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6 Species of Dogs That Are Vanishing Before Our Eyes

August 14, 2013

Story at-a-glance

  • While domesticated dogs are among the most well cared-for animals on the planet, several of their wild canine counterparts aren’t faring so well.
  • Dholes, Ethiopian wolves, the Mexican gray wolf, red wolves, and Darwin’s fox are five canines considered endangered. Conservation programs are in place for these animals, but they cannot guarantee the propagation of the species in the face of continuing threats to their existence.
  • The Island fox, while still endangered, has benefitted from conservation efforts that include captive breeding programs and relocation of natural predators.

By Dr. Becker

Pet dogs are among the most beloved, well cared-for animals in the world, but sadly, there are other canines that don’t receive the same concern. In fact, human persecution has managed to push six wild canid species to the brink of extinction.

Dholes (Asian Wild Dogs)

Dholes, also called Asian wild dogs, Cuon alpinus, are approaching extinction so rapidly scientists haven’t even been able to figure out how to protect them. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists dholes as endangered. They are hunted by humans because they prey on livestock (though not to the extent they are accused of). Poachers are depleting their primary food source, deer, and their natural habitats are being converted to pasture or agricultural land.

Populations of dholes continue to decline, with an estimated 2,500 adults spread across a dozen countries.

Ethiopian Wolf

The rare Ethiopian wolf, Canis simensis, numbers about 450 to 500 individuals. And while that may seem like a respectable population, especially in light of conservation efforts, the problem is the wolves live in a half dozen disjointed groups, some of which have less than 25 individuals. The packs are located a significant distance from one another, and this species of wolf isn’t known to migrate from one pack to another. According to a study published last year in the journal Animal Conservation1, this makes inbreeding a problem.

Other challenges faced by Ethiopian wolves include pursuit by livestock owners, reduced prey levels, diseases acquired from domesticated dogs, and a rapidly expanding human population. Fortunately, the largest groups of wolves now live in protected areas, and more areas are under development. However, one group has died out in recent years, and experts believe we’ll lose another one or two.

Mexican Gray Wolf

The Mexican gray wolf, Canis lupus baileyi, poses a threat to livestock. As a result, these wolves were for a time hunted nearly to extinction. All of the wolves in existence today are descendants of just five individuals captured 40 years ago in an effort to keep the subspecies from disappearing altogether.

About 300 Mexican gray wolves reside in captive-breeding facilities in the U.S. and Mexico. About 60 additional individuals have been released into the wild as “nonessential experimental population.” This designation means they are partially protected. All the remaining wolves originated from a very constricted gene pool, which means breeding of individuals in captivity and in the wild must be done with the goal of maintaining what little genetic diversity still exists. Sadly, hunters or automobiles have killed many released wolves.

Red Wolf

The red wolf, Canis rufus, is the rarest wolf species. Another predator of livestock, they were almost wiped out in the mid-1900s not only by hunters, but also by the presence of coyotes that were hybridized with the wolves. Forty years ago in 1973 when the last red wolves were captured, only 14 pure individuals remained.

Today, the population of captive red wolves is about 200, with another 120 living in the wild in North Carolina. Those 120 are also classified as experimental nonessential population. Illegal hunting is taking a significant toll on the wild population, despite the fact that hunting red wolves carries a heavy penalty under the Endangered Species Act.

Darwin’s Fox

Darwin’s fox, Lycalopex fulvipes, is considered a critically endangered species. This little fellow is native to Chile. Of the 320 remaining individuals, 250 live on Chiloé Island, and 70 live on the mainland at Nahuelbuta National Park. The second group is at more risk than the first because the foxes have become accustomed to tourists visiting the park, which makes them vulnerable to automobiles and pet dogs brought into the park.

Fortunately, experts believe the population of Darwin’s foxes is stable, which is not typical of other critically endangered species.

Island Fox

The tiny island fox, Urocyon littoralis, is actually six separate subspecies. Each of the six inhabits its own island off the coast of California.

The foxes on Catalina Island have seen their population decline as a result of distemper and a flying predator, the golden eagle.

In the 1990s, golden eagles also nearly wiped out the foxes on three other islands. By 2000, the San Miguel Island fox and the Santa Rose Island fox each had populations of only 15 individuals. The Santa Cruz Island fox numbered 80 individuals, and the Santa Catalina Island fox just over 100.

Fortunately, the National Park Service and the Catalina Island Conservancy captured all the remaining foxes and set up captive breeding programs. At the same time, the NPS relocated the golden eagles. Then the Nature Conservancy stepped in and removed other threats, including feral pigs and goats. The foxes were also vaccinated and received regular exams to keep them free of diseases carried by pet dogs.

By 2011, four of the six subspecies had populations in the hundreds, and the other two were well over a thousand.

For more information on conservation efforts for endangered canines …

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Sources and References

  • 1 Genetic structure and patterns of gene flow among populations of the endangered Ethiopian wolf. Animal Conservation, 16: 234-247
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