November 10, 2008

World’s Rarest Wolf Threatened By Rabies

Scientists are in a race against time to save the world's rarest wolf from extinction.

Up to two-thirds of all Ethiopian wolves are being threatened by rabies passed from domestic dogs.

Scientists from the UK and Ethiopia are currently vaccinating wolf packs to prevent the spread of the disease.

Human encroachment into the wolves' habitat has caused the population to fall under 500.

"Vaccinations are the only hope of maintaining the Ethiopian wolf population," said Dr. Claudio Sillero of Oxford University's Wildlife Conservation Unit (WildCRU).

"If left unchecked, rabies is likely to kill over two-thirds of all wolves in Bale's Web Valley, and spread further, with wolves dying horrible deaths and numbers dwindling to perilously low levels," he added.

Researchers would like to vaccinate whole families or packs, typically a group with six adults. When these packs come into contact with unvaccinated wolves or dogs they will not catch the disease.

Both the WildCRU team and the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Authority say, so far, they have been very successful, catching and treating more than 40 wolves.

The safe trapping process doesn't harm the wolves, some even return to the traps once vaccinated in search of food.

The wolves' behavior during mating season makes them particularly vulnerable to catching diseases from other animals, said Sillero.

During the middle of mating season family groups erode and females and males mate outside the packs, some females are even courted by feral dogs, he said. "This leads to increased transmission of the disease."

The Bale Mountains in southern Ethiopia, the wolves' habitat, form the most extensive high mountain plateau in Africa.

However, the plateau also has an estimated population of 40,000 dogs. Brought in by shepherds to round up sheep, these dogs have become a reservoir for rabies.

Some 10,000 of these dogs are vaccinated against rabies every year but this has not prevented transmission.

But experts say the rabies outbreaks seem to occur in cycles. They noticed the disease as far back as 1989 and previously ran a vaccination campaign in 2003.

"It's a powerful example of the importance of the science and practice of wildlife conservation combined in the effort to deliver practical solutions," said Professor David Macdonald, director of WildCRU.

But Sillero sees the wolf's survival as key to the continuation of the whole highland ecosystem. As a top carnivore, it is responsible for controlling the population of smaller grazing herbivores, especially rodents.

"The wolves reign there; I like to think of them as the guardians of the high mountains of Africa," he says.

Image Courtesy Wikipedia


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