As a conservation biologist it is inherent that the problems related to the protection of an endangered species such as the African Wild Dog are rather complex. Wild Dogs are facing a number of conservation challenges and one needs to follow a series of scientific procedures in order to obtain statistically viable data to better understand the requirements of the species.
Setting out with a number of key objectives and implementing them in a methodical way. Data obtained is then used to answer a set of questions by analyzing the results, making deductions and then implementing them in an adaptive management approach. Research on African Wild Dog inKrugerNational Parkhas been ongoing for a number of years with the first population census using photographs and sightings data conducted in 1989.
A census has been conducted every 4-5 years since then in 1995, 2000 and 2009. Population trends reveal a consistent decline in the number of Wild Dog from approximately 435 in 1995 to 132 in 2009. The current picture appears to be a bleak one. With all the complexities surrounding the conservation of the endangered African Wild Dog it is sometimes necessary to take a step back and enjoy the simple things, like discovering the triumph of an individual Wild Dogs.
A few main Objectives of the current research are to determine differences in range use and habitat selection, obtain longitudinal data on population dynamics by investigating pack structures and conducting focal monitoring of collared individuals. A primary activity in order to do this was to set up a Wild dog hotline where tourists report sighting information, giving details of the time, date, location and the number of Wild Dog seen. The packs reported are then located and photographed. Identification shots of both left and right hand sides are taken and the sex and age class is recorded. While comparing the photographs to previous photographic records I found that one of the adult males had been photographed as a pup during a 2007 genetics study.
The individual was also recorded during the 2009 photographic census. The average lifespan of an African Wild Dog is 10 years although I personally would consider this to be one of the lucky ones. Annual adult mortality varies between populations with the average being between 20-40%. In addition to this pup mortality in the first year of life is often as high as 50%. One of the main causes of mortality in nature is though interspecific competition with other large predators such as lion and hyena. With all the challenges facing Wild Dog in their natural environment, who knew exactly how long the young pup would survive, however the chances of an individual surviving from a pup through to adulthood appears to be fairly rare.
The first pack identified during 2011 was the Skukuza pack, which contained 18 individuals at the time (4 adults and 14 pups).By responding to regular sightings sent through to the Wild Dog hotline I was fortunate enough to see some interesting behavioral interactions of the Skukuza Pack many of them being of the male with the lightning bolt marking on his left flank. Some of the interactions included all the adults returning from a hunt and feeding the pups and the pack having a close call with hyena but watching my new favourite male outpacing the enemy. These sightings of this male developed into a keen interest of his history and I decided to study our records of the individual I named “Lightning”.
In 2007 as a young pup Lighting was part of a pack that contained 7 individuals in total, (3 adults and 4 juveniles). Lightning was only next observed in the 2008 where he managed to survive through the first year of life, just over a year old he was fully mobile and keeping up with the adults in the pack. During the 2009 photographic census a considerable amount of change within and between packs had taken place since 2007 and new members had been added to the population.
There had also been a number of individuals falling victim to the survival rate statistic as there was no longer record of them, but Lightning was still alive and well. He was sighted 49 times from October 2008-May 2009. Lighting was sighted at a number of locations during the census in the southern section ranging as far west as Kruger gate to just outside the entrance of Crocodile bridge camp. Since late 2009 Lighting appears to be the dominant male of a pack that spends most of their time around Skukuza often seen travelling between Skukuza and Kruger gate on the H11, heading south on the S114 towards Renoster Pan and heading west on the S65. I hope Lightning continues to avoid all the challenges facing him, perhaps given his lightning bolt markings and triumph over all challenges I should call him “Zeus”.
The Kruger National Park Wild Dog Project is a partnership with SANParks, Jaguar Land Rover South Africa, Vaughan de la Harpe and Richard Bosman, supported by Global Supplies and Sabi Sand Wild Tuin. Follow the project on Twitter @KNPWildDogs, or Face Book: Grant Beverley.