LAND ROVER BOUNDLESS SOUTHERN AFRICA EXPEDITION

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It’s expedition time again as Lesley Sutton receives another Dispatch from Kingsley Holgate’s Boundless Southern Africa Expedition. This week it’s a story about Wild Dogs at Mashatu in the Northern Tuli Game Reserve, best told in the Greybeard’s words:

Now I must say we haven’t had much luck lately when it comes to good sightings of Africa’s Painted Dog, so I am more than happy just to see impala, warthog and plentiful signs of elephant. Wild Dog researcher Craig Jackson puts up his receiver. Beep, beep, beep… “They’re just close by,” he whispers, and then within minutes we experience one of the best wild dog sightings we have ever seen.

First is the alpha male and then the entire pack – it’s unbelievable, they are right around us and totally at ease, the youngsters lying on their backs and playing like domestic pets. The cameras click, the expedition team are ecstatic. We feel so privileged – Africa is such a special place.

At sunset, whilst sitting up on Mmagwa Hill on the Botswana side of the Greater Mapungubwe Transfrontier Conservation Area, at the place where Cecil John Rhodes has carved his initials into the bark of a Baobab tree and still excited about our wonderful wild dog sighting, I record this interview with Craig Jackson.

Craig, how successful has the reintroduction of wild dogs been into the Northern Tuli Game Reserve?

Extremely well, they’ve become resident and just had their second litter, it’s been a great success. Reintroducing predators can be difficult. Our biggest challenge was trying to make them set up a territory on an unfenced reserve. This species can cover massive distances so this was a major challenge.

When we’re the pack first introduced, how many of them are there, just give us a little more information on this particular pack on what we saw today.

They were introduced in April 2008, we first held them in a boma and then released them into the wild. The pack originated from Marakeli National Park in South Africa where they’d kept breaking out and sadly some of the dogs were shot on surrounding farms.

And so we were fortunate enough to became their custodians. It’s been wonderful, they’ve had two litters of pups. Last year they’ve successfully raised twelve pups and ten days ago they just gave birth again, the pups are still underground, we haven’t seen them yet so we’re not sure how many there are. But the pack at this stage numbers 15 adults plus probably 8 to 10 new pups.

Craig, as you say, the area is unfenced, so how do you contain this pack in the Northern Tuli Game Reserve, they’re normally free-ranging animals that can cover vast distances?

We’re attempting a world first here; we’re trying to create artificial territories towards a peripheral of the reserve using trans-located scent marks from another pack of wild dogs in the north of Botswana. This is basically based on the fact that wild dogs are territorial, they respect the boundaries of their neighbours, and these boundaries are marked using scent marks, urine and faeces. So we’ve tried this now and we’ve had some great success.

So just in layman’s terms you take samples of urine and faeces and you go around and you mark the territory you would like them to remain in and that is sufficient from keep them from roaming.

How long does this scent last?

In 1996 some wild dogs in the north of Botswana died of rabies and researchers noticed that it took several months before the neighbouring packs started to probe into these territorial voids again. This indicated that the dead dogs’ scent marks remained for up to a year.

This extremely interesting form of fencing, what would you call it?

We refer to it as a bio-boundary, basically a biological relevant boundary in which essentially we’re speaking the language of the animals and how they communicate. Can you imagine what this can do for the future of nature conservation – natural boundaries instead of fences.

How big an area have you bio-fenced?

The Northern Tuli Game Reserve compromises 720 sq/kms, we put the bio-boundary just inside the perimeter of most of the reserve and to the west we had to bring it in a fair bit because there is a small village with a fair number of livestock that we’ve had to try and keep the dogs away from, so the area is probably in the region of 350 – 400sq/kms. These boundaries also, just as in free-ranging populations, it’s not a hard boundary, they don’t walk up to the scent mark and bounce back, they often move a kilometre or two through it, so it’s slightly variable – it’s not set.

How do you know that they’re staying within this bio-line?

GPS collars, not only allow us to radio-track them but also to take regular 24 hour GPS fixes which we put on a map to see exactly how they’ve moved in relation to the scent marks that we’ve put out in the field.

The dogs seem extremely happy and contented here?

It’s an awesome area for wild dogs, it’s great habitat with plenty of game for them, especially impala, they’re very successful at hunting, here they’re well-fed.

Craig, you’ve spent a lot of your life studying the beautiful painted dogs of Africa –are you emotionally attached to them?

It’s an awesome species and it’s a great privilege to be able to live out here and follow them on a daily basis, they are a lot more interesting than other mammal carnivores particularly, their social structure, the way they hunt and care for one another – they’re very special.

What’s the future of the African Wild Dog?

They are an endangered species and very difficult to conserve. They require vast areas which puts them into conflict with people, either through direct persecution by farmers or other people who perceive them as threats, snaring is also a major problem, even road accidents. So at this stage they estimate the wild dog population to be 3500 to 5000 animals in total, so it’s going to be difficult. Transfrontier Conservation is important to the future of Wild Dog conservation and certainly brings a little bit of hope for the future.

Under the spreading branches of a 30-meter high Mashatu tree our home for the night is a fine example of a traditional Kgotla – a circle of leadwood poles, a hard wood fire in the centre, a stick gate to pull across in case of predators and a circle of stretchers on which to sleep.

These Kgotla’s are what makes Botswana so special – a safe place and peaceful place where people have respect one for each other, a country that upholds its traditional dignity – it was great to spend a night under the stars at a place that signifies the very heart of democratic Tswana culture.

The Ratray Mashatu Resort and their delightful staff make it a memorable evening with expedition members and hosts using the famed expedition talking stick to express their observations of this beautiful Transfrontier Conservation Area. Tomorrow we move on to the Makgadikgadi Pans in Central Botswana where we’re told they’ve recorded the highest winter rains in over 80 years and that the whole place is flooded – we’ll keep you posted.