The Endangered Ethiopian Wolf: Life, Threats, and Conservation
An Endangered Animal of Africa
The Ethiopian wolf lives only at high elevations in mountainous regions of Ethiopia. It's a slender creature with long legs, a pointed, fox-like face, and red-brown fur on much of its body. It's classified as a wolf even though it resembles a coyote in size and shape. It's a pack animal and is very social, but it hunts for food alone instead of hunting cooperatively with the rest of its pack. The animal is sometimes known as an Abyssinian wolf, a Simien fox, or a Simien jackal. Its scientific name is Canis simensis.
Fewer than 450 Ethiopian wolves exist, including juveniles. The number may be significantly smaller than 450 at the moment due to the recent outbreak of disease. Loss of habitat to agriculture, the spread of rabies and canine distemper from domestic dogs, persecution by humans, and hybridization with dogs have all served to reduce the animal’s population to a dangerously low level.
Until recently, the Ethiopian wolf was said to be the only wolf in Africa. In 2015, an animal formerly known as the golden jackal was reclassified as the African golden wolf due to its genetic characteristics.
For many people, the most noticeable features of an Ethiopian wolf are probably its slender form, its long and narrow muzzle, and its pointed ears. The upper surface of the animal is reddish brown in colour while the undersurface is white. White stripes or patches are often visible on the neck and upper chest. The wolf has a bushy tail which contains a mixture of white, brown, and black fur. The last section of the tail is predominantly black.
An Ethiopian wolf is about the same size as a coyote. As in most members of the dog family, the males are generally larger and heavier than the females. An average male is around 16 kg (35 pounds) in weight, while an average female weighs about 13kg (29 pounds).
Canis simensis is often considered to be the most endangered member of the Family Canidae, or the dog family. It lives in small, widely separated populations and is exposed to some serious environmental threats. There are currently no members of the species in captivity.
Ethiopian wolves live at high alpine elevations which are at least 3,000 metres (9,840 feet) above sea level. Their habitat is either open moorland with very low vegetation or grassland with low shrubs and widely spaced giant lobelia plants. These areas have a large population of rodents for the wolves to hunt. The wolves live at such a high elevation that the ground vegetation is frozen in the early morning, an unusual sight in most parts of Africa.
Currently, six isolated groups of Ethiopian wolves exist. The largest is found in the Bale Mountains in southern Ethiopia. When there is no disease outbreak, around 250 to 300 wolves may live here. The second largest group is łocated in the Simien Mountains in northern Ethiopia (about 25 animals). Smaller groups live in the North Wollo and South Wallo highlands, Menz-Guassa, and the Arsi Mountains.
The adult wolf's long, narrow muzzle and its widely spaced teeth are thought to be adaptations for handling prey efficiently. Most of the diet consists of three types of animals—mole rats, grass rats, and Starck's hares.
In the Bale Mountains, the wolves' favourite food is the giant mole rat, a large rodent which lives in a ground burrow. The mole rat's eyes are placed high on its head, enabling it to peer out of its burrow to look for food and danger, briefly surface to grab hold of some nearby plants, and then drag them back into the burrow to eat.
Unfortunately for the mole rat, a wolf may not only see it but also hear its movements. The wolf often approaches its potential prey with admirable stealth and patience. Wolves sometimes take a more active approach in their search for food by digging into the mole rat's burrow, however.
By analyzing the wolves' feces, researchers know that the animals sometimes catch other kinds of prey, including the rock hyrax, young geese, and eggs. They've occasionally been seen hunting cooperatively to catch larger prey such as big hares and young antelopes. Very rarely, some wolves catch livestock. Most livestock kills in the wolves' habitat are caused by hyenas and jackals, however. In some parts of Ethiopia the common mole rat replaces the giant mole rat in the wolves' diet.
The scientific name of the giant mole rat is Tachyoryctes macrocephalus. It's also known as the big-headed mole rat. Like the Ethiopian wolf, it's classified as an endangered animal.
