for National Geographic News
The Ethiopian wolf (Canis simensis) is the most endangered species in the group of animals known as canids. The biggest threat comes from rabies and other diseases carried by dogs in the wolves' mountainous habitat, but researchers now think it may be possible to develop a vaccine that could dramatically help the species' survival.
Based on a complex computer model, the scientists say it might be possible to prevent the wolf's extinction by vaccinating only 20 percent to 40 percent of the known populations.
The elegant and long-legged animal with reddish-orange fur lives in the alpine regions of Ethiopia, 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) or so above sea level. It is also known as the Simien jackal or the Abyssinian wolf.
The Ethiopian wolf has become so rare that any rescue plan must be implemented soon, researchers argue.
Claudio Sillero-Zubiri, a zoologist at the University of Oxford in England, said only seven populations of the wolf remain, totalling less than 500 adults. That figure "makes the species even rarer than gorillas, giant pandas, tigers, rhinos, and most other large mammals," he noted.
The Ethiopian wolf has declined slowly in population since the end of the last ice age, when the world warmed and cooler alpine habitats receded across much of Africa.
Today, habitat loss and hybridization with domestic dogs have helped push the species toward extinction.
"The Ethiopian wolf is teetering on the brink," said James Malcolm, a biologist at the University of Redlands in California. "The species has persisted in pockets of habitat which are now being encroached by people eking out a living," he added.
In some areas, the wolves are killed by Ethiopian farmers who blame them for killing sheep and goats. Many of the animals were also killed indiscriminately during periods of civil war in the past two decades.
The most serious threat, however, comes from diseases such as rabies, or canine distemper, carried by dogs from human settlements.
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