Ethiopia is home to some of Africa's most unusual species. Among them is the Ethiopian wolf, widely considered to be the world's rarest member of the dog family. A conservation program to secure the habitat of the endangered wolf and monitor its population is underway. Tom Verde reports from Ethiopia's Bale Mountains, where half the world's Ethiopian wolf population lives.
CURWOOD: Better known for its droughts than its wildlife, Ethiopia is home to Africa's only wolf. Fewer than 500 Ethiopian wolves survive in the country's remote and rugged highlands, the so-called rooftop of East Africa. Reporter Tom Verde traveled to Bale Mountains National Park, in Southern Ethiopia, in search of one of the world's rarest canines.
VERDE: There's little about the Ethiopian wolf, or its habitat, that fits the profile of what wolves in Ethiopia are supposed to be like. Take the Sanetti Plateau, elevation roughly 14,000 feet, in the very heart of the Bale Mountains. This rolling rain-soaked dome of heather, lakes, and lichen covered boulders studding the landscape like headstones, looks more like the Scottish Highlands than the dusty, drought-stricken Ethiopia of the evening news.
[SOUND OF WOLF]
VERDE: Then, there's the wolf itself, which doesn't sound or behave much like a wolf.
VERDE: In addition to yelping at public radio reporters who venture too close to its den, the Ethiopian wolf is a creature of the day instead of the night, and howls not at the moon but the sunrise. Though it lives in packs like other wolves, unlike other wolves it hunts and eats alone, an understandable adaptation, considering its single serving diet of shrews and rodents.
The animal's appearance is also puzzling. Roughly the size of a coyote, with a rust colored coat, bushy tail, pointed ears and slender snout, it looks more like an overgrown fox or a jackal than a wolf. Indeed, taxonomists, those folks who classify species, have gone back and forth over the years on just what to call this elegant mountain dwelling creature. Ethiopian Jackal was in vogue for some time, as was Simien Fox, after Northern Ethiopia's Simien Mountains, where the animal was first observed by western science in the mid-nineteenth century.
Among locals, it's known as "ky kebero," the Red Jackal. According to a road map of it's DNA, however, ky kebero is neither fox nor jackal, but the descendent of some distance grey wolf ancestor that crossed into Africa at the end of the last ice age, some 12,000 years ago.
LAURENSON: When the ice retreated, some wolves were left here; they became very specialized rodent hunters. And they got left on these little islands of Afro alpine habitat, cold habitat.
VERDE: Dr. Karen Laurenson is a veterinarian with the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Program. The 12 year old project is a public/private effort to secure the habitat and monitor the population--formerly with radio collars, now by observation and head counts--of Bale's roughly 250 wolves. Cut off from surrounding ecosystems for so many centuries, Bale's wolves, as well as much of the rest of the park's flora and fauna, like those of the Galapagos, are endemic to these mountains, found nowhere else on earth. From toads that avoid water, to rare breed of antelope, to reptiles that defy classification, Bale's highlands and forests, says Laurenson, remain a source of wonder and mystery for wildlife biologists.
LAURENSON: Every time there's an expedition there, they find new species of frogs, of reptiles, of amphibians, of rodents as well. I mean, it's really, still, a lot of it's undiscovered.
VERDE: There are a few other scattered Ethiopian wolf populations, to the north, but Bale's 850 square miles of rolling heaths and stream fed grasslands, the largest track of Afro alpine wilderness on the continent, remain the animal's most viable habitat.
LAURENSON: The abundance of rodent prey here is really high. There are rats running around, grass rats, running around everywhere. There's also, in Bale, there's a giant mole rat, which lives mostly underground, just pops out to clean out its burrow and gather grass to eat. And those are found only in Bale, not in any of the other wolf habitats. There's common mole rats, that you find elsewhere. So we've got the highest density--potentially the highest density of wolves here.
VERDE: Unfortunately for the wolves, there's also a high density of cattle grazing in the park, herds belonging to the Oromo, a pastoral people who migrated to these mountains from Kenya, five centuries ago. Overgrazing means less food for the rodents, who are forced to compete with cattle for their diet of highland grass. Fewer rodents, scientists fear, will eventually mean less food for the wolves. Superstitious Oromo, who consider Ethiopian wolves bad luck, have also been known to take a potshot or two at them, even though they're protected by law.
VERDE: But the most serious threats are domestic dogs, which the Oromo keep to guard their homes and herds. In addition to picking fights with, and sometimes killing, wolves, the dogs spread rabies, canine distemper, and other epidemic diseases, which, by 1995, wiped out 70% of Bale's wolves.
VERDE: The Wolf Conservation team responded with a vaccination program, while educating the Oromo on the importance of eradicating canine disease. This also meant spending lots of time convincing Oromo herdsman that wolves were something to protect rather than persecute.
TRIBESMAN: [speaking in native tongue]
VERDE: Squatting by the fire in his hut, with a shepherd staff by his side, 60 year old Alo Kingo says that, while he fears wolves may rob his livestock of a few lambs or calves, he's come to recognize the importance of vaccinating his dogs. The bigger challenge, says veterinarian Karen Laurenson, was getting the dogs themselves to cooperate.
LAURENSON: Most of the local people here are Muslim, and it's taboo to touch dogs. So the dogs are not used to being handled, they're not used to being caught. And we've spent hours, sometimes, trying to catch dogs. One of our little ploys is to try and put them--sometimes the people, although they won't touch them they'll let them go into the house just so we can catch them. And the dogs go into the house, and then our dogcatcher kind of crawls in through the door. And we're all standing outside and we hear this big "cafuffle" and yelps and screams and shouts and tables overturning and chairs overturning and eventually the door sort of opens and the dog handler comes out, dragging this poor dog behind him. And then it's vaccinated and let go and runs off quite happily.
VERDE: While Bale's wolf population has rebounded to pre-epidemic levels, hybridization with domestic dogs remains a genetic threat, as the Oromo are less inclined to have their animals neutered. Some biologists have suggested that captive breeding program may help. Yet lack of funding, plus the reluctance of the Ethiopian government to allow the exportation of wolves to a foreign breeding facility, have kept these plans on hold.
Others say, however, that fencing off portions of Bale's river valleys and moors from surrounding habitat, in much the same way that glaciers isolated these mountains from the rest of the world, may be enough to save the species--a human contribution to a process nature already began here 12,000 years ago.
For Living On Earth, I'm Tom Verde, in the highlands of Ethiopia's Bale Mountains National Park.
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