by John Wendle on 10 September 2020

  • The African golden wolf was only recently designated as a species in its own right, after decades of being conflated with the golden jackal.
  • The patchy taxonomic record means little is known about the species, including its behavior, range and population, leaving researchers without a baseline for determining its conservation status. But pioneering work in Morocco by Liz Campbell, a researcher at the University of Oxford, is starting to paint a picture of this enigmatic species, seen by local shepherds as a major threat to their livestock.
  • Campbell’s surveys and interviews show that this fear appears to be overblown, with far more sheep dying from cold weather or disease than predator attack, and half of the witnessed attacks carried out by feral wild dogs.

IFRANE NATIONAL PARK, Morocco — As he guides his flock of sheep home through stands of oak and endangered Atlas cedar, Umimun Hammou feels something is wrong.

Rounding a bend on the mountain trail, he sees what he has been fearing. A sheep is tangled in brush a few yards down the slope, its throat ripped open. A little further on, he finds a second with the same wound. Red blood stains its shaggy white fleece.

Foraging for the acorns lying under a thin layer of December snow, his flock had been scattered through the forest during the day. Obscured by mist, it had been impossible to keep track of the herd. Now some $600 worth of livestock are dead.

“They are our enemies,” Hammou says. “If I get a way to kill a wolf, I will kill it in order to protect my sheep.”

Sheep on a hillside. Image by John Wendle for Mongabay.
Sheep on a hillside above the town of Azrou in the Middle Atlas mountains. Sheep and goats are allowed to overgraze in Ifrane National Park, leading to erosion. Image by John Wendle for Mongabay.

Hammou and other shepherds fear these seldom-seen predators, but little is known to science about the wolves found here.

Golden wolves (Canis anthus) are found across North Africa, as well as in the northern Sahel regions stretching from Senegal in the west to Ethiopia in the east and as far south as northern Tanzania. But they were erased from formal taxonomy for 80 years.

“They’re basically unknown to science,” says Liz Campbell, the founder of the Atlas Golden Wolf Project and a researcher at University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit.

Until recently, scientists thought these wolves, which range from a light gold to brown and gray and are about the size of a large dog, were golden jackals (Canis aureus). “The African golden wolf is essentially indistinguishable from the golden jackal in morphology,” says Lars Werdelin, a researcher and palaeontologist specializing in the evolution of mammalian carnivores at the Swedish Museum of Natural History.

Jackals, unlike wolves, have attracted little research attention or funding. As a result, not even population numbers are known for Morocco’s golden wolves. Campbell says she fears their numbers have fallen dramatically and they may become locally extinct before more is learned. “The greatest threat,” she says, “is human conflict.”

Campbell says wolves are absent or rare in many areas where they used to be common in Morocco — threatened by fragmentation and loss of habitat, hybridization with and diseases from feral dogs, and by fearful shepherds. However, because there is no historical population information for golden wolves, it’s hard to say what the trend is.

“She’s starting from a fairly lean baseline in Morocco,” says Claudio Sillero, the chair of the Canid Specialist Group at the IUCN’s Canid Specialist Group and a professor of conservation biology at WildCRU, the organization through which Campbell is carrying out her research.

“It is very difficult to find other people doing similar work in Morocco before her time. So, [if] she comes up with an estimate today and she wants to compare it with something from 20 years ago, simply put, that baseline won’t be there.”

But this lack of information makes Campbell’s work that much more important, Sillero says.

To help fill in this gap in scientific knowledge, Campbell conducted a survey in northern Morocco in December 2020 – playing howls into the wintry dark to see if the dark would howl back. Liz Campbell (R) and research assistant Samantha Siomko play a recording of a grey wolf howl. Image by John Wendle for Mongabay.

Howling in the dark

An hour’s drive over the battered roads winding across the Middle Atlas mountain range, Campbell’s team comes to a halt. Research assistant Samantha Siomko sets up an enormous megaphone on the hood of the car and Campbell walks 20 meters, about 22 yards, down the road with a parabolic microphone.

After a few minutes to let the night-time quiet return, Siomko presses play and the howl of a North American gray wolf blasts out into the forest.

Within seconds, a thin, high-pitched arrr-oo-oo-oo echoes back through the forest: local wolves calling back, warning the digital gray wolf that this territory is theirs.

Campbell freezes, all her attention disappearing down the wire of her headphones and out into the forest. “There’s that connection where you can hear them responding to you and you know that they’re right there,” she says. “Not many people have heard golden wolf howling.”

Pulling a compass and GPS unit out of her winter coat, she enters the coordinates and bearing of the howls and notes the audio file number.

Her team is using the howling survey to determine the size of the wolf population, its density, as well as habitat use. Patrolling every night for two months this past winter, the team carried out 165 trials at 70 locations across Ifrane National Park. They heard 20 responses from an estimated 10 packs and found two other packs through snow tracking, camera traps, and thermal camera surveys. In total, Campbell estimates at least 12 territorial groups and 33 wolves heard or seen across 850 square kilometres (328 square miles). Of these packs, five were heard repeatedly, allowing the team to begin to understand their habitat use and home range.

