Published: March 2006
Wolves of Ethiopia
Why is the Ethiopian wolf the rarest canid on the planet?
By Virginia Morell

Mornings on the high Sanetti Plateau of Ethiopia's Bale Mountains break cold and spare, the sun's first rays stirring not warmth, but an icy, cutting wind. I pull my neck gaiter over my chin, stomp my feet on the frozen grass, and tell myself again that this is Africa. Then, on a rocky outcrop some 20 feet away, a wolf appears. She throws back her head and yips—five quick, sharp calls that summon four other wolves, all males. They paw and stretch and lick each other's muzzles, tails wagging.

They are red, these wolves, with black-and-white tails, and white blazes on their chests. The fur on their throats is white too, and sweeps in a curve toward their eyes, giving them the look of laughing clowns. But it's the sassy hue of their coats that catches your eye. We're the top dogs here, their color proclaims. And they are. For these are Ethiopian wolves: the only species of wolf found in Africa.

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.

"We really don't know them as individuals," Randall says as we stomp over the frozen ground. "But now that they're tagged, we can see who sleeps together, patrols together, and hangs out at the den together. Remember that young female who's babysitting the pups at the den? She's at the age where it's time for her to move out and find her own pack. Now we'll find out where she goes, what pack she moves into, and if she has pups of her own."

The wolves we're following, now reddish specks in the distance, are trotting toward a rocky bluff about a mile away. Then the rocks give way to a grassy saddle, and the wolves make their way along the rocky shore of a bright blue pond, their images rippling on the water's surface. Two ducks lift into the air, but the pack ignores them and continues on to a high meadow that's dotted with giant lobelia—spiky, eight-foot-tall plants that tower over the windswept grasses. Here the wolves stop to circle and pee, and Randall maps the spot on her handheld GPS.

"This is one of their boundary points," she whispers. "The territory on the other side of this ridge belongs to the Batu pack," named for a nearby mountain peak. Our pack, the Quarry pack, trots along some invisible line of demarcation. With their ears pricked forward and noses down to catch a scent, they're keenly alert to any sign of their rivals. But the Batu wolves have apparently decided to patrol elsewhere, and the Quarry pack moves on; there won't be any rumbles or chases this morning. "They'd be a lot more agitated if there were other wolves around," says Randall. "The pack with the most wolves usually wins the border fights, and right now Batu is bigger than Quarry."

When Ethiopian wolves aren't patrolling, they're usually hunting, and the Quarry pack has now split up in search of breakfast. Unlike other wolf species, which typically hunt in groups, Ethiopian wolves are solitary hunters. They prey on the fat, bunny-size giant mole rats and grass rats that live in abundance on the high plains and meadows. From a boulder on the ridge we've climbed, Randall scans the meadow below and spots one of the males, now busy stalking rodents. "Let's follow him," she says.

But first she sweeps the far plains and hills with her binoculars, picking out the other hunting Quarry wolves and searching for, well, anything unusual. That's the other thing she does now on her morning patrols. She counts the living and looks for the dead.

Like many rare, isolated species, the Ethiopian wolf could vanish for any number of reasons: shrinking habitat, mating with domestic dogs, shooting. Yet the most immediate threat they face is disease, in particular disease introduced by dogs. The latest outbreak of rabies, like several others in the past, probably started when a rabid dog entered the park with its owner and a herd of cattle. "There's a lot of social chasing and biting and licking among the packs," Randall says. "So if one wolf is infected with rabies, it can easily spread the disease to several others."

The strong sociability of the Ethiopian wolf actually puzzled researchers when they launched their first major studies here in the late 1980s. Since Ethiopian wolves generally hunt alone, "it didn't make sense," Randall says. "Why live in a pack if you're not going to hunt and eat together? Why help raise the offspring of somebody else?"

An answer came after researchers inventoried the rodents available to each pack in their small, two-to-three-square mile territories: It was largely a matter of ensuring the size of their range. "They live together so they can defend an area with enough rodents so that everybody can eat and feed the pups," says Randall. That's why the morning patrols are so important to the wolves. They are, in essence, guarding their grocery store.

