Six pups come tumbling from beneath a rock, and their mother—the female that had called the pack together—greets them, letting them nurse for a moment. But mornings for the Ethiopian wolf are for patrolling, and the mother and her companions are ready to go. They leave the pups to the care of a younger female and set off at a brisk trot, loping over the icy grass and silvery Helichrysum shrubs in a classic wolf beeline.
One glances at us—wildlife biologist Deborah Randall and me—giving us an "Aren't you coming?" look. Randall shoulders her pack and spotting scope. And we're off: running with the wolves in Africa, pursuing a leftover ice age species in a chilly remnant of Africa's ice age world.
The Ethiopian wolves had their beginning here some 100,000 years ago during a global ice age when glaciers covered the peaks and plateaus of the Bale Mountains. A small number of gray-wolflike ancestors ventured into this wintry land from Eurasia. They never made it farther into Africa, for beyond Ethiopia's mountain massif lay only desert. As isolated as if they lived on an island, those wolves evolved into the separate—and rare—species we're trailing.
Researchers estimate that about 600 Canis simensis are scattered throughout the highlands of the country (as their common name implies, they are found only in Ethiopia). The largest concentration—about 350 animals—lives in Bale Mountains National Park. Their minuscule population gives them the distinction of being one of the world's most endangered canids, and they are on the endangered list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.
Here at 13,000-plus feet they share their habitat with Oromo farmers and herders, who often graze their cattle and horses inside the park. It's not unusual to see wolves hunting rodents among the browsing livestock, and the Oromo (who tolerate the wolves because they seldom kill domestic animals) have named them for this trait: jedalla farda, or horse's jackal.
The wolves are thus accustomed to seeing people every day, and many packs like this one are used to being trailed by Randall and researchers from the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme (EWCP), a joint project of Oxford University and the Ethiopian government. For Randall, they also offer the chance to collect the data for her doctoral study on the wolves' genetics.
That data became easier to collect after late 2003, when a rabies epidemic swept through the wolves in the Web Valley below the Sanetti Plateau, decimating five packs and killing all their newborn pups. During the epidemic EWCP biologists vaccinated some of the Sanetti wolves, hoping to form a barricade against the disease. To keep track of the vaccinated wolves, the researchers clipped colored tags into the tops of their ears and outfitted some with radio collars.