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Saving the Endangered American Red Wolf

By AZA Staff
min read

AZA SAFE Species Profile: American Red Wolf

In honor of National Wolf Awareness Week taking place on October 13-19 in 2019, we want to introduce you to one of the world’s most beautiful and unique endangered species, the American red wolf. American red wolves (Canis rufus) are resourceful and remarkable creatures that are very similar yet also very different from their close cousin the gray wolf (Canis lupus). 

American Red Wolf Reintroduction Programs

Many people are familiar with gray wolves and the famous Yellowstone gray wolf reintroduction program of 1995 formally known as the Northern Rocky Mountain Wolf Recovery Plan. Fewer may be familiar with the red wolf however, even though a similar reintroduction program took place in North Carolina in the 1980s. The North Carolina reintroduction program was the first groundbreaking reintroduction of an extinct large carnivore in human history. It pre-dated Yellowstone, and what was learned from red wolf reintroduction in 1987 was used to help Yellowstone to become successful almost a decade later.

What is the difference between red wolves and coyotes?

Red wolves share similarities with coyotes regarding size and coloring. However, red wolves are a distinct species different from both coyotes and gray wolves. Red wolves fill a different niche, or role, in the ecosystem than coyotes. Red wolves, while twice the size of an average coyote, are not as big as gray wolves. 


Red Wolves

Gray Wolves    


Scientific Name

Canis rufus

Canis lupus

  Canis latrans

Average Weight

65 pounds

95 pounds

  35 pounds

Average Size

4-5 feet long

4-6 feet long

  3-4 feet long

Average Life Span   

Less than 8 years

6-8 years

  12-14 years

Type of Diet




IUCN Status

Critically Endangered   

Least Concern

  Least Concern  

Where do red wolves live?

Unlike gray wolves, which are found in many areas of the United States, Canada, and other parts of the world, American red wolves, a national treasure, are solely native to the coast of North Carolina, where they face many threats to their survival. 

Why are red wolves endangered?

Red wolves in the wild face a number of threats, including hunting, human encroachment on their habitats which drives them to areas lacking in resources and food, and the loss of prey due to urbanization and overhunting. The number one threat to red wolves is humans. Over 70% of deaths of red wolves are from being poached, hit by a car, poisoned, or other form of human interference.

How many red wolves remain in the wild?

Decades ago, red wolves were considered extinct in the wild. Today, red wolves are critically endangered with less than 30 left in the wild, while roughly 250 remain in the AZA American Red Wolf SSP (Species Survival Plan) breeding program. The American red wolf was one of the first species protected under the Endangered Species Preservation Act in 1967 as well as one of the first species added to the list of endangered species after the passing of the Endangered Species Act in 1973. By that time, many red wolves had already been hunted to near extinction.

How can we protect red wolves from total extinction?

Conservation efforts have long been underway to protect the American red wolf from extinction. Red wolf reintroduction programs intended to promote breeding in the wild and species survival in addition to genetic health have led to an increase in the population of wild red wolves. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, red wolf populations reached near extinction, and the last remaining red wolves were caught and brought into zoos to launch a breeding and reintroduction program and to preserve this important species.

Red Wolf Conservation Programs Today

Today, the red wolf conservation program is helping to protect red wolves and increase populations, but further conservation efforts are needed to ensure species survival. There are currently 41 partner facilities in the SSP, 22 of which are AZA-accredited, with capacity for 230 animals, with the goal to add partners to grow to capacity to 400 animals to meet USFWS recovery goals. Leading the charge are the North Carolina Zoo, Endangered Wolf Center, and Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium.

Endangered red wolves at Endangered Wolf Center

What can you do to help?

There are a number of ways individuals can help protect the American red wolf from extinction. Here are a few ways to get involved.

1. Support AZA Saving Animals From Extinction (SAFE)

Along with AZA, several accredited zoos and aquariums are working to protect several endangered species, including the American red wolf. You can learn more about the AZA American Red Wolf Species Survival Program online to find out what researchers are doing to encourage red wolf survival.  You can also share AZA news and updates on the American red wolf SAFE program and use the hashtag #SavingSpecies to increase awareness of conservation efforts. 

2. Support AZA-accredited Zoos and Aquariums

Supporting accredited zoos and aquariums who invest in research and conservation efforts is one way to help ensure the survival of endangered species. Reintroduction programs and other species survival efforts are often the result of researchers working with accredited zoos and aquariums across the world to study behaviors, determine how many individuals remain in the wild, and finding ways to promote species survival. The Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma Washington is just one organization working to help protect red wolves from extinction. Others include:

  • Akron Zoo, Ohio
  • Alexandria Zoological Park, Louisiana
  • North Carolina Zoo, North Carolina
  • Miller Park Zoo, Illinois
  • Beardsley Zoo, Connecticut
  • Lincoln Park Zoo, Illinois
  • Museum of Life and Science, North Carolina
  • Fort Worth Zoo, Texas
  • Fossil Rim Wildlife Center, Texas
  • Fresno Chaffee Zoo, California
  • Northeastern Wisconsin Zoo, Wisconsin
  • Zoo Knoxville, Tennessee
  • Zoo Tampa at Lowry Park, Florida
  • Roger Williams Park Zoo, Rhode Island
  • Great Plains Zoo, South Dakota
  • Rosamond Gifford Zoo, New York
  • Trevor Zoo, New York
  • Virginia Living Museum, Virginia
  • Endangered Wolf Center, Missouri
  • Western North Carolina Nature Center, North Carolina


3. Speak Up about  Animal Welfare and Conservation

If you’re passionate about animal rights, welfare, and conservation, don’t be afraid to speak up and share what you know. The more people are aware that red wolves face extinction, the more they can take steps themselves to help protect red wolves. AZA’s online Press Room features news and updates you can share on social, via email, and word of mouth to help spread the word about the importance of animal conservation and research.

Special thanks to Regina Mossotti of Endangered Wolf Center and Chris Lasher of North Carolina Zoo. Photos Courtesy of Endangered Wolf Center

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