Breakfast doesn't come easy, judging from the number of failed stalks and leaps the male we're watching has made. He's chosen an area favored by the giant mole rat, a hefty rodent with eyes protruding from the top of its head like two periscopes. The rat feeds by making short, sudden lunges from its burrow to grab fresh grasses and plants. And it's in those few brief moments when the rat is at the surface that the wolf must act.

"The wolf's hearing is very acute," Randall says, as the male cocks his head from side to side, listening to the rustling of rodents below ground. "I'm sure they can hear the rats getting ready to surface."

Suddenly, a mole rat pops up and begins its busy back-and-forth shuttle. The wolf folds his tall frame into a crouch and crawls forward, his tail swishing like a cat's. He holds still for another second, then makes a quick dash and leaps into the air. When he comes down, his front paws slam the mole rat's burrow and he shoves his snout deep into the earth, biting dirt and grass—but not rat. Once again, he's missed his meal. Randall laughs. "It takes the young ones a while to get the hang of this."

Randall has another pack to check on that afternoon, one called Garba Guracha. It was in their territory that she found the dead wolf. Randall doesn't know if the wolf was from the Garba Guracha pack or another one nearby, and now she or another researcher checks up on the Garba Guracha wolves daily. "Some of them look sick," she says. Still, the dominant female is lactating, a sign that there are pups.

Over the next few days we return to Garba Guracha several times but never do find the den. We revisit Quarry pack, too, and spend time at Batu pack's den, watching their pups fight over old rat bones and sticks and bounce over the frosty grass to tackle their babysitter. No more dead wolves turn up, and at the researchers' camp the mood begins to lighten.

"We really don't know them as individuals," Randall says as we stomp over the frozen ground. "But now that they're tagged, we can see who sleeps together, patrols together, and hangs out at the den together. Remember that young female who's babysitting the pups at the den? She's at the age where it's time for her to move out and find her own pack. Now we'll find out where she goes, what pack she moves into, and if she has pups of her own."

The wolves we're following, now reddish specks in the distance, are trotting toward a rocky bluff about a mile away. Then the rocks give way to a grassy saddle, and the wolves make their way along the rocky shore of a bright blue pond, their images rippling on the water's surface. Two ducks lift into the air, but the pack ignores them and continues on to a high meadow that's dotted with giant lobelia—spiky, eight-foot-tall plants that tower over the windswept grasses. Here the wolves stop to circle and pee, and Randall maps the spot on her handheld GPS.

"This is one of their boundary points," she whispers. "The territory on the other side of this ridge belongs to the Batu pack," named for a nearby mountain peak. Our pack, the Quarry pack, trots along some invisible line of demarcation. With their ears pricked forward and noses down to catch a scent, they're keenly alert to any sign of their rivals. But the Batu wolves have apparently decided to patrol elsewhere, and the Quarry pack moves on; there won't be any rumbles or chases this morning. "They'd be a lot more agitated if there were other wolves around," says Randall. "The pack with the most wolves usually wins the border fights, and right now Batu is bigger than Quarry."

When Ethiopian wolves aren't patrolling, they're usually hunting, and the Quarry pack has now split up in search of breakfast. Unlike other wolf species, which typically hunt in groups, Ethiopian wolves are solitary hunters. They prey on the fat, bunny-size giant mole rats and grass rats that live in abundance on the high plains and meadows. From a boulder on the ridge we've climbed, Randall scans the meadow below and spots one of the males, now busy stalking rodents. "Let's follow him," she says.

But first she sweeps the far plains and hills with her binoculars, picking out the other hunting Quarry wolves and searching for, well, anything unusual. That's the other thing she does now on her morning patrols. She counts the living and looks for the dead.

Like many rare, isolated species, the Ethiopian wolf could vanish for any number of reasons: shrinking habitat, mating with domestic dogs, shooting. Yet the most immediate threat they face is disease, in particular disease introduced by dogs. The latest outbreak of rabies, like several others in the past, probably started when a rabid dog entered the park with its owner and a herd of cattle. "There's a lot of social chasing and biting and licking among the packs," Randall says. "So if one wolf is infected with rabies, it can easily spread the disease to several others."

