Endemic to the highlands of Ethiopia, the Ethiopian wolf (Canis simensis) is the scarcest of the world’s thirty-odd canid species, with a population of fewer than 450 now confined to half a dozen isolated pockets of high-altitude moorland. Its most important stronghold today is Bale Mountains National Park, which supports an estimated 270 individuals, while another fifty still roam the nearby Arsi Highlands. Elsewhere, the Simien Mountains are home to perhaps a further fifty wolves, and a trio of other isolated sites each support around thirty.
For those who are fortunate enough to see one, the Ethiopian wolf is a strikingly handsome creature. Long-legged and narrow-snouted, it stands some 60cm high, and has a rich rufous coat offset by white throat and flanks and a black tail. Its taxonomic affinities puzzled scientists for several decades, but recent DNA tests determined its closest living relative to be the European grey wolf. Its ancestors most probably arrived in the Ethiopian Highlands around 100,000 years ago, and evolved into specialized hunters feeding mainly on the giant mole-rats and other large rodents that are abundant in Afro-alpine habitats.
The Ethiopian wolf was reportedly quite common in the mid-nineteenth century and its subsequent numeric decline has two primary causes. The first is habitat loss and fragmentation associated with the conversion of large tracts of Afro-alpine moorland to agricultural land. The other is the transmission of introduced diseases, such as canine distemper and rabies, via domestic dogs. One particularly virulent rabies outbreak led to the Ethiopian wolf being IUCN listed as critically endangered in the early 1990s. Its status was downgraded to endangered in 2004, but with almost three-quarters of the population concentrated in such a comparatively small area, Africa’s rarest carnivore remains highly vulnerable to future epidemics.