The last remaining stronghold of Ethiopian wolves is found on the alpine plateaux of the Bale Mountains National Park, where disease and human encroachment have pushed them to the brink of extinction. Neville Slade, project manager for the Frankfurt Zoological Society, talks to Nomad about the efforts to protect this endangered creature.
What brought you to Bale Mountains National Park?
We came to protect the Ethiopian Wolf; that was 12 years ago. The wolf is the most endangered carnivore in Africa and the most endangered canid in the world. At the time, there were about 600 left worldwide. Then rabies and distemper depleted their numbers further. In Bale, they went down from almost 400 to approximately 135. There are now about 350, of which 70% are in the Bale Mountains. The Frankfurt Zoological Society helps protect the environments of animals threatened with extinction, so this was a key place for them to be.
Are the wolves particularly vulnerable to disease?
In 2015, and at the beginning of 2016, we had outbreaks first of rabies and then canine distemper. The rapid occurrence of distemper after rabies is unusual but it happens. There are many people living in the park, and they [keep] dogs for protection. These dogs sometime roam in packs as they are not fed. Although our policy is that they do not roam more than
150 metres from the homestead, they do. And they will kill young wolves if given a chance, as well as carry the diseases mentioned. In three years, three areas [in Ethiopia] have lost their [wolf] populations. They were small packs, but [faced] pressure from the grazing of cattle, which brought the dogs and the spread of disease.
How can you protect the wolves?
We work with the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority. Because of the reputation FZS has of being a capable conservation society, we can attract funding, so we have the ability to implement projects. But to stop the spread [of disease], the teams need more money for protection and [to provide] a rapid response with vaccines. And of course, it’s not only about the wolves. Everything affects everything else and we need to protect the whole thing – the environment and all the other species – and we have to work with the local people to make this happen.
This is a unique environment. Much of the park is over 4,000-metres and is one of Africa’s vital water towers. Four major rivers run off it onto the plains, supplying 20 million people [with water] between the Bale Mountains and the Somali coast. We need to preserve the very top of this chain. If you destroy the vegetation at the top, [then] when it rains, all the water will run off it or evaporate.
What is the biggest threat to the area?
High numbers of Ethiopia’s endemic species are found here, including the Bale monkey, mountain nyala and giant mole rat. There are also endangered species such as wild dog, melanistic leopard and harenna lion. There are 320 species of birds here, including 170 migratory species and 14 endemic species; wattled cranes and lots of vultures and eagles have been recorded here. It’s claimed that if conservation efforts here aren’t successful, more species of mammal would go extinct than in any other similarly-sized area the world over. But the population of Ethiopia is now around 100 million, and is expected to rise to 130 million within the next 30 years. Between 6,000 and 8,000 people live in the park, and many more around it, and they continue to exploit the land unsustainably, planting their crops and grazing their wildlife indiscriminately. In Africa it’s all about politics and people – animals don’t have a vote.
So what can you do?
Last year, I took 15 Ethiopian government ministers to Kenya to look at the conservation areas there. They met people working in conservation including the Kenya Wildlife Service, and Richard Leakey. By the end of that eight-day trip they could see the value of conservation; they saw the way it works in Kenya, and how it could work in Ethiopia. They returned to Ethiopia with new enthusiasm; a general management strategy has now been ratified that includes the plan to move all the people out of the parks within the next 10 or 15 years. They also realised the protection of the water tower is vital, not just for the wolf, but for the 20 million people downstream. But there’s a lot of work to be done.
How does tourism affect conservation?
Tourism, done the right way, is of huge benefit to conservation. We get around 8,000 tourists per year in Bale Mountains National Park, and of those, about 2,000 go hiking. The park has an area of about 2,150 square kilometres but there’s only one road through it so only around 8% of the park can be seen from a vehicle. The remaining 92% can only be seen on foot or from the back of a horse. We have a Porters Association, a Guiding Association, and a Cooks Association; all these not only enhance the tourists’ experience, helping them get away from the road to explore large tracts of the park, but also provide employment for locals. But entrance fees for national parks here are around $4 per day, whereas in Kenya they’re about $70, so it’s difficult to sustain tourism areas. National parks in Ethiopia need partners to fund and manage them. Education and capacity building of local government is also important. Seeing is believing. They need to see what’s possible. It makes much more sense when they’ve experienced it. Now Ethiopia has declared a state of emergency. This has a direct affect on tourism bookings and on our revenue. And when there are fewer tourists, we get increased pressure from people bringing their livestock into the park.
How did you get into this line of work?
I grew up in Kenya, living with the Maasai. My father was involved in the establishment of Olkiramatian Conservancy, near Magadi. Conservation was a part of my life from a very young age, and I lived and breathed it. Later, I spent 15 years in Mozambique doing forestry and livelihood schemes, always with an eye on conservation. When the opportunity came up to work with FZS in Ethiopia, I took it. I’ve been here for three and a half years now. As long as the project is viable and there’s interest in it, I’m keen to be here. Who knows how long that will be.
What’s in a day for you?
Every day’s different, with different challenges. We have 82 scouts, 50 horses and eight vehicles, and everything has to be managed. Recently some cattle entered the park illegally and were confiscated, and the locals retaliated. That needed to be resolved sensitively. We work with the communities to try to improve their livelihoods, and try to reduce the numbers of cattle and encourage different kinds of crops. We also try to encourage tourism as it brings income that can help our conservation efforts. I work very long days as I live on the job. What happens today directly affects tomorrow. It’s hands on all the time.
What’s the outlook for the Ethiopian wolf?
Further outbreaks of disease could seriously damage the population. When packs become too small and isolated, then the risk is higher as their breeding cycles and patterns are complex. If a pack ends up with three females or vice-versa, they will eventually disappear as the distance to and risk in accessing other areas with wolf packs increases with human population growth. The wolf could face extinction within the next 15 years.
As told to Tamara Britten