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Here one minute, gone the next – that is how African wild dogs could be described. As many a researcher knows, trying to pin them down is like trying to grasp mercury. Even estimating their numbers is an ongoing challenge, as David Bristow reports.
The survival of the African wild dog, whose numbers have been calculated at between 3 000 and 5000, has long been under threat. The species has been the subject of intensive research and in recent years great progress has been made in attempts to secure a meta-population of wild dogs in South African reserves by managing individual widely dispersed packs as one artificially interacting group. But is the situation actually worse than anyone realised?
In conservation terms, wild dogs are a bit like elephants: it’s impossible to keep them fenced in, and they can cause considerable damage on farms near conservation areas. They are like mercury, and pinning them down in any sense – like establishing accurate population counts – borders on the impossible. The fate of wild dogs in South Africa is … well, no one really knows, except that it’s not good – and could be even worse than feared.
When Roger and Pat de la Harpe began to research their book In Search of the African Wild Dog, they found what they thought was a healthy population in Kruger National Park, a smaller but potentially vibrant one in KwaZulu-Natal’s Hluhluwe-lmfolozi Park, and an even smaller but none thel ess encouraging one in Madikwe Private Game Reserve in North West Province. Another population has been introduced into the Northern Tuli Game Reserve in eastern Botswana and has the potential to spread into the emerging Greater Mapungubwe Transfrontier Conservation Area. There are also a few more marginal packs in areas like the Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve in Limpopo Province.
A kind of seed bank for populations such as these is De Wildt in the Magaliesberg, where endangered species such as cheetah and wild dog are bred in captivity and, if it is feasible, re-established in the wild. Much has been learned since dogs bred at the centre were introduced into Madikwe in the 1990s, not least that packs with the best chance of survival comprise both wild and captive-bred dogs that have been given time to form a cohesive social system prior to release.
The problems really start once the dogs are back in the wild. One is that neighbouring domestic dog populations may infect them with rabies and canine distemper. Fortunately, annual inoculations have proved successful in combating these diseases. A greater challenge is dealing with predator competition. For months, the De la Harpes seemed to be following a trail of tragedy from one reserve to another: wild dog packs were being decimated by lions.
With a wild dog population that field biologists estimated at 400 or so, the Kruger National Park was regarded as a suitable gene pool for the local meta-population. But then things took an unfortunate turn: veterinarians working in Kruger revised the population count to no more than 150, a number that represents precariously low odds for their survival. What had happened? Had the park’s once-healthy wild dog population been cut down by other predators, or were the dogs being persecuted outside the greater Kruger area? Perhaps the original numbers had been overestimated? No one knows the answer yet, but the situation is cause for grave concern. When I asked Roger, a former Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife staffer, what he thought the dogs’ long-term chances were, he pulled a face and shrugged his shoulders. There is a glimmer of hope, though: in Hluhluwe-lmfolozi the wild dogs seem to be faring much better than elsewhere.
The problems really start once the dogs are back in the wild.
And perhaps a lesson can be learned from the fate of the Mauritius kestrel. In 1979, when the entire population comprised no more than four birds, including only one female, it was decided that the species was a goner and research funding was stopped. But no one took into account the tenacity of Welsh ornithologist Carl Jones, who managed to find two fertile eggs and captive-reared the progeny. Today there are an estimated 800 of the endemic kestrels on Mauritius – and Jones proved without a shadow of doubt that, until the last breath has been exhaled, there is still hope for every species on earth.
One of the most fascinating developments in wild dog management has been the implementation of so-called ‘bio-boundaries’, which aim to keep resident dogs just that: resident in the area where you want them to be.
Pioneered by wild dog researcher Tico McNutt in Botswana, a bio-boundary is created by placing dog scat collected from elsewhere around the perimeter of the area where a pack is to be confined, thus forming an artificial territory. It has been found that a staggered border is more effective than a single straight line – and that means that a lot of foreign dog scat has to be brought in. This has proved to be one of the most successful initiatives in the management of wild dog populations in restricted areas.
Read about Roger and Pat de la Harpe’s quest to find populations of wild dogs in South Africa in In Search of the African Wild Dog.
Africa Geographic, in conjunction with Sunbird Publishers, is giving away three copies: to enter the lucky draw, send your name, address and contact details to leni@africa geographic.com by no later than 14 May 2010. The winners will be announced in the July 2010 issue.
In Search of the African Wild Dog can also be obtained from the Africa Geographic webshop at www.africageographic.com
This superbly illustrated book, sponsored by Sasol, a major contributor to funding for wild dog conservation in South Africa, is also available in a half-leatherbound Collector’s Edition with slipcase. For more details, contact Sunbird Publishers at Tel. +27 (0)21 406 2806.
Text by David Bristow. Photos by Roger de la Harpe. This article was taken from the April 2010 edition of Africa Geographic.
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