Ethiopia currently has the fastest growing human population in Africa. In the Ethiopian highlands these rapid changes create complex challenges for the wolves and other fascinating endemic species.
Due to its montane specialization the Ethiopian wolf was always rare, but today’s threats are all man-induced. Habitat loss and dog-related disease are the most pressing.
The highlands of Ethiopia remain an attractive place for people to move to, due to high annual rainfalls and rich fertile soils, although the enormous pressure from expanding populations has pushed communities to the limits of sustainable agriculture and pastoralism (barley and potatoes are grown as high as 4,000m in some areas). The range currently occupied by Ethiopian wolves is a fraction of the habitat potentially suitable for the species, measured as the land above the tree-line, of which 60% has been converted to agriculture, or the climatically suitable area for the species at present.
All wild canids are susceptible to pathogens transmitted from domestic dogs, which are numerous in the Ethiopian mountains and act as reservoirs for infectious disease. Rabies is the most pathogenic and is almost invariably fatal.
Rabies has been implicated in dramatic die-offs among African wild dogs, Blanford’s foxes, bat-eared foxes, and Ethiopian wolves.
Ethiopian wolf populations effectively are islands in a sea of dogs, and because of their closeness, rabies and canine distemper viruses are sometimes transmitted into the wolf population (Laurenson et al., 1998).
Long-term monitoring has revealed a series of wolf population crashes and recoveries in the Bale Mountains over the last 30 years. Recovery from epizootics indicate certain resilience, and is backed up by the re-active vaccination of wolf packs, but also highlights the significant threat that consecutive outbreaks would pose.
Exploitation / persecution
Some opportunistic use occurs, for instance, as saddle pads in North Wollo, but this is now uncommon. Same instances wolf killing for fur trade occurred in the Simien Mountains over the past five years.
In the past sport hunters occasionally killed wolves, but hunting is currently permitted. During periods of political instability in the past, when guns were more available, killings of Ethiopian wolf were not that uncommon.
Presently it is the conflict due to livestock predation which leads in some areas to negative attitudes toward Ethiopian wolves, and sporadically to retaliatory killings. In the Bale Mountains livestock losses to wolves are dismissed by herders as unimportant -when compared to losses to spotted hyaenas or jackals-, but in the northern highlands wolves have a reputation as predators of sheep and goats.
Many roads have been built over the last few years across wolf range and habitat corridors. As traffic increases steadily, also does the risk of wolves being killed by vehicles.
Incompatible land uses
High altitude grasslands are crucial pastureland for the local people’s livestock, and heathlands provide much needed firewood. In many places uncontrolled use is degrading the Afroalpine ecosystem, and affect the wolves indirectly via negative effects on their prey.
It is uncertain whether less productive areas can sustain the level of grazing observed in prime wolf habitat in the Bale Mountains, where increasing livestock populations may be already exerting an unsustainable pressure.
Inbreeding & hybridisation
There is no evidence of inbreeding depression or reduced fitness. The small number of breeding packs in the smaller populations however does raise concerns.
A handful of hybrid wolves were recorded in the Web Valley of the Bale Mountains in the 1980-90s, the result of crosses between female wolves and male domestic dogs. The hybrids had shorter muzzles, heavier-built bodies and different coat patterns.
Introgression of dog genes into the Ethiopian wolf gene pool was be detected using mitochondrial DNA, but there are no indication of negative effects due to out-breeding depression or a reduction in fitness. There is no evidence of hybridisation taking place outside the Web Valley.