Scottish scientists to save rare Ethiopian wolf

October 11th, 2006 Print Print Email Email

THE RAREST carnivore in the world, the Ethiopian Red Wolf, is set to be saved from extinction thanks to a new vaccination strategy pioneered by Scottish scientists. There are only 500 of the wolves left, and their habitat is restricted to a few mountain enclaves in the Ethiopian Highlands.

The packs are endangered by deadly outbreaks of rabies and distemper, diseases carried by domestic dogs. One rabies outbreak in the early 1990s wiped out three quarters of the Ethiopian Wolves left in the Bale Mountains area. But now a strategy for vaccinating large groups of animals, with minimal intervention, has been successfully tested by researchers at the Universities of Glasgow, Edinburgh and Oxford. The results of their computer-modelling experiment are published today in the journal Nature.

Rather than vaccinating the majority of a group of animals against disease, as is traditional, they found that by targeting just 30% the spread of an outbreak could be curtailed.

When the next rabies outbreak occurs in Ethiopia it will be quickly contained by vaccinating the wolf packs living in the mountain valleys nearby. The new strategy could help save other rare species threatened by disease, such as the African wild dog and the gorilla.

Dr Dan Haydon, of Glasgow University’s Institute of Biomedical and Life Sciences, said: “Widespread vaccinations of large animal populations can throw up all sorts of logistical problems.
“They may be spread across large and inaccessible geographic areas and the vaccination process can require trapping, sedation, and handling of individual animals which some wildlife managers are uncomfortable with.
“Theoreticians have devoted a lot of effort to working out how to vaccinate populations in ways that prevent epidemics getting started, but this requires a level of coverage that is often impractical in wild populations.
“We’ve looked at vaccination strategies that don’t prevent all outbreaks, but do reduce the chances of really big outbreaks – ones that could push an endangered population over the extinction threshold. These strategies turn out to be effective and a lot more practical.”

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