Saving Africa’s most endangered carnivore; the Ethiopian Wolf

The Ethiopian wolf scientifically known as Canis simensis is a canid endemic to the Ethiopian Highlands also known as the roof top of Africa. It is similar to the coyote in size and build, and is distinguished by its long and narrow skull, and its red and white fur.

Wolves are said to have not been native to Africa until about 100,000 years ago when the land warmed and relatives of the grey wolf crossed the land bridge from Europe and colonized the Afro-alpine grasslands and heath lands in the horn of Africa. The continent’s new immigrants remained there, refining their skills at hunting rodents on the alpine plateau, developed longer limbs, muzzles and smaller set-apart teeth until they were masters of the Afro-alpine, efficient and lean killing machines of mole rats, grass rats and hyrax.

The Ethiopian wolf is one of only two wolf species living in Africa and is also the rarest and most endangered canid in the world, three times rarer than the panda bear and is regarded as Africa’s most endangered carnivore with less than 500 individuals living in the world today.

According to the founder of the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme and a conservation biologist at the University of Oxford’s WildCRU, Professor Claudio Sillero, the Ethiopian wolves are victims of their own success having evolved to thrive as specialists of the Afro-alpine grassland. However, because of the warming continent, and the pressure of humans, now they are restricted to tiny mountain pockets and the pressure continues to pile up.

The species’ current range is limited to seven isolated mountain ranges at altitudes of 3,000–4,500m, with the overall adult population estimated at 360-440 individuals according to the 2011 estimates and more than half of them in the Bale Mountains.
As in other wolf populations in Americas and Europe, human prevalence remains one of the greatest challenges to the survival of the Ethiopian wolf. This has not just started but can be traced many years back when the first human population crossed into Europe from their cradle land in Ethiopia about 700,000 years ago.

With the discovery of 3.2 million year old hominin fossil named ‘Lucy’, it was confirmed that this northern stretch of the great rift is one of the cradles of humankind. The spread of the human race into Europe could have brought about the change of the environment there due to their activities on the land and later forced the wolves to cross into Africa in search for a new habitat.

Today, Ethiopia is regarded as the country with the fastest population growth rate which intensifies pressure on the wolves’ habitat. Most of the Ethiopians are pastoralists herding several cows, sheep and goats. They also keep dogs to protect their animals from wild predators.

This agricultural and nomadic life is not only a threat in terms of taking up the wolves’ habitat but also spread diseases to the wolves. The dog population in Bale Mountains is overwhelming and has been responsible for the spread of rabies to this a rare wolf which has decimated a big number of its population.

EWCP educates herders about the impact of the virus on themselves and their livestock. Ethiopia has one of the world’s highest casualty rates for rabies in humans, and it also has an economic impact on the population since it costs them losses of their livestock. With partnership from other conservation bodies in the country, EWCP has spear headed the conservation campaign for the rare wolf to stop its possible extinction. They have championed vaccination programs for both domestic dogs and Ethiopian wolves against rabies.

The disease is normally vaccinated against in the interval of 10 years. However, the last attack came after 5 years of vaccination and a big number of this endangered canid died.

Though these Social canids have the ability to reproduce well, with a litter of six or seven puppies being born annually by one wolf, their demise is also very fast. For example, in a good year, the population may grow by 30% but when an epidemic comes, three quarters may be lost hence its rare and endangered status. However, its hope of survival is still in the rim light with the determination and commitment of EWCP to continue vaccinating them against rabies as well as educating the pastoralists on how to respect their habitat and conserve them.