The Ethiopian Wolf - Africa's Pride in Danger

The Ethiopian Wolf - Africa's Pride in Danger

Meet Africa's Most Endangered Canine

An African Wolf

Once called the Simien jackal, Canis simensis is now considered a wolf, because studies of its mitochondrial DNA show that this species is more closely related to wolves than jackals. Because of this classification, the Ethiopian wolf is the only wolf species native to Sub-Saharan Africa. A svelte creature rather closely resembling the coyote and red wolf of North America, the Ethiopian wolf has a tawny to chestnut colored coat tempered with cream-colored shadings and white markings. Weighing only 11-19 kilograms, this creature is roughly the same size as a coyote, but unlike its North American cousin, its tail is black. Today, the Ethiopian wolf suffers many threats from humans, not the least of which is the threat that it faces from domestic dogs.


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The Ethiopian wolf’s exact evolutionary ancestry is still being examined. The original genetic studies that found it to be a wolf actually suggested that the Ethiopian wolf was a descendant of the gray wolf (Canis lupus), when gray wolves may have ranged into Africa. However, another, more recent study suggests that the Ethiopian wolf is related to the gray wolf, but that it split off from the ancestral wolf population perhaps as early as three or four million years ago. However, it is considered to be more closely related to wolves than any of the jackals species that live in Africa.

Encounters with Domestic Dogs Cause Problems

Because it is so closely related to wolves, it can interbreed with domestic dogs, which are considered to be a subspecies of gray wolf. This close relationship with dogs has caused the Ethiopian wolf a great deal of trouble. One of these issues is interbreeding. Unlike gray wolves in North America, Ethiopian wolves do not typically kill domestic dogs. If a female Ethiopian wolf is in season, it is possible for a domestic dog to successfully produce offspring with her. This cross-breeding contaminates wolf populations in much the same way as coyote hybridization has contaminated the remaining red wolf population.

Dogs also carry diseases. The Ethiopian wolf population is so isolated, it tends to lack resistance to canine diseases. In Bale National Park, over half the wolves died in a rabies outbreak within two weeks. Dogs are believed to have introduced the disease to the wolves. Like other species of wolves, the Ethiopian wolf lives in closely-knit packs, and one wolf coming down with the disease usually means that the whole pack is soon affected.

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Not a Predator of Livestock

Humans once persecuted the Ethiopian wolf, because they believed it would prey on livestock. However, livestock predation by an Ethiopian wolf is relatively rare, and the culprit of such attacks is usually a golden jackal. Although the Ethiopian wolf lives in packs, its main diet is not large ungulates. In his classic book, Never Cry Wolf, Canadian naturalist Farley Mowat raised quite a stir when he suggested that wolves in the Canadian Arctic were living on mice. However, if he had been studying Ethiopian wolves, his findings would not have been so greatly criticized. Ethiopian wolves are rodent specialists, living on a wide array of rodents and other small mammals.

Conservation of these animals will require a great deal of effort, mainly to stop interbreeding with domestic dogs and to prevent the transmission of canine diseases. Oral vaccines have been dropped in wolf range, and programs to vaccinate domestic dogs in the region have been implemented. Fortunately, Ethiopia now honors the wolf as a national symbol. The wolves are now protected by law, and international conservation groups are working to preserve it as the top predator of the Ethiopian highlands.

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