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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Highlights

Well hello there.

I have been very neglecting of you lately, and for that I apologise. I have been very busy, and just honestly living life and enjoying every moment of it. Also, when I do have time for blogs, I have been writing some blogs for Panthera’s Field Notes blog (which I always re-post on here for you too).

How is it nearing the end of August? It might as well be 2019 already for how fast this year has blown by! So where all have I been this year? Let’s see (and feel free to Google, because I am just going to drop reserve names here)….. Pilanesberg, Lajuma, Lapalala, Mapeu, Mapungubwe, America (Maryland, Pittsburgh, Virginia Beach, and New York City) to finally sort my visa, Lapalala again, Cape Town, Madikwe and still left for the year Makalali, Timbavati ANNNNNNDDDD MAURITUIS! Basically, I have been doing a little bit of travelling.

I have been trying to keep my Instagram (@jotaylorafrica) and Instagram story pretty updated, so hopefully you have been following along with the photos and the videos on there. If you are not an IG person, no worries, I still post often-ish on Twitter (@tigerbushcat) and my new Facebook page (facebook.com/jotaylorafrica). Because of those platforms, I am not going to make this a hugely picture heavy post, and also because I have horrible connection at my recent site.

Let’s do an overview of the past six months. Highlight reel?

– First survey of the year ended (I actually blogged about this – go me!)

– During that first survey, I met the most incredible man!  His name is Byron and he is a field guide. Our schedules have us both kind of all over the place, but we manage to make it work out to visit each other as much as possible, and a cool perk is we both get to see and experience incredible reserves together! We are heading off in two weeks with his family for a week-long holiday in Mauritius!! I have not been on a proper holiday (especially not to the beach) in probably five or six years and am beyond excited for it! Plus, just spending time with Byron and his family is always wonderful, they are all so amazingly sweet, and have adopted me into their family! I cannot wait to unwind a bit, shut off from work for a week and just take in the island life.

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– I spent nearly two months in the states (it was only supposed to be two weeks) to finally sort my visa out and I am excited to announce that I now have my five-year Critical Skills visa!!! It has been a painful year-long process, but it has finally come through. Now the next step? Permanent residency! (Here we go again). Since I now have my long term visa, my trips back to the states will be way more infrequent (sorry, guys). So it was really nice to be able to spend some time there and see so many of you! Diesel has my heart, always, and spending anytime with him is simply the best. My baby nephew, Atlas, is getting cuter by the day and it was cool to be able to spend quality time and take in the baby phase which passes so quickly. I made a trip up to Pittsburgh to spend not enough time with Becca and Andy, stop by the zoo to see all my furbabies and grand-furbabies and just hangout with my Pittsburgh crew (Pgh will always be my home in the states). I got to enjoy family time and the small town charm of Poolesville and then the chaos and big city lights of New York city when I went to go visit Panthera’s head office. It was a packed full, but great trip. My next American trip probably won’t be for another two years or so.

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– I have been running all over Limpopo and North West provinces setting up camera trap surveys. Although it is a ton of driving, I cannot express how lucky I am to be able to see some of these incredible places and to meet the amazing ecology teams at these reserves! I love that I have friends all over here.

– I spent a week down in Cape Town meeting with my Panthera and UCT teams and have gotten things more sorted and figured out for my Masters (yay)! I have made the decision to officially relocate to Johannesburg, because let’s face it, it just makes sense. I am on this side wayyyy more than I am in the Cape, and I plan to keep it this way. I will pop back over a bit more next year during write up on my dissertation, but home is this side. Ryno has even flown across the country and now resides in Joburg!! He stays with Lisa and Gareth, whom I cannot thank enough for taking in me and my baby boy. I do not know what I would do without those two. I have good people. It is still in the works, but I am hoping to be able to bring Ryno to my latest site for some time too.

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– Hmmm… what else? From now until December, I will continue running around setting up and running the camera trap surveys. Oh oh! I have registered for FGASA (Field Guides Association of Southern Africa) for my level one certification. This is more or less just so I can learn even more about the bush and ecosystems in which I am surrounded and also to have a certification which will hopefully help reserves feel a bit more comfortable with having some foreign female driving around. I am loving the material so far and have signed up for a tracks and signs course (spoor and animal signs) in October! I will be sure to let you know how that goes. December, after all the surveys are finished for the year, Byron and I are planning on a road trip down through KZN and possibly all the way to Cape Town and back camping and exploring along the way! And then boom, just like that it’ll be 2019 and I will be gearing up to start all these surveys all over again.

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Even without a million photos, this has become a novel – are you still there? Sorry about that. I just wanted to give you a bit of an update on everything that is and has happened! I will truly truly try to get better at keeping up-to-date on here with more blogs. (I know I always say this).

