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Field Notes
Morell
Photograph by Saadia Iqbal
Virginia Morell

What was your best experience in the field covering this story?

One of the Ethiopian wolf packs, which the researchers called Quarry pack, lived in a den a few miles from camp. The alpha female had six pups about seven weeks old. Lucy Tallents, a biologist with the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme, kept regular tabs on their development, and I joined her on some of her daylong pup watches.

It was always a treat watching the wolves because they were so sociable, beautiful, and tolerant of our presence. And when the pups were in view, the watches turned into pure fun. They wrestled and pounced on each other, fought over old rat bones, and stalked imaginary prey in the bushes. All play immediately came to an end whenever mom or another adult returned. Six hungry pups set upon the adults, licking furiously at their mouths and demanding that one of the adults regurgitate a meal. One time mom appeared with a large, dead grass rat dangling from her mouth. The pups almost froze in their tracks in anticipation of this meal. And then one daring little wolf trotted right up to its mother, seized the rat, and ran with his prize into a thick bush. "He must be the alpha pup," Tallents surmised. But mom fed the others too, spitting up some rat meat, then curling on her side to let them nurse.

What was your worst experience in the field covering this story?

I arrived in the Bale Mountains at the end of a rabies epidemic among the Ethiopian wolves. Almost half the wolf population in one valley had died, and the researchers feared that it would spread to those living higher on the Sanetti Plateau. They'd already experienced the misery of watching the disease kill many of the animals they knew and loved. So it was heart-wrenching news when one of the camp assistants discovered the carcass of a dead wolf on the plateau. The whole camp seemed to shudder with dread. The remains were too decomposed for the scientists to determine what had caused the wolf's death. But for days, anytime someone saw a wolf that seemed thin or weak, they worried that the disease had spread. It was then that I realized just how vulnerable these wolves are, and how close they are to the most unbearable of tragedies. An unchecked outbreak of rabies could easily drive them to extinction.

What was your quirkiest experience in the field covering this story?

Deborah Randall, a biologist with the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme, was studying the genetics of the wolves. It's now possible to do so by collecting the feces of animals for later lab analysis, so Deb always had small plastic bags with her to scoop up any poop. These finds were like gold to her. She wanted to know things like, Who is the father of these pups?

One morning we went to one of the dens and crawled over the ground, looking for wolf puppy poop. I'd offered to help her. So there I was on my hands and knees, using a stick to shove little black, sticky droppings into a plastic bag. It actually wasn't such a bad job, since they looked like old Tootsie Rolls, the kind that have sat too long in your Halloween candy bag.