African wild dogs, also called painted wolves or painted dogs, are the second most endangered carnivore in all of Africa (behind the Ethiopian wolf). Today, there are somewhere around 6,000 wild dogs left in fewer than 25 countries. One of the causes of the rapid decline in population numbers is disease, but another reason is the increasing number of conflicts between humans and wild dogs.
Wild dogs live in packs that range across huge territories, traversing up to 50km in a single day. As subadults mature and leave the pack to find mates, they disperse across even greater distances. With less and less wild spaces available for them to go, wild dogs are increasingly coming into conflict with humans. Wild dogs are very efficient hunters and have one of the highest hunt success rates, around 80% of all wild dog hunts are successful. Because packs share meals with each other, they must hunt often. When they move into areas shared with humans, natural prey sources are less abundant, and livestock may turn up on the wild dogs’ menu if they are desperate. Farmers often will shoot any dogs they see, sometimes even tracking down dens and leave poison out for the pack. As wild dogs travel great distances, they run into poachers’ snares that were set for other game.
With so many odds against them, it is now up to us to help ensure there are wild dogs in the future.
An international meeting was held in Pretoria in 1997 where the decision to adopt the a metapopulation strategy for wild dogs in South Africa. A metapopulation is a group of geographically isolated populations of the same species, in which an exchange of individuals occurs via dispersal, migration or human controlled management. In South Africa, there are only pockets of safe wild zones left that can support wild dogs. There are a few free roaming packs in the country, but the majority of the wild dog population reside in fenced reserves. While this is imperative for the safety of the wild dogs, it does impede on the ability for dogs to naturally disperse and migrate between packs. So, humans have to get involved artificially create the migration process to ensure new genetics are mixed throughout the country.
Madikwe’s resident wild dog population consisted of 14 of dogs. Late 2018, five young females started to venture away from the pack more and more – they were in full dispersal mode. Young wild dogs, usually of the same sex, will leave their natal pack in search of new mates to avoid inbreeding with related pack members. This behavior is called dispersal. Madikwe realised if they did not do something soon the girls were going to push their luck and attempt to break out of the reserve since there were no non-related male wild dogs with in the reserve. Out of the safety of the reserve boundaries, the dogs would face peril at every turn in the human adapted landscape outside of Madikwe.
What is the solution for stopping the girls from escaping and keeping them inside Madikwe?
Males. (Hey, it is Valentine’s Day after all, let’s think of this as a love story.)
A group of four males from KwaZulu-Natal were also searching for a new home. The Endangered Wildlife Trust coordinated the arrangements to bring the males to Madikwe. Unfortunately, you cannot just bring two wild dogs to the local wild dog park and have them play some fetch and become friends just like that. It is slightly more complicated. Ecologist have found that the best way to smoothly integrate new wild dogs together is to anesthetise all of the dogs and then to rub them together. Yes, that is correct. You literally pick up each dog and physically rub that dog over all of the other dogs. This transfers each of the dog’s individual scents on to the other dogs, making them all smell the same or as if they were in one pack rubbing against each other during meals and socialisation. Once all of the dogs have been properly rubbed up, you lay the dogs touching each other and wake everyone up at the same time. It is best to leave them a nice fresh meal to distract them from the new dogs. By the time everyone wakes up and has eaten, they have reinforced the scent rubbing and the hopes is that they will accept each other.
Well that is the hope anyway. And things looked really great for the first week. All nine dogs were eating meals together regularly and appeared to be getting on. After about a week however, the new males singled out one of the females that had taken slightly longer than everyone else to wake up and fully recover from the anesthesia. They started violently picking on her, biting her and pushing her away from meals. Even her previous packmates turned against her. After sustaining wounds, Dr Scheepers was brought out to treat the female. Upon closer inspection, while the female was tranquilised, we realised how bad the extent of the damage was, and the decision was made to send her to the animal hospital at the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa in Pretoria. She is still on the long road to recovery but is getting stronger every day.
Meanwhile, back at the boma, the now eight wild dogs began bonding and a hierarchy started to form. After weeks of observation it became clear that the dogs have chosen an alpha pair. The pack was ready to go back into the wild once more.
13 February 2019 turned out to be the perfect day. The overcast weather brought cooler temperatures, ideal for some wild dog exploring. A carcass was brought into the boma as usual for the dogs to feed upon, but this time we tied rope to the carcass. As the dogs began to feed on it, the carcass was slowly dragged out of the gate. Just like fishing. But on land. And without a hook. And with dogs instead of fish. Okay, so maybe it wasn’t just like fishing, but you get the idea. The dogs followed suit of their meal and left the boma behind.
The Madikwe girls were back home in the wild, and now they have boyfriends. We are very excited for this new pack and look forward to what the future will bring for them.