Wolf Catch and Release

One of the most immediate threats facing the Ethiopian wolf is disease, particularly rabies; three years ago a rabies outbreak killed 70% of the wolves in the Bale Mountains. The remaining animals were saved by an emergency injectable vaccination programme which was time consuming and unsustainable as the population begins to rebound. As a result the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme is trialling an oral rabies vaccine on the Tarura pack.

Approximately three weeks ago EWCP administered oral rabies vaccines to as many of the pack members as possible. The next phase took place last week and involved trapping the wolves, taking blood (so that they could check that the antibodies were present), tagging and releasing them. If a wolf was caught that had not taken the oral vaccine then blood was taken for a baseline and the wolf received an injectable vaccination before being released. Claudio Sillero, founder and director of the EWCP was overseeing the process and of course we were on hand to document it!

Trapping an animal that is as intelligent as a wolf is not easy. The EWCP Programme Manager, Edriss Ebu, showed us how to set up a trap. First, a horse shoe shaped barrier of branches is erected. Halfway along the inside edge of the barrier, a piece of goat meat is staked down to draw the wolves in. Within the enclosed area, three foot traps are positioned and painstakingly covered with sifted sand so that they are invisible to the wolves. The aim is for a wolf to approach the bait and step on one of the foot-traps, which would then close around its leg and stop it from escaping.

Six traps were set up in the heart of the Tarura pack’s territory. Every 3 hours, day and night, for four days the traps were checked. This was a particularly arduous task in the freezing cold, pitch-black nights!

First to be caught were the inexperienced sub-adult (1 year old) wolves. In total, three sub-adults were caught. Only two adults were caught, the others were simply too canny and wary to be lured in by the traps.

When a wolf is found in a trap, a radio call is made to base camp. A whole multitude of people then scramble into a couple of Land Rovers and rush over the wolf. First of all a blanket is thrown over the wolf’s head which instantly calms it down. A vet then sedates the wolf and takes blood samples. The wolf is ear-tagged, weighed, measured and checked for injuries. After less than 15 minutes the wolf is ready to be woken up and released.

Often it turned out that the wolf is a recapture. In this scenario, the team simply check the wolf is unhurt and then released it. Since these wolves were not groggy from the effects of the sedative, when they were released they explode off at a spectacular pace!

It was fascinating to witness the efforts being made at the forefront of the fight to save the Ethiopian wolf. The team were satisfied with the number of animals that they were able to administer the oral vaccine to subsequently collect data from. Hopefully the trial will prove successful and a wide-scale vaccination can take place which will help make the wolves’ future a little bit more secure.

Claudio processing the Tarura female

Claudio processing the Tarura female

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Properly Stuck!

So we did mention the trouble securing a suitable car right… well, just as the trapping was about to begin our driver (#3) sheepishly pulled us aside and said he had to return to Addis. His insurance had expired and he needed to renew it in person. He had called the office and another driver was on his way to replace him. We were assured that driver had left Addis at 5pm that day and so should arrive in in Dinsho around noon the next. Driver #3 would stay through the morning and leave with Muzeyen after our AM shoot had concluded. Noon came and went and by 2pm the new driver was still no where to be found. Knowing that we needed to have a vehicle to photograph the pups that evening Muzeyen brought driver #3 all the way back out to Web Valley and paid a local boy to bring the new driver whenever he showed up.

After the following mornings shoot we arrived back in camp to find Driver #4 waiting for us and Driver #3 left us. It turned out that driver #4 had bald tires and the 4WD had broken just the day before…. it’s always just the day before. We found this out when we became stuck in a spot even my friends Prius could have managed.

After a torturous time getting the vehicle unstuck we discovered all we needed was some momentum and the 2WD was enough and we managed to keep up with the trapping team. Once the trapping was complete we moved on to our 5th and final driver – Will and an older yet vehicle…. amazingly the truck is older than Will himself. The EWCP Land Cruiser has been with the programme almost 30 years now. Her shocks are nonexistent, the seats are worn, the bolts rusted, there is baling wire holding up something important in the dash board and she rattles worse than the ghost of Christmas past. At least our driver is savvy. ;0)

We spent our final days in the Web Valley following the Alandu and Meggity packs. We were unsuccessful in locating the Alandu pack den but we managed some terrific group interactions as the pack started it’s day with a patrol. Meggity was a different story.

