Wild dog conservation is no laughing matter

Apr 4, 2014 Conservation
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The African wild dog Lycaon pictus is one of the most admired, detested and mesmerising animals on the African continent. Living and hunting in packs, these highly intelligent carnivores display a high degree of parental care and are fascinating to see in the wild. The wild dog, also known as painted hunting dogs owing their unique coat patterns, also unfortunately face a precarious future.

Wild dog at Ruckomechi Camp, Zimbabwe

During the last few decades they have suffered a substantial decline– both in numbers and in the areas that they historically occurred. Their distribution has been impacted to such a degree that they now occur only in small, often isolated, remnants of their historic range. Wild dogs used to be distributed throughout Africa but for the desert and rainforest regions. Today these incredible animals are reduced to an estimated 6 500 individuals. This massive drop can be attributed to habitat loss and fragmentation, human persecution and conflict, disease (particularly susceptible to rabies), getting caught up in wire snares, loss of suitable prey and competition with other carnivores like lion and spotted hyaena. Breeding programmes of wild dogs in captivity have proven that they reproduce easily, so the biggest problems they face are lack of suitable habitat and human conflict. Wild dog packs further occupy vast home ranges and they can move over large distances, often in a very short space of time. This further complicates their survival.

Wild dog at Chitabe © Grant Atkinson

Most of the remaining dogs are concentrated in southern Africa, notably northern Botswana, western Zimbabwe, eastern Namibia, and western Zambia. Other small subpopulations can be found in Tanzania and northern Mozambique. There are also anecdotal reports of dogs from Mali, Guinea, Gambia, Nigeria, Algeria and even Mauritania.

Wild dog packs are highly efficient hunting units. They do not employ the subtleties of their stalking feline counterparts. Instead they simply sight a herd of potential prey and then tear off after them, sometimes reaching speeds of 60 km/h. Their tactic is to isolate and wear down a prey item. Wild dogs simply do not give up! The alpha male normally leads the hunt and packs have been known to chase prey for more than five kilometres at a time. They’re not particularly fussy eaters and will consume anything from scrub hares to wildebeest. That said, they like their meals fresh and tend not to eat carrion or rancid meat – unlike jackals, hyaenas and the big cats. While their hunting style may be described as brutal or ruthless, wild dogs show a high degree of parental care and have a caring social structure. The young are well looked after and pack members will also bring back spoils of the hunt (in the form of regurgitated meat) while the pups are still at a den site. This is very unlike lions for instance, whose cubs often starve due to a lack of food.

In the concession areas Wilderness Safaris operates in, the best places to see this charismatic species is probably northern Botswana (Chitabe, Linyanti and Kwedi Concessions in particular) and Zimbabwe (Mana Pools – Ruckomechi).

Wild dog at Chitabe © Grant Atkinson

The Wilderness Wildlife Trust (which funds various research and conservation projects) has also been involved in research projects over the years specifically relating to the conservation status of southern Africa’s wild dog population. A recently concluded study was the Okavango-Kalahari Wild Dog Research Project which looked at wild dog scent-marking behaviour to better understand their habitat utilisation.

Through research projects like these it is hoped that wild dogs can be adequately conserved and their unique requirements better understood. The wild dog is currently Africa’s second most endangered carnivore*. Let’s hope our combined efforts will be enough to stop them from being uplisted to Critically Endangered…

*The dubious distinction of ‘most endangered carnivore’ on the continent goes to the Ethiopian wolf – a reddish jackal-like canid that lives in the Afro-alpine regions of Ethiopia.

By Martin Benadie

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By Martin Benadie

Martin is our birding expert and shares his wealth of avian knowledge with us, as well as tips on photography, safari optics and environmental news.

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Grant Atkinson  Apr 4, 2014

Good write-up on the wild dogs here Martin, well done with getting them some extra exposure and lots of interesting information in there too! Cheers Grant

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