Though the results are very preliminary, Campbell says she thinks there are 15 or 16 packs in the area. “We found fewer wolves than I was expecting,” she wrote after analysing the data this spring.

Shepherd’s tales

While golden wolves have appeared in and disappeared from the taxonomic classification, they remained an ever-present threat in the minds of Moroccan shepherds.

“Everyone knows there are a lot of wolves here, especially the shepherds. It’s not something new,” says Driss Siyas. Like his friend Hammou, Siyas also recently lost two sheep.

The sun is just rising over the steep ridge behind Siyas’s home. The air is still cold as he wades into his sheep pen, a ramshackle enclosure of stacked rocks, crooked sticks, and wire abutting the side of his house. The packed animals are eager to charge up the mountain for a day of foraging for acorns and grass. His wife opens the gate and Siyas, who has shepherded since he was a boy, drives the flock out in a thunder of tiny hooves.

The air is filled with short, sharp whistles, the bleating of sheep, and the baying of the half dozen dogs Siyas keeps to protect his flock.

For her research, Campbell interviewed more than 200 locals to better understand their attitudes towards wolves.

Shepherds share extraordinary stories about how dangerous wolves are. In one of these, always having befallen a distant uncle, a wolf kills a hundred sheep and then lies down and dies next to the last one. Shepherds also say that wolves kill their sheep to teach them to be better shepherds or to embarrass them.

A pen for sheep behind the house of Umimun Hammou, sheep pen: shepherds in the Middle Atlas mountains take great care to secure their sheep against wolf attacks.

Interestingly, alongside these pastoral legends, Campbell has found that when shepherds actually witnessed an attack, roughly half the time it was by feral dogs living in the forest.

Tellingly, she says wolves are blamed for any livestock attacks that are not witnessed. She also found that only 15 % of shepherds she interviewed had lost livestock to predators in the past year, and far more sheep are lost to disease or cold weather.

“But even if livestock losses from predators are uncommon, most shepherds perceive conflict with wolves to be severe,” she says. This fear means they feel they must maintain shepherd dogs, build secure pens, and spend the whole day anxiously looking after their flock.

They say eliminating the wolves would make their work easier. “Sometimes [losses are] minor, sometimes they’re absent,” Hammou says, “but sometimes they’re severe, because [the wolf] will not attack your sheep for a whole year, but when he does, he will make very, very huge damages.”

This belief is a problem, says Sillero. He says golden wolves are resilient and easily able to adapt to human encroachment, but he does worry about shepherds like Hammou.

“Poison is the great concern I have. Because that shepherd you talked with — with a stick and maybe an old rifle he can occasionally get one of these wolves,” he says. “But if he gets hold of some cheap poison from a general store and laces a carcass, he can kill a whole pack in no time at all. So, I think the ready availability of poison, particularly in Africa, but elsewhere as well, is throwing that balance off.”

Poison was used in predator control efforts in the 1960s, but when it was discovered that this killed other predators and birds of prey, the practice was stopped. Today, it is legal to use poison against wolves in Morocco if they are doing damage on one’s property, but Campbell says her interviews show that most shepherds do not know this. Combined with a belief that wolves are too smart to fall for poisoned carcasses and a fear that sheep dogs will be poisoned accidentally, this means that the practice is not widespread.

“Usually, when we find a wolf that was killed, it is too late to determine how,” Campbell says, “but I know of cases of trapping, beating, shooting, and poisoning of wolves.” Driss Siyas (L), Umimun Hammou (C) and another shepherd talk over breakfast. Image by John Wendle for Mongabay

What’s in a name? Everything.

The loss of golden wolves from these mountains would have dramatic ecological consequences.

“As large carnivores at the top of the food chain, wolves are a keystone species that dramatically shape their environments” says Mike Hoffmann, a biologist with the Zoological Society of London and the Red List Authority coordinator for the IUCN’s Canid Specialist Group. “Their loss or removal can have profound impacts on native vegetation and prey. While species like the gray wolf and African wolf are generally widespread and globally not threatened, many wolf populations do face intense pressures. Efforts such as Campbell’s are vital to helping understand the reasons for conflict and establishing successful strategies for co-habitation.”

Now that these wolves have reappeared as a species in their own right, Campbell says she hopes to be able to use that to help protect the forest.

Campbell has successfully used the popularity of the park’s population of endangered Barbary macaque (Macaca sylvanus) monkeys as an “umbrella species” — helping her get funding to establish patrols to protect this charismatic endemic species helps protect the whole forest. She hopes the wolves will help her raise funds for further protection of the park and its wildlife.

Campbell also says she hopes to continue community outreach to shepherds to help reduce their fear of wolves and help them better understand wolf behaviour. In the future, she says she wants to be able to help shepherds reduce other causes of livestock losses. “This can help increase tolerance for wolves if they do attack and would also benefit the health and welfare of the livestock and help the shepherds and their families,” she says.

“I’m interested in the wolves themselves being a new species, there’s a lot that we can learn about them,” Campbell says, “but also by protecting the last large carnivore that’s left in these forests, it’s important for the entire ecosystem.”

via Howling in the dark: Shining a light on a newly remembered wolf | Mongabay