Critically endangered Ethiopian wolf population grows amid challenges

About the Author

Brian May is African Wildlife Foundation's Landscape Director based in Debark, Ethiopia. Born and raised in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, Brian still calls Zimbabwe home, even if he spends more time in the rest of Africa and the UK. He completed his MBA at York St John, UK, majoring in leading innovation and… More

Earlier this year African Wildlife Foundation’s ecological monitoring team and conservation partners surveying the Simien Mountains National Park were delighted to discover three Ethiopian wolf pups. With less than 500 remaining in Ethiopia’s afroalpine highlands — the only habitat of the critically endangered Ethiopian wolf — it is the rarest canid species and the most threatened carnivore in Africa.

The Bale Mountains in southeast Ethiopia are home to a large proportion of Ethiopian wolves, but only 75 wolves are found in the Simien Mountains further north. Grouped into 11 packs, Ethiopian wolves in the Simiens have not bred successfully in the last three years. In light of recent conservation challenges and habitat degradation, the birth of the three pups is especially poignant.

AWF has supported the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority (EWCA) to recover and grow these small and scattered Ethiopian wolf populations for decades. In the Simien Mountains landscape, AWF works with conservation partners to protect Ethiopian wolves against canid diseases contracted from domestic dogs and help local communities benefit from biodiversity protection. By promoting harmonious co-existence with wildlife and mitigating habitat fragmentation, our interventions target the landscape’s rare wildlife species like the gelada and the Walia ibex.

Supporting communities to restore wildlife habitats

Maintaining the integrity of the Simiens National Park until the signing of the Ethiopia-Tigray peace agreement in November 2022 was challenging. The heightened security and presence of military personnel and vehicles in the park impacted protected area management, particularly patrolling and ecological monitoring mechanisms.

AWF conducts two wildlife censuses with EWCA experts, park scouts, and researchers every year to understand the status, trends, and distribution of the key species, but this critically important activity was severely limited during the two years of unrest. In fact, the wet season census completed last October was the first census since November 2020.

For communities living near the Simien Mountains National Park, especially those who previously depended on wildlife tourism, the civil war compounded existing disruptions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. To help offset the sudden loss of income for many households, AWF initiated a cash-for-work program involving more than 4,000 people who live close to the area, targeting disadvantaged groups, including women, youth, and those with disabilities.

Our interventions focused on sustainable land management to address erosion in the micro watershed that feeds waterways in the Simien Mountains National Park. AWF hired 3,316 laborers to build check dams and soil bunds as well as rehabilitate gullies to prevent further damage. In some parts of the watershed, they stabilized soil by planting non-native species grown in AWF’s nursery. Here, local communities look after other young trees grown specifically to reforest damaged and degraded areas in the park. More than 500 laborers have helped maintain the nursery and planted the saplings in the protected area, with a small team returning routinely to water and maintain them. Another group was deployed to restore the damage done by visitors to the park, cleaning campsites and collecting rubbish.

Local communities have earned money to make ends meet and reinject into the depressed local economy. Additionally, AWF handed over sewing, baking, and milling businesses to the local government authority, providing an alternative income source to community members relocated from the protected area. AWF also organized a feeding program at Adisge School, located on the outskirts of the protected area. The school was renovated as part of AWF’s Classroom Africa program and continues to provide quality primary education for local communities.

Coupled with our awareness-building campaigns, the cash-for-work and livelihood restoration programs help communities see the benefits of adopting new practices that maintain the Simien Mountains National Park rather than depending solely on tourism or grazing livestock in the protected area.

Despite significant setbacks in the Simien Mountains landscape over the last three years, AWF has maintained good relationships with communities and expects planned activities to continue without interruption following the peace agreement. We hope that the Ethiopian wolf pups augur high wildlife numbers in the next census at the end of the dry season in March 2023, signaling the gradual return of the Simien Mountains National Park and its rare wildlife to their former glory.

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