We knew where one of the old dens was and we suspected the new den site. There was lots of fresh signs of digging and tons of scat and so we got in place for the sunset. After quite a long wait we began to loose faith that we had the right den. Muzeyen went on one of his now infamous scouting sessions which revealed nothing. Just as we were about to give up and look for members of the floater pack, Will yelped “Pups!” while nearly leaping out of his seat and pointing to a spot on the horizon. Sure enough, he had found Meggity’s new den. Within minutes we had moved locations, the adult male barely lifting his head as we squeaked and groaned our way into the best position for sunset. He very accustom to seeing us and our vehicle having visited us many times in camp, though I wonder if having four hungry mouths to feed with just he and his mate to provide has left him wiped out. They are doing an excellent job, both adults are well fleshed with sleek healthy coats and none of the pups look to be wanting for food.

The four pups had headed to the safety of the den when they heard us arrive but it wasn’t long before the little alpha male popped his head out to contemplate us. This den was situated on a very low ridge which offered us a much better view than the Tarura den which was halfway up a very high and steep cliff side.

The Meggity pups were also born two weeks earlier than the Tarura pups and have lost their soft, round puppy features. They look more like miniature adults though still lack a bit of coordination we discover as one falls tail over head backward off a low rock. Undaunted he leaps back up and chases off after his three siblings.

Playtime is more focused, lasts longer and involves far more running than their younger cousins. Ears perk up, heads turn this way and that, listening for any sound of mole rat or grass rat. The adults leave bits of food around for the pups to discover and a lively game of ‘chase me’ ensues whenever a scrap is found.

For the next three days we visited Meggity pack – watching the shy siblings grow more bold and the little alpha male bolder yet. At one point he marched within seven meters of the truck and bounced up and down, a tiny growl caught in his throat. Convinced that he had cowed us into submission he huffed and strutted away. He will certainly be a wolf to contend with when he’s grown!

The time had come to leave Web Valley. We decided to make one more sunrise trip to the four pups. We never made it there.

It almost always starts with one mistake and gets worse with subsequent incremental mistakes. It rained during the night. We piled into the truck at our usual 5:30AM time and wiping the fog from the front window Will made his way along the route, by now well traveled. Our first mistake was not being able to see clearly through the front window. The car headlamps are tilted strongly to the left side and the added fogging prevented Will from seeing our normal path was a bit darker green than normal after the rain.

We forged ahead and sure enough… spinning tires. No problem, we were halfway out of the ditch anyway, nothing four wheel drive can’t handle… if it were working… which apparently it wasn’t. Running start then… no such luck. All of our tricks up our sleeves, mole rat dust, rocks, pebbles, plants, rocking, digging… we just sunk deeper and deeper. By the time the sun had risen to illuminate our predicament it was clear that we weren’t going anywhere. An hour later we had sunk the car right up to it’s undercarriage, broken our shovel, completely coated our poor guide with mud and we feared the truck wouldn’t be able to be pulled out without damage.

Our LandCruiser stuck in the mud!

Our LandCruiser stuck in the mud!

One thing to know about Ethiopians… they are persistent. Muzeyen would not give up. He marched off to camp approximately a mile away and shortly after marched right back with a new shovel, several long logs of firewood, our dear chef Mamoush and a pick ax! It was now 9am and we had been stuck in what Will described as a proper hippo wallow for three hours. I finally managed to get a message through to Edriss who was visiting family in Goba. He said he would come and help pull us out. The weather was cold, everyone was wet and tired but neither Muzeyen nor Mamoush were willing to give up. I grabbed my backpack and walked back to camp to meet Edriss and show him where we were stuck.

Four hours later I heard a car rumbling up the road into camp. Then a honk. I scrambled out of my tent and couldn’t believe my eyes!! The truck, heavily coated with mud was driving up the road into camp with three very self-satisfied and equally muddy men hanging off the sides. Will calmly states that all I missed was four hours of digging, rocking and spinning tires. Oh, and a small goat herder boy who helped out on the final push.

We finally packed up all our gear and made it out of Web Valley in time to secure a hotel in Goba for the night while our beloved Toyota went to the shop to be fixed. I believe we were single handedly responsible for draining the hotel of it’s hot water that night.

The next morning, car fixed and a new spare tire we met our new guide, Musti and headed off to a very wet Sanetti Camp. Muzeyen headed off for a well deserved vacation. I think we forgot to mention the flat the day before the epic bogging incident (see our post on how to change a flat in the Bale Mountains).

