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Africa's Rarest Carnivores Face Threats from Disease-Carrying Dogs

posted May 12, 2019, 8:56 PM by chloe owens

3/11/2019, by Jaymi Meimbuch, MNN

Africa’s rarest carnivores face threats from disease-carrying dogs

A thick layer of frost blankets the landscape, creating a gauzy haze over the tans and pale greens of the Ethiopian Highlands. Amidst the frozen stillness, a rust-colored lump dusted in rime stirs. A black nose appears from beneath a thick tail, and two ears twitch atop an elegantly long head. At last, the wolf rises, arches its back in a long stretch, and shakes...These highlands, which stretch across much of central and northern Ethiopia, are home to some of Africa’s highest peaks. They’re also the last—the only—stronghold of the continent’s rarest carnivore: the Ethiopian wolf (Canis simensis). This is no easy place to make a living. At elevations of 3,000 to nearly 4,500 meters (10,000 to nearly 15,000 feet), conditions here are nothing if not harsh. Temperatures frequently dip below freezing, winds howl, and dry seasons can be long and punishing… While the small size of their prey necessitates a solo hunting strategy, Ethiopian wolves have retained many of their ancestors’ behaviors, including their complex social structures; they live in tight-knit family groups, each made up of a dominant breeding pair and subordinates that help to raise the young and defend territories. Within these groups, there is a clear hierarchy reinforced by regular, ritualized greetings…Highly adapted though they are, Ethiopian wolves are struggling to survive. There are currently only about 500 left in the world, distributed among six isolated populations, all on the highlands, and that number has fluctuated dramatically in recent years…Many threats… Direct human encroachment on the wolves’ habitat is the most obvious of these threats. Ethiopia currently has the fastest-growing human population in Africa and this is increasingly pushing people deeper into wolf territory as they seek out land for their farms and livestock. The increased human activity drives wolves into hiding during the day, affecting the time that they can spend hunting and increasing physiological stress. An increase in the number of people in an area also means a rise in the number of grazing animals. Overgrazing and soil compaction by herds of livestock can degrade the fragile highland habitat and reduce prey availability. However, along with the people and their livestock comes a third and more troubling threat: disease, especially rabies and canine distemper virus.. "It was very hard to see animals I had got to know so well perish to rabies," says Sillero. "That convinced me that we had to do something about it. In 1994 we confirmed that the population had not recovered from the 1990-91 outbreak, and suspected CDV, which was reported in dogs. That was when we considered an intervention to vaccinate domestic dogs," he says. Silero and colleagues began this effort the following year. Since that time, he and his team have worked in conjunction with several partners, including the Born Free Foundation, University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, and the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority, to get ahead of disease outbreaks and build a buffer between wolves and neighboring humans and domestic dogs…In the wake of this powerful proof of concept, the Ethiopian government signed an agreement allowing EWCP to launch their first full-scale oral vaccine campaign in the summer of 2018. Aimed at all six remaining wolf populations, the program places a special focus on immunizing the breeding male and female of the family packs in each population.