The Wolf Pack
The Ethiopian wolf pack consists of a small group of adults and juveniles. Once a year there may be pups in the group as well. In general, the pack contains as few as three to as many as thirteen individuals. In areas which don't contain many rodents, however, wolves have been discovered living in pairs.
The pack is led by a dominant female and has a hierarchy. The dominant female often mates with the dominant male. She sometimes mates with a male from a different pack, however. Two to six pups are born in a den after a gestation period of two months. The pups are frequently moved from one den to another. Dens are dug near protective rocks, such as in a crevice or under a large boulder.
All pack members help to rear the pups, regurgitating food for the youngsters and giving older pups whole rodents. The pack members also guard the den. Younger females in particular may take care of the pups, allowing their mother to leave for a while. Pups have even been observed suckling from some of their babysitters. These females are thought to have lost or deserted their own babies.
Male wolves stay with the pack as they grow up, but females generally leave when they are about two years old. They either join another group of wolves or live between territories until a vacancy in a pack becomes available. More males exist than females, which is thought to be due to the death of female wolves when they are not part of a pack.
Daily Life of an Ethiopian Wolf
Ethiopian wolves are diurnal (active during the day). The pack owns and defends a territory. At dawn and dusk and occasionally at noon, the pack members patrol their area. They mark it as theirs with urine and feces. They also deposit a secretion from the scent glands in their paws as they scratch. The wolves emit a variety of vocalizations to advertise their territory. Meetings between neighbouring packs may involve aggression.
During the day, the wolves hunt alone for relatively small animals which they can catch without help from their pack. Some biologists think that the Ethiopian wolf pack evolved not to make hunting large animals possible, as in many other social predators, but to maintain a large enough territory to support a good population of rodents for the wolves to eat.
After a separation, the wolves congregate and greet other members of their pack enthusiastically. Their greetings involve licking and mouthing the muzzles of other wolves, squealing, tail wagging, rolling on the ground, and social chasing. The wolves spend the night sleeping in the open, often close to other animals in their pack and with their tails curled around their faces. Only the pups and their mother sleep in a den.
The video below shows a vocalizing Ethiopian wolf in the Bale Mountains.
Ethiopian Wolves and Geladas: An Unexpected Association
Ethiopian wolves live in the same habitat as gelada monkeys, which are also known as gelada baboons or simply geladas. The monkeys forage on grass and herbs. A young gelada makes a good meal for a wolf. Geladas are normally very wary of the wolves when there are young monkeys in their group.
In 2015, it was reported that one group of geladas with babies had been observed allowing solitary Ethiopian wolves to mingle with them. The wolves almost always avoided attacking the youngsters. They also changed their hunting behaviour when they were surrounded by monkeys, moving slowly and calmly through the group.
Observations have shown that geladas make it easier for the wolves to find their rodent prey. The wolves that were studied had a 67% success rate at catching rodents when they mingled with the monkeys compared to a 25% success rate when they hunted alone. Researchers theorize that this may be because the geladas disturb the rodents or because the presence of the geladas obscures the presence of a wolf. Geladas live in large groups consisting of 200 or more animals.
Although geladas are closely related to baboons, they are classified in a different genus. Geladas belong to the genus Theropithecus while baboons belong to the genus Papio.
Habituation of Geladas
Geladas are primates like us. Some of the news headlines about the gelada-wolf association stated that the geladas had "domesticated" the wolves, just as early humans domesticated dogs. The headlines were certainly catchy, but they were also misleading, as biologists have pointed out. Although the wolves benefit from the relationship, the geladas apparently don't. (This assumption may change as more research is done.) Instead of domestication of wolves, the situation is really a case of monkey habituation. The wolves have habituated the monkeys to their presence by repeatedly behaving in a non-threatening way.
Major Population Threats: Rabies and Canine Distemper
The presence of domestic dogs can create big problems for Ethiopian wolves, since rabies is widespread in the local dog populations. Rabies caught from a farmer's dog is a very serious threat to the survival of the wolf packs. Once one wolf is infected the rabies virus passes through the rest of the pack as the wolves lick and greet each other.
