The Ethiopian wolf is the most threatened canid in the world and the only wolf species to be found in Africa (3). It is generally similar to a coyote (Canis latrans) in shape and size, and has characteristically long legs and a long, pointed muzzle (2). The fur is a bright tawny red colour, with whitish to ginger underfur, the underparts, chin, chest and the inside of the pointed ears are white, and the bushy tail is black (2). Females become more yellowish during the breeding season, and juveniles have a charcoal-grey coat (2). Males tend to be around 20 percent larger than females (2). The narrow muzzle and widely-spaced small teeth are adaptations that help this wolf to handle small prey items (3).
Ethiopian wolves live in close-knit territorial packs numbering between 3 and 13 adults, but individual pack members tend to forage alone (2)(3). Afro-alpineendemics such as the giant molerat (Tachyoryctes macrocephalus) and three species of grass rats make up the majority of the diet of these wolves; prey are skilfully stalked out in the open or dug out of their burrows (3). All adults gather to patrol and mark the territory at dawn and dusk repelling any intruders, and rest together during the night, usually spent curled up in the open. Strong social bonds exist between members of the group, who greet each other excitedly (3). Male wolves seldom disperse, whereas many females leave their natal pack at maturity to seek a breeding opportunity elsewhere, occasionally 'floating' between established pack ranges (5).
The dominant female of each pack gives birth between October and December, to a litter of two to six pups who spend their first three weeks of life inside a closely guarded den (2). Most matings occur with males from neighbouring groups in order to avoid inbreeding (5). Other members of the pack will assist with guarding the den from avian and terrestrial predators. They also regurgitate food for the pups for the first four months of their life, and subordinate females may even suckle the litter (5).
As its name suggests, this wolf is endemic to the Ethiopian mountains between 3,000 and 4,377 metres above sea level (2)(4). At present, just seven isolated pockets of occupied habitat are known (4), with the largest population found in the Bale Mountains National Park. As of 2008, the total population was thought to number as few as 500, with around 250 breeding individuals (4).
The Ethiopian wolf usually inhabits afro-alpine open moorland with vegetation shorter than 25 centimetres, and sustaining a high density of rodent species. Also occurs on heather moorland, always above 3,000 metres above sea level (2)(4).
The Ethiopian wolf has been reduced to a handful of mountain ranges due to pressures on the habitat, particularly conversion to agriculture (2). As populations have become increasingly isolated by the fragmentation of their habitat, the likelihood of local extinctions has increased. Rabies and distemper transmitted from domestic dogs to the wolves, and hybridisation resulting from breeding with domestic dogs further threatens the survival of this species (4)(6).
Determined conservation efforts are needed in order to ensure the long-term survival of the remaining Ethiopian wolf populations. The Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme (EWCP) is a joint long-term project between the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at Oxford University, the Born Free Foundation and the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Organisation, under the aegis of the IUCN Canid Specialist Group (4). The EWCP carries out vital conservation measures in the field, working closely with local people, and undertakes population monitoring and other needed research. Some of the activities undertaken so far in the Bale Mountains include assistance with park management in Bale, vaccination and sterilisation of local dogs, education programmes and tourism development (4), and the EWCP team has now expanded its activities to all wolf populations in the north of the country (7).
In October and November 2008, the EWCP team undertook an urgent programme to vaccinate Ethiopian wolves from an outbreak of rabies in the region. Without action, it is believed that two-thirds of all wolves in the Bale area would die, a decline that would leave the global Ethiopian wolf population at perilously low levels. It is only thanks to years of intensive research that this vital vaccination plan was possible (7).
To learn more about a Whitley Award-winning conservation project for this species, click here.
Macdonald, D.W. and Sillero-Zubiri, C. (2004) The Biology and Conservation of Wild Canids. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Marino, J. (2003) Threatened Ethiopian wolves persist in small isolated Afroalpine enclaves. Oryx, 37: 62 - 71.
Sillero-Zubiri, C., Gottelli, D. and Macdonald, D.W. (1996) Male philopatry, extra-pack copulations and inbreeding avoidance in Ethiopian wolves Canis simensis. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 38: 331 - 340.
Sillero-Zubiri, C., King, A.A. and Macdonald, D.W. (1996) Rabies and mortality of Ethiopian wolves (Canis simensis). Journal of Wildlife Diseases, 32: 80 - 86.
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