11 Jun Wild dogs visit Pidwa – May 2019
Author: Sam Short @samconservationphotography
The Askari team were treated to a special sighting on a recent Saturday morning drive, when a trio of African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus) traversed the Pidwa fence line! As a nomadic species with an expansive home range, African wild dogs often utilise multiple reserves, outside of denning season, making viewings both rare and fleeting. With two identified as young males, the group were most likely to be sexually mature individuals leaving their natal pack in search of mates. After a short scout around, the dogs quickly disappeared into a neighbouring reserve, staying true to their roaming nature. Following protocol, the Askari team reported the sighting and shared images with The Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) who coordinate the Wild Dog Advisory Group (WAG-SA); an organisation that works to unite relevant parties in the conservation of the species.
Current Status and Threats
It is especially rewarding to see African wild dogs on Pidwa as the species is facing an unstable future with population estimates of around 5500 individuals, 450 of which inhabit South Africa (EWT, 2019). Pinpointing accurate wild dog population data is particularly challenging due to the ethology of the species, most notably the breeding system within packs. Breeding rights lie only with the alpha male and female, decreasing the number of viable adults due to the unlikelihood of genetic contribution from reproductively suppressed subordinates. Therefore, recent assessment methods have focussed on pack number rather than a census of individual dogs, with 37 packs recorded across the Southern Africa range in 2016 (Davies-Mostert et al., 2017). Conservation bodies coordinate much of the population with recent efforts due to an increase in human encroachment, creating a severely fragmented habitat and subsequently increasing contact with human civilisation. Estimates report that species range has reduced by 90% of its former area, applying intense pressure on packs to sustain themselves in restricted habitats (The Hunt: The Hardest Challenge, 2015). As long ranging carnivores, limited habitat availability causes an ‘edge effect’ which in turn predicts frequent interaction with neighbouring settlements. Often given a mistaken reputation as livestock attackers; retaliation killing and snaring are inclining threats that intensify the comparatively stable pressure of canine disease induced die-offs (Davis-Mostert et al., 2017; Woodroffe and Sillero-Zubiri, 2012).
Unique and fascinating, African wild dogs showcase group living, combining both sexes to create efficient packs of obligate carnivores (Creel and Creel, 2002; Campana et al., 2016). Packs average around 20 (although much larger numbers have been documented), consisting of a dominant breeding pair, subordinate adults and dependent juveniles. Sexually mature dispersal groups, usually of the same sex, will also leave their natal pack practising inbreeding avoidance and competing for mates. The closely bonded nature of these groupings facilitates pup protection through ‘nanny’ dogs, non-breeding adult pregnancy suppression and relinquishing feeding rights in favour of pups; behaviours that are rarely observed in a competitive ecosystem (Creel and Creel, 2002; Walker et al., 2017). Following a hunt, adult dogs regurgitate food to dependent pups and den defenders, which often elicits a submissive response. This plays a fundamental part in pack dynamics and can continue among adults, where subordinates display playful, juvenile behaviour, inhibiting hormone production and ensuring only the alpha pair breeds (Carnaby, 2006). With only one litter to protect, the pack can focus their energy on one unit and increase their likelihood for survival.
The Endangered Wildlife Trust
Due to their complex social structure, fragmented habitat and the difficulty of population assessment the species relies heavily on the intervention of conservation bodies to maintain a sustainable demographic. Locally, WAG-SA manages the species metapopulation and collaborates closely with organisations involved in captive breeding and monitoring of the unmanaged free-ranging population. Their goal is to mimic the natural dispersal and presence of the species in areas that have become inaccessible through human encroachment. This involves the movement of viable individuals between contributing reserves to aid the prevention of a genetic bottleneck; often a repercussion of severe habitat fragmentation. WAG-SA have a dedicated project that tackles the risk of inbreeding that is difficult to avoid when translocating animals, despite attempts to pinpoint accurate genetic lineages. By creating a genetic database, the EWT is able to assess past metapopulation activity and make informed decisions for future management of the species. Some of their completed projects include the Kruger National Park Wild Dog Photographic Census that obtained images from visitors to contribute to a collective identification bank, utilised in the monitoring of breeding and dispersal patterns (EWT, 2019). The three dogs seen on Pidwa were unfamiliar in the Limpopo region and could therefore potentially be a ‘breakaway’ group from a free roaming pack in the Kruger National Park or surrounding reserves.
The EWT also operates the Carnivore Conservation Programme which focusses on the protection, advocation and population maintenance of South Africa’s flagship carnivorous species, including the African wild dog. The Kruger National Park supports the largest and most viable population of the species of approximately 250 dogs in 22 packs and the EWT promotes feasible, sustainable solutions to human-animal conflict (EWT, 2019). As aforementioned, the long ranging, nomadic nature of the African wild dog often leads to frequent boundary interactions and, therefore, projects such as these are vital for the future of a struggling species. The EWT act as governance and the first point of contact for private reserve owners when African wild dogs venture onto their property. This helps to reduce unnecessary persecution and gives individuals the chance of relocation to safer habitat.
The team were very lucky to see African wild dogs on Pidwa, excited and humbled by their presence! As we continue moving forward in our goal of wilderness restoration, we hope the species sees the benefit of humankind and look forward to our next encounter with this endearing canid!
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