While there is a lot of publicity in the press, other media and public or private communications about the plight of a certain few animals, very little is ever mentioned about Lycaon pictus or the African Wild Dog.
Wild dogs are a highly social carnivore with packs averaging 13 adults with a trend towards male bias in sex ratio. The pack is normally led by a dominant breeding pair, sub-ordinate non-breeding adults and subordinate offspring of the alpha pair. The wild dog coat patterns are individually unique and highly variable combining black, white and varying shades of brown.
Wild dogs were once distributed throughout much of the sub-Saharan Africa but reviews in 1997 suggest they have been extirpated from 25 of their former 39 range states. Viable populations exist in countries in southern and eastern Africa with the largest occurring in northern Botswana, western Zimbabwe, eastern Namibia and north-eastern South Africa.
Currently the only population considered viable in South Africa is in Kruger National Park. The remaining populations in South Africa, which primarily occur within fenced reserves, are spatially isolated from each other as a result of land use changes and the consequent habitat fragmentation in their former range. These populations are collectively managed as a metapopulation within which intermittent emigration or immigration is simulated through actively translocating individuals, single-sex groups or packs, to conserve genetic diversity (Lindsey & Mills 2004).
Current reserves in the metapopulation network are Madikwe, Pilanesberg and Khamab in the North West province, Tswalu in the Northern Cape Province, and Hluhluwe-iMfolozi, Mkhuze, Thanda, Hlambanyathi and Tembe in KwaZulu-Natal province. Populations of wild dogs do also occur outside of formally protected areas in South Africa although these appear to be limited to the Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces.
The wild dog population is estimated at less than 450 in South Africa and is declining due the pressures brought on by its declining habitat.
The Kruger National Park and the Waterberg Region in Limpopo are the only areas within South Africa where there are unmanaged wild dog populations. The Waterberg Region has the largest remaining free roaming pack. With this comes major consequences when the dogs move onto various privately own farms they traverse.
The wild dog is classified as Endangered by the IUCN and is governed by the Management Diversity Act and Threatened or Protected Species (TOPS) Regulations who also classify them as endangered.
They are opportunistic carnivores using a cooperative hunting strategy to chase down prey. The fact that they don’t stay in a particular area very long, due to their huge ranges, means that they would only kill one or two animals to feed on before moving off. The notion that the dogs would come into an area and decimate the animals there is simply not true; in fact, the dogs move away naturally. That said, when they den, they are in an area for a longer period, causing bigger damage to whatever food source is in that area, and in turn endure the wrath of that land owner.
The conservation challenge with wild dogs lies with its declining populations across the continent as a result of increasingly fragmented habitat, expanding human population and the persecution of it both within and outside of protected areas.
Increased habitat fragmentation can increase a population’s susceptibility to stochastic, catastrophic events and can lead to an increasing number of encounters with domestic dogs infected with diseases such as rabies, or may result in a reduction of genetic diversity through inbreeding (Fuller et al. 1992b; Kat et al. 1995; Woodroffe et al. 1997).
Wild dogs occur at lower densities than competing carnivores such as lions and spotted hyaenas, and are susceptible to edge effects such as vehicle collisions, snaring and diseases because of their wide ranging behavior (Lindsey et al. 2004b; Woodroffe & Ginsberg 1999a). The highest priority for wild dog conservation is considered to be the maintenance of contiguous, suitable landscapes and the mitigation of lethal edge effects (Fuller et al. 1992b; Kat et al. 1995; Woodroffe et al. 1997; Mills et al. 1998; Woodroffe & Ginsberg 1999a; Rasmussen 1999; Creel & Creel 2002; Davies & Du Toit 2004; Woodroffe et al. 2004).
There is an ongoing effort to gain more information on the wild dogs in the Waterberg and also to seek ways in which to help stem the decline in our population. A few ideas about how to help with information gathering and protection of the dogs are being discussed.
Deon Cilliers of EWT (Endangered Wildlife Trust) is the main emergency contact for local land owners if dogs are sighted. Both Marakele National Park and Lapalala Wilderness have committed to accepting dogs that are captured for relocation.
Population size and distribution outside of protected areas are difficult to estimate accurately because the dogs have huge home ranges (up to 1110 km2 in Kruger). The EWT has launched a photographic project in the Waterberg to collect the data necessary for improved estimates. They will compile a database of photos entered in the competition. See: www.ewt.org.za/photocontest.aspx.
Without a concerted effort from all of us we could see the end of another one of our beautiful, and less talked about, mammals.
More information is available from the following sources:
Wild Dog Advisory Group South Africa, www.wagsa.org.za
Endangered Wildlife Trust, www.ewt.org.za