2020 has so far seen a lot of disruption to our work, just as it has for many organisations. We’ve limited our fieldwork to ensure the safety of our teams and the local communities we work with, and international staff are unable to travel to Ethiopia. Fortunately, there are many tasks we can work on from home and we’ve taken advantage of the time to focus on our research outputs, aided greatly by the addition of researcher Beth Preston.
We are used to responding to large-scale threats to the wolves, like habitat loss and disease, but the acts of individuals can have a real impact, both good and bad. We have recently seen a worrying resurgence in behaviours that can threaten wolf survival.
An exciting discovery was recently made in the Bale Mountains, home to the largest Ethiopian wolf population.
An international team of researchers, supported by EWCP, visited the Fincha Habera rock shelter at the edge of the Web Valley, where their excavations revealed evidence of human occupation dating as far back as 47,000 years ago! This makes their finding the world’s oldest occupation of a residential site at high elevation, in this case an astonishing 3,469m above sea level.
The Amhara region encompasses most of Ethiopia’s highlands north and west of the Rift Valley. Here you can find the source of the Blue Nile, Lake Tana, and the breath-taking Simien Mountains, but also a less well-known Menz-Guassa Community Conservation Area (MGCCA). This highland plateau is diverse in wildlife and home to many animals found only in Ethiopia, such as the Ethiopian wolf, the gelada baboon, and several rodent species.
In March 2020 I had the privilege to spend a week with the EWCP team in the field, in the Bale Mountains National Park. I have been to several African countries before and Ethiopia proved to me again that each country is, without a doubt, uniquely special. I was fascinated by the Afroalpine landscape, amazed by their local cuisine and overwhelmed by the hospitality of the people I met.
Delanta is a small isolated Afroalpine flat south of Abune Yosef and Aboi Gara, home for 16-19 estimated wolves before 2016. Human settlement, farming and the encroachment of domestic animals, especially dogs, caused a canine distemper outbreak in 2017 that sadly decimated all the wolves of Delanta. After this disastrous event EWCP continued monitoring the habitat remotely with Wolf Ambassador Esubalew Milashu, hoping the area could serve as a potential wolf reintroduction site in future. Our Wolf Ambassadors are members of the community that act as ears and eyes in remote areas that are difficult for us to access regularly.
While slowly climbing the Ethiopian massif, in the north of the country, the world passes by my window. A land divided into infinite agriculture plots, dotted by small villages. Most crops have already been harvested and the fields are now ploughed. It’s the season for green peas, which later at our campsite are offered to us, toasted and accompanied by cloudy corofe, a local drink made out of barley.
With no more than 500 Ethiopian wolves left in the world in half a dozen populations, all exposed to domestic dogs that carry deadly diseases, it is paramount/essential? to stop them from getting infected. After successfully testing Virbac’s SAG2, an oral vaccine widely used to eradicate rabies in Europe , we can now protect the wolves without the need of manipulation and thus deliver protection before outbreaks happen.
There are only 500 Ethiopian wolves in the world and all live in the highlands of Ethiopia. Right now, new born litters leave their dens for the first time at 4,000 meters in the Sanetti Plateau. These pups renew our optimism.
Thanking all our partners and supporters from around the world for helping EWCP help the last surviving Ethiopian wolves.
The news reached us swiftly thanks to EWCP’s early alert system, with the involvement of our local Wolf Ambassadors: several dead Ethiopian wolves had appeared in Delanta, a small Ethiopian wolf enclave in the Wollo Highlands. After a swiftly arranged field trip, and lab confirmation of rabies in some of the brain samples collected, an emergency response to vaccinate the few remaining wolves unleashed. As we speak, an EWCP team led by Eric Bedin is fighting to contain the disease. Over the past week they captured and vaccinated a young female wolf and one adult male. These two vaccinated wolves might hold the key for the persistence of the Delanta population.
An important scientific paper has just been published in the Vaccine journal, reporting on the trials EWCP has been undertaking of an oral rabies vaccine in to protect Ethiopian wolves form rabies. With permission from our government partners we have tested bait preferences and the delivery of the vaccines in a few wolf packs in the Bale Mountains. This is the first trail of its kind. Never before the SAG2 rabies vaccine had been tested on wild populations of an endangered species, even though this same oral vaccine has helped to eradicate rabies in red foxes and raccoons over vast areas of USA and Europe.
The EWCP has expanded on various fronts during the last 12 months, including new personnel, more Wolf Ambassadors, and site-specific projects addressing emergent conservation needs outside EWCP’s base in the Bale Mountains. The priority, however, was to sustain a strong presence in Bale, where we weathered one of the most devastating outbreaks of CDV among Ethiopian wolves. Thirty-four wolf carcasses were found between September 2015 and March 2015, and another 31 adult wolves were unaccounted for in 17 focal packs in the Web Valley, Sanetti Plateau and East Morabawa. On average these populations declined in size by 52%, with respect to the previous year. In a positive spin, at least 28 pups outlived the outbreak bringing hopes for a population recovery. Our fight against infectious diseases included the vaccination of over 5,000 domestic dogs, in and around Bale Mountains National Park; the successful completion of an oral wolf vaccination trial; and a pilot of a CDV vaccine for Ethiopian wolves. With our partners in the federal government, park authorities and NGOs we have drafted an integrated disease control plan which is pending approval.
When I started working in Bale in January 2014, Ethiopian wolf numbers were at their peak in three sub-populations monitored by EWCP for more than 20 years. Everybody was happy. I also remember, however, alarm bells ringing, with the certainty that wolves at high density are more vulnerable to disease infection - a pattern observed over and over.
In the Bale Mountains, September marks the onset of the wolf breeding season. After a frantic mating period, finely synchronized within each subpopulation, this is the time when wolf monitors look for signs of denning behaviour and pregnancies. This time round their schedule changed dramatically. On 30th September, our guards in Web Valley camp alerted us of a young wolf that had died the previous night. Three days later another carcass was found nearby. Our team conducted detailed post-mortem examinations and collected samples, and by early October the Animal and Plant Health Agency in the UK confirmed canine distemper virus (CDV) as the cause of these two deaths.