Wildlife

Africa’s rare carnivores face threats from disease-carrying dogs

The Ethiopian highlands, which stretch across much of central and northern Ethiopia, are home to some of Africa’s highest peaks. They’re also the last — the only — stronghold of the continent’s rarest carnivore: the Ethiopian wolf (Canis simensis).

Domestic and feral dogs are frequent carriers of rabies and distemper and can, in turn, pass these diseases on to wild animals. In the highlands, the dogs of herders are semi-feral, used more as an alarm system against leopards and spotted hyenas than as shepherds. They are not spayed or neutered, nor vaccinated, and they are left to their own devices to find food and water. That means they head out to hunt the same rodent prey as the wolves, bringing the two predators into contact with one another.

Diseases like rabies and distemper are particularly problematic for highly social species like Ethiopian wolves. If one member of a pack comes into contact with infected dogs, or with the remains of infected animals, while out hunting, it can spread the disease to the rest of the pack in a matter of days. If that pack encounters wolves from other packs, the disease can spread quickly through the entire population.

Wolf populations are always subject to cyclical crashes and recovery periods as diseases hit and packs rebound. But if another outbreak strikes before a pack has had a chance to recover, it is more likely to wipe out the pack altogether. Scientists worry that the one-two punch of a rabies outbreak immediately followed by a distemper outbreak, like the combination that occurred in both 2010 and 2015, is exactly the scenario that could lead to extinction.

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