Facing serious threats from its local environment, the endemic Ethiopian wolf finds itself in danger of extinction. Stuart Butler reveals why numbers are rapidly in decline. (All images taken by Stuart Butler)
he wolf moved with speed, grace and ease across the bleak moorlands. Every now and then it paused, lowered a long, thin canine nose to the ground and took a deep sniff. It must have known I was watching him from my couched position behind a rock – that at noon was still icy to the touch – but he was so busy chasing the scent of a giant mole rat that he took little notice of me.
I was on the Sanetti Plateau, a vast Afro-Alpine moorland sitting 4km above sea level in southern Ethiopia. It is, in fact, the largest Alpine plateau in Africa and it forms the centrepiece of the spectacular Bale Mountains National Park. There’s much about this park to like and over the past week here I’d strolled through forests tangled in moss and buzzing with birds, peered through binoculars at warthog and reedbuck in the lower savannah grasslands and hiked from one glacial tarn to another on the open, rarefied mountain plateau. The wolves, however, left the most lasting memories.
I’d heard rumours that these beautiful canines were in serious trouble and so, wanting to learn more, on my last morning in the park I met up with Neville Slade from the Frankfurt Zoological Society, which has been running a long-term wolf conservation and monitoring project in Ethiopia. As the morning sun streamed through the window of his log cabin (which reminded me of a Little Red Riding Hood house), we sat down at his kitchen table to drink the rich, black coffee Ethiopia is famed for and talk wolves. Neville put down his coffee mug, sighed and said, “It’s not a good situation at the moment. There are just too many people living around the [Bale Mountains] park and they’ve all got dogs”. The Ethiopian wolf (Canis simensis), which looks far more like a lanky fox than a scary fairytale wolf, is endemic to only half-a-dozen very specific high altitude regions of Ethiopia, and this specialisation has long made them the world’s rarest canine. The problem, Neville explained, was that the highland regions in which the wolves make their home have always been like little islands in the sky, surrounded by an ocean of humans, agricultural land and, most importantly, domestic dogs. As Ethiopia’s human population has grown dramatically over the past couple of decades, so the habitat has been ever more encroached upon. In the 1990s, two separate populations elsewhere in Ethiopia became extinct, and another died out in 2011 simply due to the wolves being overwhelmed by human farming activity.
The Bale Mountains, though, are the real stronghold of the species and until very recently these barren moorlands were home to about half the world’s remaining 450 wolves. But in 2015 disaster struck the Bale population. An outbreak of rabies, spread by domestic dogs after they had wandered onto the Sanetti plateau, wiped out many of the Bale mountain wolves. Then, just as the authorities were getting the rabies outbreak under control, an even more serious outbreak of canine distemper resulted in further deaths. Again, village dogs coming into contact with the wolves were responsible for this.
Neville told me how programmes had been launched to try and vaccinate all the domestic dogs in the surrounding region against rabies and other diseases. Even though around 5000 dogs a year were vaccinated, numbers of unvaccinated dogs were still too high. When the diseases started to attack the wolves, the scientists and vets involved changed tact and instead tried to catch and vaccinate all the wolves. Even so, in the time this had taken, around half the wolves of the Bale Mountains had died.
Asking Neville how this sudden and dramatic crash in the population made him feel, he put on a brave face, explaining how the wolves of Bale had suffered from a number of disease-related population crashes over the past three decades and that each time they’d managed to recover. Now, however, the outbreaks seem to be coming with more frequency, which is a great cause for concern. As Neville says, “If there’s another outbreak of disease or some other climatic disaster before the wolf numbers have had a chance to rise, then the future for the Ethiopian wolf will not be good.”
Stuart Butler flew to Ethiopia with Ethiopian Airlines and was hosted there by Bale Mountain Lodge, an 11 bedroom eco safari lodge that is heralding a new era of comfortable and sustainable eco-tourism in Ethiopia.
To learn more about wolf conservation and the work of the Frankfurt Zoological Society, visit www.fzs.org.