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How to Change a Tire in the Remote Mountains of Ethiopia

1. Notice the tire looks a bit low.
2. Find jack and tools in the box labeled ‘Live Ammunition’.
3. Kneel down to look for likely spot to place jack.
4. Yelp and jump back up when you realize you are in a think carpet of thistles.
5. Grab shovel from back of truck and proceed to attack thistles.
6. Repeat step 3.
7. Place jack and lift truck.
8. Realize the spot you’ve chosen doesn’t lift the truck high enough, look for rocks to place under jack.
9. Repeat step 7.
10. Realize that you are lifting the truck but the suspension is dropping the tire lower than you can lift.
11. Repeat step 3.
12. Repeat step 7.
13. Remove nuts and tire.
14. Realize jack is now sunk halfway underground and car is almost lowered to it’s original position.
15. Dig hole under tire and replace as quickly as possible.
16. Dig jack out from under the truck.
17. Find large flat rock to put under jack.
18. Repeat step 7.
19. Repeat step 13.
20. Roll spare from the back of the truck and place it on the truck.
21. Replace nuts, tighten and lower truck.
22. Realize the spare tire is more flat than the original tire and that the jack has now pushed even the large stone halfway underground.
23. Swear a little bit.
24. Take a deep breath.
25. Repeat step 16.
26. Roll car to new location near the river on LOTS of rocks.
27. Repeat steps 7 and 13.
28. Place original tire on truck, tighten the bolts and lower the truck.
29. Replace tools in ‘Live Ammunition” container.
30. Drive back to camp and check tire again… doesn’t look too flat now does it?

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Wolves in the Web Valley

At first glance the landscape is barren, lifeless but a closer inspection tells a different story. Thousands of rodents scurry between holes, one eye on the ground for tidbits and one eye on the sky. The rats need to be ever-vigilant because the wolves aren’t the only predators around… high on the cliff tops sharp eyed Auger buzzards watch and wait for a chance at a tasty meal. It should be noted that Will has developed a rather wolf-like obsession with the mole rats in camp. He is relentless in his quest for the perfect photograph of these lovable burrowers.

Mole rats are about 1kg in size with huge incisors and Groucho Marx eyebrows. We’re never quite certain where they will pop up but when they do they rarely stray more than a meter from their hole. I’ve yet to see one run forward but they are extremely speedy in reverse! Trying to photograph one is an elaborate game of whack-a-mole, up-down-up-down. An Ethiopian wolf needs to eat around 3 giant mole rats daily or 5-6 grass rats and there are plenty left over – the sheer density of rodents is astounding.

Aby hunting a giant mole rat.

Aby hunting a giant mole rat.

Our days begin with a 4:30am wake up call and the challenge of getting out of a nice warm sleeping bag to face the -5˚C (23˚F) frost covered day. We are very lucky to have our cook Mamoush who keeps us well supplied with coffee and warm oatmeal before we head out across the valley in search of a den site, the closest is about 35 minutes away across rugged, rocky and often wet terrain – that is if we don’t get stuck in the mud en-route… twice so far.

When we arrive at the den site all is usually quiet. The sky begins to turn a beautiful shade of pink as our guide Muzeyen, one of EWCP’s wolf monitors, hops out to scout. Shortly after the sun begins to warm the landscape the wolves wake and begin to stretch, the pups often ambush the adults, spinning summersaults and acrobatics until the poor adult has had just about enough. A quick baring of teeth quells the pups long enough for the adult to move out of reach before the bouncing and tumbling begins anew. All members of the pack care for the pups and it’s heartwarming to see the greeting each adult receives when they return from patrol.

Around 9am the light begins to get harsh and we head back to camp. Downloading, backing up, playing with the mole rats and grass rats, lunch and then we head out again. The pack members tend to return and call the pups out from the den about an hour before sunset. We shoot until there isn’t any light left, pushing our cameras to the limits of their ISO. When we finally concede that it’s too dark to shoot we return to camp for more downloading and dinner. If we have any energy after that it’s outside for star trails. The skies are amazingly bright with no light pollution. After that it’s time for bed and repeat!