According to the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme (EWCP), in 1990 and 1991 rabies in the Bale Mountains wolves killed whole packs. In 2003 to 2004 another outbreak of the disease reduced the population in the area by 76%. The rabies threat hasn't been eliminated. In 2014-2015 yet another outbreak occurred.
Canine distemper transmitted by domestic dogs is also a serious problem. A 2016 outbreak had a major effect on the Bale population, reducing the adult population to half of its original value. The Bale habitat normally has 250-300 wolves but had an estimated 130 adults and 28 pups after the disease outbreak.
So far, when the wolf population has crashed due to disease it has recovered. This may not always be the case, however. As the EWCP researchers say, the Bale population is in a "fragile" state at the moment. An outbreak of disease in the near future could be devastating.
Ethiopian wolves are the guardians of the roof of Africa. By protecting them we safeguard many fascinating Afroalpine endemics from extinction.— EWCP (Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme)
Other Threats to the Wolf Population
Despite the high elevation of their habitat, Ethiopian wolves often encounter livestock and domestic dogs. In the region occupied by the wolves, sixty percent of the land above 3,200 metres or 10,500 feet in elevation has been converted to farmland for agriculture. In the past the wolves were killed by farmers, but today the animals are more often tolerated. They are sometimes seen hunting for their rodent prey amongst livestock, ignoring the farm animals. Nevertheless, the farms reduce the land available for the wolves. They also increase the chance that the animals will interact with dogs.
A less serious problem is that wolves are sometimes killed by traffic on roads travelling through their habitat. Adults don't seem to have any predators, but animals like hyenas and eagles will try to grab the pups.
Research shows that the wolves in the Bale Mountains—where most Ethiopian wolves live—have very little genetic diversity. In addition, the six groups of the animal in Ethiopia are isolated from one another, which prevents the mixing of genes. Healthy animal populations have a good variety of genes and characteristics, which helps a population as a whole to resist harmful changes in the environment.
The Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme has set up vaccination programs for domestic dogs to reduce the incidence of rabies. In 2004 the EWCP captured, vaccinated, and released seventy-two wolves against rabies. Wolves were also vaccinated in the 2014-2015 outbreak.
In 2016, oral canine distemper vaccines for wolves and dogs and injected vaccines for wolves were investigated and may be used in the future. The use of an oral vaccine against rabies began in August 2018. The vaccine was distributed to the wolves in bait meat. It’s thought that one dose every two years should provide immunity. Researchers need to discover how successful the first dose is, however.
Conservation organizations are monitoring the Ethiopian wolf situation, running education and research programs, trying to protect the wolves from disease, and attempting to conserve their habitat.
Other Conservation Strategies
Vaccination to protect wolves is a helpful and important strategy for saving them. However, the human and dog population is increasing in the wolves' habitat, making it difficult to provide an adequate number of vaccinations for domestic dogs. The EWCP is trying to teach farmers other ways to protect their animals besides using dogs and to convince them they shouldn't replace their dogs when the dogs die. The organization is also helping some farmers to find alternate livelihoods.
Alternate and safer habitats for the wolves are being explored. In addition, education programs have been created for school children so that they can learn about the wolves. The EWCP captures and sterilizes dog-wolf hybrids once they are definitely identified before releasing them again. These hybrids form in the western area of the Bale Mountains habitat when a female wolf mates with a male dog.
Hopefully the efforts to save the Ethiopian wolf will be successful. It's a fascinating animal and an important part of nature. Its disappearance from the Earth would be very sad.
- Ethiopian wolves are better hunters when monkeys are around from Dartmouth College
- Canis simensis facts from the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature)
- Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme, or EWCP
- An oral vaccine for the wolf in Ethiopia from sciencenews.org
- The start of the oral vaccination program from the phys.org news service
Questions & Answers
What year did the Ethiopian wolf become endangered?
The earliest record of the endangered status of the Ethiopian wolf on the IUCN's website is based on a 1986 population assessment.
© 2012 Linda Crampton