Sarah Kingdom spent a week trekking across the Bale Mountains National Park in search of the rare Ethiopian wolf…
• Common names: Ethiopian wolf, Abyssinian wolf, Simien fox, Simien jackal, ky kebero (‘red jackal’ in Amharic), jeedala fardaa (‘horse’s jackal’ in Afan Oromo).
• Habitat: Very localised endemic species, confined to afro-alpine heathlands above 3 000m in Ethiopia.
• Foraging behaviour: Solitary, diurnal foragers of small mammals, mostly rodents.
• Social organisation: Cohesive family groups, with strong hierarchies. They cooperate to breed and to defend the pack’s territory.
• 500: The number of adults and sub-adults remaining in the wild.
Bale Mountains fact file
• In 1969, 215 000 hectares of the Bale Mountains were declared a National Park and in 2009 nominated as a World Heritage site.
• The Bale Highlands are home to 20 endemic Ethiopian mammals (five of which, including the endangered mountain nyala, are found only here), 12 endemic amphibians, 12 reptiles, 283 species of bird (16 of which are endemic), and all the world’s Bale monkeys and big headed mole-rats.
• In 2010 rabies and distemper killed 106 of the wolves (about 40% of the Bale population at the time), and in 2014, 30–50% of the park’s wolves were killed by rabies.
Formed by volcanic fires and shaped by glacial ice, the Bale Mountains, in south-eastern Ethiopia, form the
highest plateau on the African continent. These highlands are almost always ringed by clouds and shrouded in mist, rain or sleet. Giant lobelia plants stand guard over the park’s undulating plateau, lakes and swamps, while jewel-coloured swathes of heather stretch out across the landscape. Averaging 4 000m above sea level, the Bale Mountains are like nowhere else on the African continent.
Natural selection has been hard at work here. Plants, animals and birds withstand extreme temperatures, oxygen depletion and fierce winds, resulting in an ecosystem where there are more animals unique to these mountains than just about anywhere else on the planet.
Bale is also home to the rarest canid in the world – the elusive Ethiopian wolf, Africa’s most threatened carnivore. With its thick, brick-red coat, white belly, narrow snout, long legs and lithe body, it looks more like a large fox or a jackal than a wolf. These are highly social creatures, living in family packs, but remaining solitary hunters. Decimated by habitat loss and infectious diseases carried by domestic dogs, there are now fewer than 500 of these wolves left in the wild, marooned in a handful of isolated pockets in the mountains
Bale is not a national park in the traditional sense. Somewhere between 20 000 and 40 000 people live within the park’s boundaries, divided between local villages and pastoralists tending cattle, sheep and horses. High altitude grasslands are crucial pastureland for livestock, and the heathlands a source of much-needed firewood. In many places uncontrolled use of the park is degrading the ecosystem.
Stock numbers now exceed the sustainable utilisation of the fragile moorlands, threatening the food source of the rodents, which are in turn the principle food source of the wolf.
An even bigger threat is the presence of several thousand domestic dogs in the park. Dogs are carriers of rabies and interact openly with the wolves.
“Thirty years ago I witnessed an outbreak of rabies that killed the majority of the wolves I had followed closely for my doctoral studies,” says Prof Claudio Sillero, director of the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme (EWCP).
“We now know that pre-emptive vaccination is necessary to save many wolves from a horrible death and to keep the small and isolated populations outside the vortex of extinction.”
The EWCP has a dedicated team who follow and monitor these endangered canids. This, combined with a network of ‘wolf ambassadors’ from local communities and an oral rabies vaccination programme, using goat meat baits, is slowly turning the tide.
When the first immunisation campaign took place, automated cameras showed that nearly all the 119 baits set out among three wolf packs were eaten.
“Our target is to immunise at least 40% of all wolves in each population, reaching as many family packs as possible, including the dominant pair, on which pack stability largely depends,” says EWCP’s Muktar Abute.
Written by Sarah Kingdom. Photos Sarah Kingdom and Sean Sickinger
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