A rabies outbreak could fast track the extinction of the Ethiopian Wolf - the world’s rarest wolf.
With only 500 remaining, the Ethiopian Wolf (Canis simensis) was already threatened with extinction. But now, there’s a real danger that extinction could come faster than previously thought.
The rabies threat comes from the dogs the Oromo people use to herd livestock. In the Bale Mountains National Park, the Ethipian Wolves live in close contact with these people and their dogs, and the virus has emerged once again.
Rabies is the major killer of Ethiopian wolves in Bale.
In 1990 and 1991, it killed off whole wolf packs and accounted for a population decline of up to 75%. Again in 2003-04 the virus spread across this same local population, leading to a 76% decline.
“These preciously rare wolves can ill-afford it another massive die-off.” said Dr Claudio Sillero of Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU).
Vaccinating the Wolves and Dogs
The Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme (EWCP) has been protecting the wolves in the Bale Mountains for 20 years. Unfortunately, despite efforts to vaccinate the wolves and dogs, the rabies virus continues to emerge every so often.
“Despite the efforts of our veterinary team, who vaccinate thousands of dogs in Bale’s villages every year, the virus has raised its ugly head again and jumped into the wolf population,” said Dr Claudio, who is also Director of EWCP.
“Fifteen wolves have died to date, and laboratory tests have confirmed our worst fears that we are facing another potentially devastating outbreak. If left unchecked, rabies is likely to kill over two-thirds of all wolves in Bale’s Web Valley, and spread further, with wolves dying horrible deaths and numbers dwindling to perilously low levels.” he continued.
Vaccination - A Difficult Task
Vaccinating the Ethiopian Wolf is a difficult task, according to Dr Sillero.
“Tracking and vaccinating these animals is a far from easy task,” he said.
“Our veterinary team are travelling on horse-back and camping out in remote mountains above 12,000 feet with temperatures falling as low as -15°C. But the first three weeks of the intervention have gone well with the team vaccinating to date forty-eight wolves in eleven vital packs that connect the Web Valley population with other wolves in Bale. The objective is to secure a ‘cordon sanitaire‘ of safely vaccinated wolf packs which will prevent the virus reaching other packs living further afield in the Bale Mountains” he continued.
Threats to the Ethiopian Wolf
Rabies is just one of the many threats to the Ethiopian Wolf. According to EWCP, the major threats to the wolf are:
- Loss and fragmentation of the Afroalpine habitat: High-altitude subsistence agriculture and overgrazing; road construction and sheep farming
- Diseases: Particularly rabies, transmitted by domestic dogs
- Conflicts with humans: Poisoning and persecution in reprisal for livestock losses; road kills
- Hybridisation with domestic dogs
The Ethiopian Wolf (scientific name: Canis simensis) is also known as Abyssinian wolf, red jackal, red fox, Simien fox or Simien jackal, due to the previous uncertainty about its taxonomic position. It is currently thought that the species belongs to the genus Canis, even though it looks superficially like a fox.