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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 November, 2003, 01:08 GMT
Rabies ravages rare wolves
By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent

Wolf group   WWF-Canon/Martin Harvey
At bay: Survival is at risk
The most endangered member of the dog family in the world, the Ethiopian wolf, is fighting an outbreak of rabies which has killed 30 animals already.

The global environment campaign, WWF, says this latest outbreak could put at risk the wolves' survival in the remote mountains of south-eastern Ethiopia.

Conservationists are trying to isolate affected animals and vaccinate them.

But the wolves face a longer-term threat - conflict with settlers moving into the national park where they live.

The wolves in the area affected by rabies, the Bale Mountains national park, number about 300 animals, more than half the global population.

Fighting back

At least 30 wolves have died since the outbreak began two months ago. The last outbreak, in 1991 and 1992, killed more than two-thirds of the park's wolves.

Wolf cubs   WWF-Canon/Martin Harvey
At play: Numbers are small
WWF is appealing for money to expand the vaccination programme, carried out by the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme (EWCP), which also vaccinates and sterilises dogs brought into the park by settlers.

Apart from spreading rabies and other diseases, the domestic dogs sometimes mate with the wolves, eroding their genetic distinctiveness.

The EWCP receives its core financial support from the Born Free Foundation, with additional funding from the Frankfurt Zoological Society, the Wildlife Conservation Society and other donors.

Dr Claudio Sillero, of Oxford University's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU), is an adviser to the programme.

He told BBC News Online: "The vaccination of the wolves began only about ten days ago - vaccinating wild canids has been very controversial, because people thought the deaths of African wild dogs in the Serengeti some years ago had been caused by vaccinations.

"The programme has vaccinated 15 wolves so far, going just beyond the edge of the epidemic. They're going about five km (three miles) beyond the last known dead wolf."

Potential for conflict

The settlers use the park for grazing their sheep and goats, which may then compete for resources with the rodent species which are the wolves' main prey.

Running wolf   WWF-Canon/Martin Harvey
The vaccination programme has just begun
The vaccination programme has treated about 80% of the domestic dogs in the area. It is often accepted by local people because of its help in limiting human health risks and livestock losses from rabies.

Some of the settlers are long-established, having moved into the area before it was declared a national park 30 years ago.

Others moved there in 1991 after the fall of the Mengistu government, and a third group migrates into the park seasonally, though some individuals stay for good.

Exit strategy

Settlers sometimes kill the wolves (known also as simian jackals) in the belief the animals are a threat to them and their livestock.

WWF is working with the Ethiopian Government on a regional resettlement plan to move some of the settlers out of the park.

Dr Ermias Bekele, WWF's Bale Mountains project coordinator, said: "If we are to save the Ethiopian wolf from extinction, we must find a permanent solution to the recent influx of illegal settlers into the national park."

All images courtesy of WWF-Canon/Martin Harvey

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25 Nov 03  |  Asia-Pacific
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10 Feb 03  |  Health


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