So, until next time – chow!

Cheetah Game of Thrones

(As featured on Panthera’s Field Notes blog, http://www.panthera.org)

During the first 18 months of their lives, cheetah cubs learn the essential skills for hunting and how to be a cheetah from their mums. They rely on their mothers for food and protection against other predators during these vital and precarious months. Then, they reach maturity, gain independence, and separate from their mothers.

But siblings often stay together into adolescence. Around the age of one and a half to two years old, sibling groups will break apart. Bothers usually stay together to form coalitions and female siblings further separate to live out solitary lives.

The “cheetah girls” of Pilanesberg National Park in South Africa are just over two years of age and are still enjoying the perks of collaborative hunting and social grooming. The sisters divided from their brother around three months ago and, at their current age, are expected to part from each other any day.

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The trio continue on their way after an unsuccessful attempt at hunting a zebra in February when the brother was still roaming with his sisters.

I have been privileged to have had some incredible encounters with these siblings over the past six months.

These particular siblings are very important, as they have unique genetics to the cheetah metapopulation in South Africa. Their mother was relocated to the park for her own safety in April of 2014 after being captured on farmlands in the North West Province outside of protected areas and given the name “Rain.” And their fathers (plural because Rain was potentially bred by both bothers of a coalition making it difficult to determine who is who’s technical biological father), colonised the park on their own.

Cheetahs on 53 protected reserves and national parks throughout South Africa are monitored and exchanged between parks as part of the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Cheetah Metapopulation Project (cheetahpopulation.org.za) to aid in the dispersal of cheetah genetics. Protected areas in South Africa are generally fenced, inhibiting the movement and spread of genetics in species such as cheetahs. The project’s coordinated relocation strategy aims to ensure demographic and genetic viability of cheetahs within these closed reserves.

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The Pilanesberg sisters’ genetics are valuable to the project, but their family history sounds as if it should be straight out of Game of Thrones. Their three older brothers from a preceding litter formed a coalition after they gained independence from their mother. These three now-mature males were a force to be reckoned with. In order to have the highest reproductive success and best access to prey, eliminating competition in the area is a common occurrence in the cat world. Seven percent of cheetah mortalities in the metapopulation are attributed to cheetah on cheetah fighting as larger coalitions will kill smaller coalitions or single males in the area.

When the older father coalition had a run-in with the three younger male coalition and was never seen again, it was presumed that the three males killed their fathers in order to secure territory and breeding rights to the females. Unfortunately, the only females they had access to were all related to the succeeding boys. Management of these populations is not always as clear-cut as ecologists would like it to be.

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The sisters on an impala kill

The male trio was relocated as part of the metapopulation project to bring fresh genetics to other reserves in South Africa and prevent inbreeding at Pilanesberg. After the sisters and their lone brother split up, the brother was not seen again. His fate is uncertain: he could have met his demise at the paws of his older brothers before they left the park, he could have had a scuffle with one of the park’s many lions, or he could even be silently living a secluded life hiding away in wilderness areas where the public cannot access.

His sisters, however, have no issue with being highly visible around vehicles and do not seem to be hindered at all by the presence of humans in the park, often making kills right near roads.

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Over the past few weeks, I have personally seen these beautiful ladies feasting on impala kills on back-to-back days – and enjoyed a serene moment with them as they used a large rock as the perfect lookout point for scanning their domain.

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One early morning, we were enjoying the presence of a large breeding herd of elephants as they stopped for some breakfast. The sounds of an elephant herd enjoying a meal are unlike anything else.

Elephants can move so quietly through the bush that, despite their size, you would have no clue you were in their presence. When they are feasting, however, it is a very different story. Leaves crunch audibly as twigs break in their massive jaws. The occasional creak accompanied by a loud crack as a branch, or even a whole tree, is ripped up permeates through the morning chorus of birds waking up to a new day. This herd was happily munching away and in no apparent hurry, so we left them to head off in search of leopards.

Moments past the herd, just off the road, was a spotted cat heading our way. However, this cat did not have the rosette spotted pattern of a leopard. Instead, she was dotted with small, solid spots over her lean build—it was one of the cheetah sisters.
The morning light provided the perfect colours for this shot.

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She appeared to be on a mission as she made her way across the road in front of us. Not far behind her came her sister following the same pathway. The pair, unfazed by our vehicle, continued on their way into a drainage line. We could hear the alarm calls of nearby impalas announcing the predators as they disappeared into the bush.

Someday very soon, these sisters will go their own ways. Hopefully, each will raise their own litters of cubs and add their contributions to the threatened cheetah population.