THE RACE TO SAVE A WOLF
BBC Wildlife|February 2022
The Ethiopian wolf is the world’s rarest canid, pushed to the edge by disease and habitat loss. Yet ongoing vaccination is giving the species a second chance.
MARIELLE VAN UITERT
Wake up, wake up! We have a new wolf!” It’s June 2021 and it’s past midnight on the high plateau of West Morebowa, in Ethiopia’s Bale Mountains.

Muktar Abute, vet team leader for the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Project (EWCP), grabs his vaccination kit, while the rest of us pull on boots and head torches.

Thunder rolls in the distance as we pick our way down the steep mountain path. We’re at an altitude of almost 4,000m and it’s raining, but the prospect of finding a wolf distracts me from the icy chill.

I’ve made the journey to these remote slopes to document the work of the EWCP, an organisation dedicated to saving the species from extinction. We soon find our quarry, its leg caught in a rubber-edged hold trap. Programme manager Edriss Ebu, joined by field director Eric Bedin, throws a red blanket over the struggling animal to calm it down. The wolf is anaesthetised, released from the trap and moved a few metres away.

Trying to capture all the action on camera is tricky: the rain is still coming down, it’s almost pitch darkness and I am burdened by a large and ungainly poncho. The team from EWCP works fast and in almost complete silence. Keeping a close eye on the wolf ’s wellbeing, Muktar performs a brief physical exam, measuring and weighing the animal and examining its teeth, while Eric records the corresponding data. He then checks the identification tag on the wolf ’s ear and shaves a small patch of its leg to take a blood sample.

This wolf has no idea that it is helping to save its kind. For this is an Ethiopian wolf, also known as the Abyssinian wolf or ky kebero (in Amharic), which claims the dubious and dual honour of being both the most threatened carnivore in Africa and the rarest canid in the world. Fewer than 500 remain, living in seven small, isolated populations across the highlands of Ethiopia (see box on page 74). Its habitat of Afroalpine meadows and heaths is shrinking and becoming increasingly fragmented due to continued encroachment from humans.

CALLED THE ROOF OF AFRICA, the Bale Mountains harbour the largest wolf population in Ethiopia. West Morebowa is home to about 50 individuals, spread over eight packs.

The EWCP has been vaccinating domestic dogs and wolves against rabies here since 1996. While this important work continues, the team is also now working on something new – a vaccination trial against the equally deadly Canine Distemper Virus (CDV), which emerged as a serious threat just over a decade ago. The CDV vaccine has been used routinely on domestic dogs, but the EWCP needs to demonstrate that it is also effective on wolves to gain approval for its wider use.

Indeed, protecting dogs and wolves goes hand in hand. As Claudio Sillero, founder of EWCP, explains, dogs are ‘reservoirs’ for both viruses. Brought into the wolves’ Afroalpine home by pastoralists as livestock guardians, they can spill the diseases into local wolf populations, with tragic results. In 2019, a devastating outbreak of CDV affected 19 wolf packs in Bale and, along with an ensuing attack of rabies, killed an estimated 55 individuals. Given the small size of the total population, this came as a huge blow to the conservation effort.

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