November 10th, 2008
Race to save world’s rarest wolf
By Julian Siddle
BBC Radio Science Unit
Scientists in the remote Bale mountains of southern Ethiopia are in a race against time to save the world’s rarest wolf.
Rabies passed from domestic dogs is threatening to kill up to two-thirds of all Ethiopian wolves. Scientists from the UK and Ethiopia are currently vaccinating wolf packs to prevent the spread of the disease. The population has dwindled to as few as 500, as a result of human encroachment into their habitat.
Dr Claudio Sillero of Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Unit (WildCRU) says vaccinations are the only hope of maintaining the Ethiopian wolf population.
“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 added.
The plan is to vaccinate whole families or packs, typically a group with six adults. When these packs come into contact with unvaccinated wolves or dogs they will not catch the disease.
The WildCRU team and the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Authority say so far they have been very successful, catching and treating more than 40 wolves. The wolves are not injured in the trapping process, some even return to the traps once vaccinated in search of food.
Dr Sillero says the wolves’ behaviour at this time of year makes them particularly vulnerable to catching diseases from other animals.
“Right now we are in the middle of the mating season. Family groups erode; females and males mate outside the packs, some females are even courted by feral dogs. This leads to increased transmission of the disease.”
The Bale mountains in southern Ethiopia form the most extensive high mountain plateau in Africa. As well as being home to Ethiopian wolves, the plateau now also has an estimated population of 40,000 dogs. Brought in by shepherds to round up sheep, these dogs have become a reservoir for rabies.
About 10,000 of these dogs are vaccinated against rabies every year but this has not prevented transmission.
Outbreaks of the disease seem to occur in cycles. The researchers say they noticed the disease as far back as 1989 and previously ran a vaccination campaign in 2003.
“It’s a powerful example of the importance of the science and practice of wildlife conservation combined in the effort to deliver practical solutions,” explains Professor David Macdonald, director of WildCRU.
Dr Claudio Sillero sees the wolf’s survival as key to the continuation of the whole highland ecosystem. As a top carnivore, it is responsible for controlling the population of smaller grazing herbivores, especially rodents.
“The wolves reign there; I like to think of them as the guardians of the high mountains of Africa,” he says.
The vaccination campaign is due to continue until at least mid November.