There are signs that the wolves in the Bale Mountains are bouncing back. By the end of January, nearly all packs monitored (and recently vaccinated) had bred successfully and some of the larger packs had split, increasing the number of breeding families. With as many as seven pups born to a dominant female, the potential for numeric recovery is high, with over 80 pups located in the Bale Mountains alone.

Rare, ecological specialists such as these wolves will continue to be threatened and require intervention to secure their survival. Climate shifts in mountain ranges tend to impact on specialists, and there are few mitigation approaches available to protect small populations that get caught in this habitat vortex. So we can expect local extinctions for several montane specialists, although for the wolves a metapopulation management paradigm will become part of the solution, with conservation translocations enabling recovery and genetic flux. We expect to see more of these interventions in the next decade.

The Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme, and its Ethiopian partners, with the amazing support of the Born Free Foundation, continue to put all their strength to fight the threats through awareness, education, and science-led approaches to managing disease.  It is a long-term game, and only through committed efforts and dedication the necessary trust and common ground between the needs of people and wildlife can be found.

If you are a dog lover help us protect their rarest wild cousin from disease and habitat loss, by making a donation to the Born Free Foundation. Thank you!

Prof Claudio Sillero

Born Free’s Head of Conservation and EWCP Founder & Director

(Images © Eric Bedin)

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