The strong sociability of the Ethiopian wolf actually puzzled researchers when they launched their first major studies here in the late 1980s. Since Ethiopian wolves generally hunt alone, "it didn't make sense," Randall says. "Why live in a pack if you're not going to hunt and eat together? Why help raise the offspring of somebody else?"

An answer came after researchers inventoried the rodents available to each pack in their small, two-to-three-square mile territories: It was largely a matter of ensuring the size of their range. "They live together so they can defend an area with enough rodents so that everybody can eat and feed the pups," says Randall. That's why the morning patrols are so important to the wolves. They are, in essence, guarding their grocery store.

Breakfast doesn't come easy, judging from the number of failed stalks and leaps the male we're watching has made. He's chosen an area favored by the giant mole rat, a hefty rodent with eyes protruding from the top of its head like two periscopes. The rat feeds by making short, sudden lunges from its burrow to grab fresh grasses and plants. And it's in those few brief moments when the rat is at the surface that the wolf must act.

"The wolf's hearing is very acute," Randall says, as the male cocks his head from side to side, listening to the rustling of rodents below ground. "I'm sure they can hear the rats getting ready to surface."

Suddenly, a mole rat pops up and begins its busy back-and-forth shuttle. The wolf folds his tall frame into a crouch and crawls forward, his tail swishing like a cat's. He holds still for another second, then makes a quick dash and leaps into the air. When he comes down, his front paws slam the mole rat's burrow and he shoves his snout deep into the earth, biting dirt and grass—but not rat. Once again, he's missed his meal. Randall laughs. "It takes the young ones a while to get the hang of this."

Randall has another pack to check on that afternoon, one called Garba Guracha. It was in their territory that she found the dead wolf. Randall doesn't know if the wolf was from the Garba Guracha pack or another one nearby, and now she or another researcher checks up on the Garba Guracha wolves daily. "Some of them look sick," she says. Still, the dominant female is lactating, a sign that there are pups.

Over the next few days we return to Garba Guracha several times but never do find the den. We revisit Quarry pack, too, and spend time at Batu pack's den, watching their pups fight over old rat bones and sticks and bounce over the frosty grass to tackle their babysitter. No more dead wolves turn up, and at the researchers' camp the mood begins to lighten.

Then, early one afternoon, an EWCP team member arrives with a plastic bag. Inside lies the limp body of one of the Batu pups. "Well, if there's one thing I've learned, it's how to do a field postmortem," Randall says.

"I doubt if rabies killed this pup," she says, spreading a blue plastic sheet on the ground and arranging her tools. "If it was rabies, its mother would already be dead." Randall slips on a pair of rubber gloves and pulls the small carcass—a male—from the bag. He's surprisingly plump, his dark, puppy fur thick and fluffy. Randall gives him a few gentle strokes, then lays him on the tarp. "He's so little," she says. She lifts his upper lip to show his bright white, perfect puppy teeth and sighs, "Ah, well."

And then she picks up a scalpel and neatly slices him from his neck to his genitals. Inside, she cuts through the sternum with scissors and exposes his lungs. She snips tissue samples from every major organ. All the samples will be dispatched to labs for analysis.

"Well, mom was feeding him," Randall says. "His intestines are full of rat hair. He might have died from worms or maybe canine distemper," a disease brought by domestic dogs into the park. When she's done, Randall packs up her tool kit and washes off the plastic sheet. There are a few thick tufts of puppy fur in the grass, and then they blow away on the wind.

On the sanetti plateau there's another pack the researchers named the BBC pack after the documentary crew that once spent a season filming them. The BBC wolves were living in the hills just beyond the meadow where the EWCP team was camped. This pack also had pups, and one day the adults moved the pups into a new den. They must have liked the new den, which was even closer to our camp, because that night as the stars came out the wolves sat on the ridge, yipping and howling. "It's like they're bragging, 'We're here! We're here!'" one of the scientists said.

It was a sound we all hoped would never be silenced in the Bale Mountains. It was the sound of Ethiopian wolves claiming their territory.