Tarura pack has been amazing to work with and the three rambunctious pups have gotten so used to us sitting quietly at the den that they have approached within around 5 meters (~20 feet). On other outings we have encountered the two remaining wolves from the Meggity pack. They have been very hard hit by rabies and canine distemper. Muzeyen tells us that three years ago the pack had 23 members. Now only the subordinate female remains. She and a male from another pack have puppies this year and they are doing a very good job of providing for them but Alandu pack and a group of floaters are moving into Meggity’s territory. Still, there is room for all.

One thing we weren’t quite prepared for is the sheer number of domestic dogs. We knew they were a huge problem as disease vectors but even in the remote Web Valley we see between 8-12 different dogs a day!! Apparently the seasonal pastoralists don’t even like the dogs but they need them as alarms in case hyena or leopard try to attack their herds of goats or cattle which are also far more numerous than we were prepared to witness.

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Acclimatizing in Ethiopia (updated)

We arrived in Addis Ababa in the early night but by the time we cleared customs, exchanged a bit of money (strangely Will had USD and Rebecca had GBP), collected our bags, squeaked past the luggage inspection, found our transfer driver, rode to the hotel, checked in and made it to our rooms… it was well past midnight.

Our driver was extremely prompt at 7am – unfortunately none else was… by 9am we had exchanged the remainder of our cash to Ethiopian Birr, purchased a SIM card and an inexpensive local cell phone so we could contact the folks at the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme to let them know we were on our way!

Grocery shopping was a bit of a free-for-all. We really had no idea what to expect so we grabbed random bits and pieces – some of which came back to haunt us (tuna) and others that worked out quite well (a large tub of local honey).

After all of that we left Addis behind, the hustle of the city fading in our rear view mirror and the countryside opening up before us. I was at once amazed at how green everything looked! February was solidly in the dry season and every where you looked the land was rust colored, dry and dusty. This was an entirely different Ethiopia. Deep, lush green coated the hillsides. The crops were healthy and tall and harvest was just getting under way. Women walked the side of the road with great bundles of wheat, barley or teff tied together on their shoulders. Young boys surfed on carts piled with produce, pulled by strong, sure footed donkeys and rugged ponies.

The road work that had made progress so slow in February was nearly completed and we made excellent time passing through the lake district and stopping for lunch in a small outdoor restaurant. Will had his first experience with Tibs Fir Fir and was properly impressed. The meat was well spiced and the injera light and tangy.

After a short 6 hour drive we reached Dinsho in time to set camp before the sun sank below the horizon. Reedbuck, warthogs and mountain nyala all joined us in our little camp site, curious and unafraid. That night we had a lovely dinner with Anne-Marie Stewart and Chris Gordon who head up and run the day to day operations of the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme in the Bale Mountains.

The next three days we explored the Gaysay Grasslands, a small park located at the edge of the village of Dinsho. We successfully photographed bohors reedbucks, large male mountain nyala, grey duikers and wattled ibis as well as being treated to close views of spotted hyena and colobus monkeys. The warthogs visited us in camp almost every day and on one occasion startled us by appearing brick red. Will took some lovely wide able shots of them that day and later we discovered the wallow of exposed red clay which accounted for their war paint. Will commented that these are the largest and most relaxed warthogs he’s ever encountered and he’s encountered a fair few in his time. So for those of you who think I was absolutely crazy for chasing one out of the cook tent in February… I’m only a little bit crazy. ;0)

During our trips to Gaysay it occurred to us that this vehicle MIGHT not be so well suited for our needs. It was a lovely new Land Cruiser and the driver was kind, knowledgable and very easy to work with but as luck would have it… it had next to no ground clearance. Our suspicion was confirmed on an afternoon trip up to Sanetti Plateau. The rain and constant passing of large trucks had left deep grooves and gashes in the dirt road with which our car had considerable trouble. Regardless, we were treated to our first wolf sighting, a member of the Dumal pack.

A few panicked phone calls and a second car was dispatched. It came with an older, experienced driver and nice high clearance so we thought we had it made! Until we arrived in Sanetti and encountered our second wolf, a sub-adult male from the BBC pack. I reached for the switch to lower my window… and nothing happened. Muzeyen, our “wolf monitor” and personal guide for the trip, tried his and it bucked, kicked, sputtered and refused to go down. No, the back windows don’t work we were informed. No, we can’t get them fixed.

