The future is grim indeed for the rarest canid in the world. Fewer than 500 Ethiopian wolves (Canis simensis) cling perilously to life in the East African nation of Ethiopia. These endangered animals, closely resembling the coyote in appearance and size, have long been in decline from human agricultural settlements and diseases such as rabies and canine distemper, which are passed to the wolves by domestic dogs. As humans increasingly graze livestock in regions of historic wolf habitat, the land available for wolves decreases and the rodents on which the wolves prey are wiped out. Today, a rabies outbreak has added additional pressure and threatens to decimate even the most bountiful population of the wolves.
The largest number-roughly 250 individuals-live in the Bale Mountains National Park. It is from this population that the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme (EWCP) reports that 35 bodies have been recovered since September 2003, and many more wolves are unaccounted for. The first potentially rabid wolf was spotted in August 2003, and ultimately, four wolves were found dead in October. As the death toll slowly mounted, diagnostic samples were rushed to labs including the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta for testing. Each sample tested positive for rabies.
In the early 1990s, the spread of disease and killing by humans wiped out two-thirds of the Bale population. According to the EWCP, "There are grave concerns that the current outbreak may become an epidemic that will spread throughout the whole Bale population and cause a similar crash in numbers." After a decade of slow recovery there is a very real threat that the miniscule population of Ethiopian wolves will once again plummet.
The wolves are protected within the country under the Wildlife Conservation Regulations of 1974, and domestic dogs are prohibited from entering the National Park where the wolves live. However, an estimated ten to twelve thousand people live inside the Bale Mountains National Park, most of whom have a companion dog. Government policy actually allows dogs to be shot if they enter the Park, although this is rarely enforced.
Vaccinating dogs against rabies goes a long way in protecting the dogs themselves, the livestock and people in the region, and, of course, the endangered Ethiopian wolf. It has helped keep this killer disease under control. The EWCP vaccinates roughly 2,000 dogs annually in an effort to prevent the contraction and spread of rabies and other canine diseases. Following this recent outbreak, permission has now been granted by the Government for the EWCP to vaccinate the wolves. As a result of the latest outbreak, according to recent reports, 40 wolves have now been caught and vaccinated.
Reducing human dependence on dogs, and therefore eventually reducing the number of dogs will be beneficial to the wildlife of the area. Dogs are primarily used to protect livestock and to clean up waste; helping the local communities to develop alternative ways of dealing with these issues is part of the EWCP's agenda.
The Ethiopian wolf has become a symbol of the unique wildlife of the country. 2004 promises to be a pivotal year in the survival of the species.