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 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. Golden wolf range. Map courtesy IUCN. Hidden in plain sight Golden wolves were formally recognized by science for almost a century (starting in the early 1800s) as Canis lupus lupaster, a subspecies of the gray wolf. But they disappeared from the taxonomic record when influential US zoologist Grover Allen “synonymized” them with Eurasian jackals in his “Checklist of African Mammals”, published in 1939. It was not until 2011 that researchers conducting a mitochondrial study of golden jackals in North-East Africa found these wolves hidden in plain sight. A subsequent study published in 2015 confirmed golden wolves as a separate species. Palaeontologist Lars Werdelin, in a 2017 paper setting out a clear description of the rediscovered species, stressed that research to determine the range and population of golden wolves across Africa is still needed. Scientists have now settled on Canis anthus as the species name. “To discuss the conservation of something, you have to be able to identify what it is and the only real means we have of doing that is the [scientific] name,” Werdelin says. 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.