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Saving the Ethiopian wolf in face of habitat loss, diseased dogs, and climate change, an interview with Claudio Sillero-Zubiri, founder of the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme.
In 1995, Dr Sillero founded the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme (EWCP). The organization works with both the Ethiopian government and local communities to protect the wolf and other highland species.
"By and large the people that live in the Ethiopian highlands are relatively tolerant of wildlife, but their priority is one of survival, and unless their livelihoods can be brought into line with sustainable practices, the meadows and moors they need to graze their cattle, gather firewood and tend their crops will soon be all degraded to bare rock," Sillero says, describing the difficult position that Ethiopian locals find themselves in. One of the biggest impacts the local population has on the wolves is their increasing tendency to raise domestic dogs.
"Domestic dogs not only compete for food, chase them, and transmit rabies and canine distemper to their wild cousins, but may even hybridize with them," Sillero says calling domestic dogs the most "real and immediate threat to wolves".
To address this concern, the EWCP has worked long and hard to eliminate potentially dangerous contact between dogs and wolves, including giving rabies vaccines to over 60,000 dogs. Conservationists are also working to ban dogs within the National Park.
"With the Horn of Africa, and most of globe for that matter, steadily warming up since the end of the Pleistocene, the Afroalpine grasslands and moors home to the wolves continue to shrink, rendering their specialists’ success into an ecological trap," Sillero says. He hopes that translocating wolves between populations—thereby preventing local extinctions and maintaining genetic diversity—may be able to save the species from extinction even in a warmer world. However, he says that he expects "local extinctions for some montane specialists".
Still, Sillero sees optimism and hope as essential to a career in conservation. He says that we must resist "the notion that it is too late to stop the humankind’s juggernaut destroying our wonderful biosphere. Against the odds, we should continue to work and campaign for a change in the current trends of biodiversity loss, and secure a future, at least for some of this grandeur of life, not just for us, but for generations to come."
In a November 2009 interview Mongabay spoke with Dr Claudio Sillero about the ecology of the Ethiopian wolf, its relationship with locals, and the myriad threats facing this rare canid.
AN INTERVIEW WITH CLAUDIO SILLERO
Mongabay: What is your background and how did you end up working in Africa?
I had a last-minute change of mind and instead of becoming a vet I read Zoology at the University of La Plata, spiced with summer projects in remote parts of the country, watching foxes, otters and searching for the elusive jaguareté. My African plan came one step closer when in 1985 an application to study in Nairobi University was successful, and aged 24 I found myself in East Africa establishing a long cherished field project studying the impact of spotted hyaenas on endangered black rhinos in the mountain forests of the Aberdare National Park.
Mongabay: How did you get interested in Ethiopian wolves?
I founded the EWCP in 1995 to work closely with the Ethiopian authorities and the local community to protect the highlands unique wildlife. Our long-term view is only possible thanks to the continued support of our fiends at the Born Free Foundation and the Wildlife Conservation Network.
While my job at Oxford involves many other projects and responsibilities I continue to stick to my aspiration of securing the survival of Ethiopian wolves and other Afroalpine wildlife for many years to come.
Mongabay: Why are Ethiopian wolves endangered and what are presently the greatest threats to them?
Claudio Sillero: Whilst most members of the Canid family are versatile and opportunistic - the wily coyote a superlative example of these traits - Ethiopian wolves are highly specialized to life in the "roof of Africa". Those qualities that made them successful in an expanding ecosystem during the Pleistocene (where their ancestors arrived in Africa from Eurasia), have ironically resulted in their current plight. Only a handful of mountain enclaves in the highlands of Ethiopia now harbor the right conditions, and ample rodent prey, to support viable populations of Ethiopian wolves. Less than 500 adult wolves survive in half a dozen mountain ranges, and most of these populations are tiny.
Mongabay: How are other endemic species in the Ethiopian highlands faring?
Claudio Sillero: Ethiopia is the cradle of humanity, and farming has been modifying its surface for millennia. Expanding populations and the need for arable land bring about an incessant pressure on natural habitats. Barley crops and potato fields are slowly encroaching the last relicts of Afroalpine diversity, and other highland endemics such as the stubborn walia ibex, the graceful mountain nyala, the svelte wattle crane, down to the gopher-like giant molerat, are all seeing their habitat shrink and bringing local extinction a step closer.
Mongabay: How do you encourage local people to protect a species that they may see as a pest or a threat to their livestock?
Mongabay: Interaction with domestic dogs is an important vector for disease transmission for Ethiopian wolves. How are you convincing local people to reduce the number of dogs they keep? Will this have favorable impacts on other wild species as well?
Claudio Sillero: Wherever man goes, their domestic animals follow. And while many highland wildlife species have been able to coexist with highland shepherds and their livestock, domestic dogs bring in an additional challenge for Ethiopian wolves. Dogs pose the most real and immediate threat to wolves. They not only compete for food, chase them, and transmit rabies and canine distemper to their wild cousins, but may even hybridize with them.
People still need dogs to protect their animals from hyenas, although our studies show that dogs are not very efficient at doing their job! There is more that we can do to improve the night protection for people’s livestock, thus reducing their dependence on guarding dogs and in time reducing the negative impact of dogs on wild carnivores.
Mongabay: Are they receptive to your efforts? More generally, how can conservationists work better with local populations to ensure that wildlife preservation doesn't conflict with the needs of local communities?
Claudio Sillero: It is a long-term game, and only through committed efforts and dedication the necessary trust and common ground between the needs of people and wildlife can be found.
Mongabay: Have there been any studies to gauge whether wolves and other species in the Ethiopian highlands will be adaptable to climate shifts?
Mongabay: How can people in places like the U.S. help conservation in the Ethiopian highlands?
Claudio Sillero: Of course the chief need is funding! But in the long-term the most important impact will come from a major shift of attitude toward environmental conservation at government level. We live in a global world, and some of the decisions that will determine whether the highlands of Ethiopia, or any other shrinking hotspot for that matter, will persist, are determined by the willingness of the richer nations to promote conservation, sustainable development and an honest system to recognize and pay for ecosystem services. So please keep writing to your congressmen!! Promoting alternative livelihoods will also help, and trekking tourism is a concrete low-impact activity that may help us protect some of these Afroalpine enclaves.
Mongabay: Do you have any tips for aspiring field conservationists?
Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme
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