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The wolves - Taxonomy, distribution & status

Taxonomy & genetics 

A wolf in fox clothing. It might look like a red fox or jackal, but the Ethiopian wolf is a recent descendant of a grey-wolf like ancestor that immigrated to Africa from Eurasia

Originally classified in a separate genus Simenia (Gray, 1868; Allen, 1939), the Ethiopian wolf (Canis simensis) is one of four Canis species in Africa, readily distinguishable from jackals (C. aureus, C. mesomelas, and C. adustus) by its larger size, relatively longer legs, distinctive reddish coat and white markings (Sillero-Zubiri & Gottelli, 1994).

Although it is often called Simien fox or red fox, DNA phylogenetic analysis revealed that the Ethiopian wolf is more closely related to the grey wolf (C. lupus) and the coyote (C. latrans) than to any African canid (Clutton-Brock et al., 1976).

Most likely, the Ethiopian wolf evolved from a grey wolf-like ancestor that crossed to northern Africa from Eurasia as recently as 100,000 years ago (Gottelli et al., 1994), when Afroalpine habitats in Ethiopia covered vast extensions. There are fossils of wolf-like canids from the late Pleistocene in Eurasia (Kurten, 1968), but unfortunately no fossil records exist for C. simensis

Its low genetic variability, relative to other canid species, suggests that small population sizes characterized its recent evolution. Most recent genetic analyses do not support the thesis two subspecies: C. s. simensis north-west of the Rift Valley and C. s. citernii south-east of the Rift Valley (Coetzee 1977; Gottelli et al., 1994; Gottelli et al., 2004).

Distribution 

Small populations perch in small mountain enclaves, like islands in an ocean of agriculture and people

The Ethiopian wolf is confined to high mountains on either side of Ethiopia’s Great Rift Valley, at altitudes  between 3,000 and 4,500m (Gottelli & Sillero-Zubiri, 1992). They are restricted to land above the agriculture frontier, which in places encroaches up to  4,000m (Yalden et al., 1980; Marino, 2003).

There are six extant populations:  Simien Mountains, North Wollo and South Wollo highlands, Guassa-Menz, Arsi Mountains and Bale Mountains; two recent extinct (Gosh Meda and Mt Guna) and one several decades ago (Mt Choke).  These populations are by definition isolated from each others, as they are separated by distances larger than the potential dispersal of individual wolves (a conservative 20km from previous observations).

Status

With less than 500 adults surviving, Ethiopian wolves are the rarest canid in the world and the most endangered African carnivore

With less than 500 adult individuals surviving, this distinctive carnivore remains the rarest canid in the world and the most endangered African carnivore.

The Ethiopian wolf has always been rare and, already in 1938 it was listed as requiring protection (Harper, 1945). Under Ethiopia’s Wildlife Conservation Regulations of 1974, it has full official protection -killing a wolf carries a sentence of up to two years in prison. In 1990, the species was classified by the IUCN Red List as Endangered (Ginsberg & Macdonald, 1990).  In 1991-1992 a combination of rabies and shooting, triggered by political unrest, devastated the population of the Bale Mountains, the largest and best-known. As a result the Ethiopian wolf was re-classified as Critically Endangered in 1994 (Sillero-Zubiri & Marino, 2008). Ten years later, when numbers finally recovered, it was down-listed to Endangered (IUCN criteria: < 250 mature individuals in the population; continuing decline in population size; < 250 mature individuals in each subpopulation) (Marino et al., 2006; Sillero-Zubiri & Marino, 2008).

Until recently two national parks protected the wolves’ Afroalpine habitat, Simien Mountains and Bale Mountains, but with the extension and creation of new protected areas, the range of wolf range under some form of protection increased from 40% in 2000 to 87% in 2011