Luckily for us this wolf was very tolerant. We managed to slip quietly from the car and photograph him hunting from behind some large boulders. After that we rushed to the nearest spot with phone reception and contacted the office. After being told it was high season and there were no other cars but they would try, we left Sanetti for more permanent phone coverage. We spent the remainder of the afternoon trying to problem solve on how we could make this car work for us… take the window motor from the drivers side, lower the window permanently, shoot with the door open… there just weren’t any good answers. Just as we were giving up hope we heard another car had been found. They apologized that the windows were crank operated and I immediately chimed in with “No trouble at all!! We love cranks!”

The new driver, #3, was dispatched that evening. Our plans were to set out for Web Valley at first light, even if the driver made it half way that night we wouldn’t be able to arrive in Web until nearly nightfall and so to stay on schedule we had driver #2 shuttle us and all our gear to the research camp in Web Valley. Muzeyen accompanied him back to Dinsho to wait for the new driver while Will and I set up camp. Afternoon came and went. Our hopes of reaching a wolf den to photograph at sunset faded and we made the best of it by photographing sunset from a lobelia covered ridge that over looked the Web Valley. With no cell service we had no idea if the new driver had arrived or if they had gotten stuck on the road… half an hour after sunset I broke out the satellite phone and managed to contact Anne-Marie. She had heard several vehicles pass by headquarters but didn’t know if any of them contained our crew. She said they wouldn’t drive the road after dark so chances were they would show up in the morning. Our hopes of getting to the wolves for sunrise were crushed.

An hour later – HEADLIGHTS!! Muzeyen jumped from the vehicle and announced this one was good! Massive relief!! The expedition was saved! Almost…

The company assured us that all drivers were prepared to camp in the field for extended periods of time and that our fee covered a food allowance so they would be 100% self-sufficient. This driver didn’t even have a sleeping bag and it was COLD. Our wonderfully good natured cook Mamesh allowed the driver to bunk with him.

After a chilly night we rose to find frost covering the windscreen, after scraping, coffee and a big discussion about the perils of using water on the windscreen we finally made it out of camp and onward to our first experience with the Tarura pack pups.

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And the Winner is…

Thank you to everyone who participated in our Mascot Naming Contest!

We are very happy to announce our winning entry ‘Aby’ made by Bruce Finocchio!

Aby will be accompanying us on our journey beginning here in San Francisco and then on to London and Ethiopia!  Look for photo updates from Aby in the coming weeks.

Her cousin’s Alitash, Simi, Weyto and Injera will be making the journey to their new homes soon.  We hope that the winners will send us some photos to share of these adorable guys in their new homes.


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Mascot Naming Contest

There is less than one month to go until we embark on our Ethiopian wolf documentary project and we are busy making all of the necessary preparations.

We have also laid our hands upon some fantastic Ethiopian wolf soft toys (pictured below), one of which is going to be our new mascot!

Win one of these Ethiopian wolf soft toys!

We need your help in picking a name for our new Ethiopian wolf soft toy mascot. Submit your name suggestions and we will select our favorite and 4 runners-up, all of whom will then win one of these adorable Ethiopian wolf soft toys!

All you have to do to be eligible to win is:
1. Like our facebook page, follow us on twitter or subscribe to our email newsletter.
2. Leave a comment on this post with your name suggestion!

The deadline for submitting your suggestions is Saturday 22nd October 2012.

We will announce the winner and runners up here so make sure you subscribe if you want to be notified when this happens.

Good luck!

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Wildlife Conservation Expo 2011

Wildlife Conservation Network Expo 2011
Saturday, October 1, 10am – 6pm
Mission Bay Conference Center
1675 Owens St, San Francisco

learn more
Lions and Tigers, Elephants and Zebra, Cheetah and Wolves!  Don’t miss this special opportunity to meet the researchers who are working on ground breaking conservation strategies across the globe.  The keynote speech will be delivered by none other than Dr. Jane Goodall, DBE!

This is also your opportunity to meet Dr. Claudio Sillero of the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Program!  Hope to see you there!

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Meet the family: Canidae

One of the first comments I typically hear when I show someone a photo of an Ethiopian Wolf is that “it looks like the offspring of a coyote and a red fox.” I thought it might help to show how they are all related. Recent DNA analysis has shown the Ethiopian Wolf to be far more closely related to the Grey wolf and more distant from the Jackal which share their genus.

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New Website!

Welcome to the new Ethiopian Wolf Project website. Please bear with us while we get everything tidied up!

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