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31 October 2003


EWCP Press Release: Rabies in endangered Ethiopian wolves

31 October 2003

In the last few weeks there has been an outbreak of disease, confirmed as being rabies, among the Ethiopian wolves in the Bale Mountains. The Bale Mountains is home to the most important population of this endangered species that is endemic to Ethiopia. The current Ethiopian wolf population in Bale was estimated at 300 (of the global total estimate of 500) wolves. Since September 2003, 20 wolves have died in the Web valley within the Bale area. The Web valley is a critical core area that harboured an estimated 80 wolves prior to this crisis.

The first possible case was a thin and weak wolf sighted by park staff in August 2003 some 35km from areas in which the wolves live. This sighting was thought to be a dispersing female - such as those that are periodically sighted some distance from established packs. The wolf disappeared before it could be examined by staff of the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme (EWCP).

Wolves in the Bale Mountains are continually monitored by staff of the EWCP. The first suspicion that this was disease arose when four wolf deaths in the Web valley were reported on 09 October 2003. Since then, a further 16 wolves have been found dead in the same area.

In the past two weeks, all leading authorities in the area, including the EWCP, the Bale Mountains National Park, the Oromiya Regional Government and the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Organisation, have worked to trace the transmission route and spread of the disease. The disease seems to have entered the Bale Mountains from the lower areas of Arsi to the north, carried in by one or more immigrant domestic dogs. The dogs accompany people and livestock in their seasonal search for grazing. The team has also worked to comb the area for dead and/or sick animals, to carry out post mortems and take samples for analysis and diagnosis, to inoculate remaining unvaccinated domestic dogs, and to interview local communities for information on sick or dead domestic animals. All appropriate health and safety, and veterinary diagnostic considerations have been observed and necessary bureaucracy adhered to in gathering and transporting these samples.

Samples taken from the dead wolves were sent for diagnosis to the Ethiopian Health and Nutrition Research Institute (formerly the Pasteur Institute) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the USA. While the Pasteur Institute currently lacks the materials to test for rabies, the CDC confirmed the presence of rabies in all wolf samples sent to them.

A disease epidemic in 1991-92, coupled with some killing by humans, resulted in the deaths of three-quarters of wolves in the Web valley and two-thirds of the known Bale population at the time. While all the mortality in the Bale Mountains could not be explained by rabies alone, samples from the Web valley were positively diagnosed for rabies and it was thought that rabies was central to that crash in numbers. There are grave concerns that the current outbreak may become an epidemic that will spread throughout the whole Bale population and cause a similar significant crash in numbers. This is even more of a concern because the outbreak of rabies has coincided with the wolves' mating season during which there are high levels of social interactions. This, in turn, accelerates the transmission of the disease.

The EWCP has been working in the Bale Mountains since 1995 for the conservation of the Ethiopian wolf. The EWCP works with local communities and the Ethiopian government to implement a suite of activities including education, disease prevention (through vaccination of domestic dogs), hybridisation prevention (through domestic dog sterilization), strengthening protected areas, training and capacity building of Ethiopian institutions, promoting tourism, monitoring and research. The EWCP is based in the Bale Mountains and operates under agreements with the federal and regional governments in Ethiopia, and the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit of the University of Oxford, UK through which it is also closely connected with the IUCN/SSC Canid Specialist Group and a network of international experts on canids and their conservation. The EWCP receives its core financial support from the Born Free Foundation with additional funding from Frankfurt Zoological Society and Wildlife Conservation Society.

The EWCP has been vaccinating domestic dogs within wolf range in the Bale Mountains since 1996 in an attempt to reduce the risk of rabies, canine distemper and other canine diseases. Despite occasional reluctance among local communities to allow their dogs to be vaccinated, over 80% coverage of dogs has been achieved. Where resources allow, additional vaccination of dogs has been conducted in areas adjacent to wolf range, although coverage levels achieved were lower than within wolf range. The vaccination campaign has also benefited local communities by reducing the public health risk and economic cost of livestock loss associated with rabies. In addition to the vaccination efforts, the education and dog sterilization work of the EWCP has lead to a decrease in the dogs that ranged widely in the Web valley. Between 2001-03, the EWCP also carried out a detailed research project on domestic dog ecology revealing that there are no feral dogs in the Bale Mountains; all dogs are owned by people.

The EWCP is currently reviewing the options available to attempt to contain the disease. Advice and support has been sought from a range of specialist individuals and institutions including the IUCN/SSC Canid Specialist Group and Veterinary Specialist Groups. The decision making process is being meticulously logged. However, ultimately, the decision of whether or not an intervention to contain the spread of rabies in this critical population of Ethiopian wolves takes place lies in the hands of the Ethiopian authorities.

Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme, Addis Ababa 31 October 2003.

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