Season’s greetings! Hopefully you are all having a good festive season and enjoying some time with family and friends. The year has come to an end and I thought it might be interesting to reflect on some of the happenings of the wild dog project over the past year or so. As far as the project is concerned, it has been a great success. Almost nine months after their release, the pack is still on the reserve and appears to have set up a territory that covers a great deal of the reserve.
This is especially impressive
since there are very few fences to restrict the dog’s movement. Below are a couple of highlights.
6 November 2007 –the pack of 18 wild dogs was moved to the Northern Tuli Game Reserve (NTGR) and held in an enclosure for five months. Prior to this, they had been held in an enclosure for a period of six months in Marakele National Park, South Africa. The pack comprised nine adults and nine pups that were born in June 2007. The pups were born in captivity and thus had had no hunting experience. In addition to this, the prolonged period in captivity resulted in the dogs becoming unfit.These two facets were important factors that could have had major effects on the
success of the reintroduction. The dogs were fed two impalas, twice a week while in the boma.
Background to NTGR Wild Dog Project
A pack of 18 wild dogs was reintroduced to the Northern Tuli Game Reserve in
November 2007. Initially held in an enclosure, the pack was released on 5 April
2008. The project aims to establish a viable pack of this endangered species
within the Limpopo Valley region of eastern Botswana.
A research programme has been established in addition to a community outreach
initiative, educating local communities about wild dogs, predators and
conservation in general.
Feb / March 2008 – since wild dogs range over large distances, they often end up
coming into conflict with people and their livestock. Furthermore, it is estimated in the literature that about 60% of adult wild dog deaths are as a result of humans – either intentional (shooting, poisoning, etc) or unintentional (road kills, snares, etc). The NTGR employed Rex Masupe as a Community Liaison Officer and together we visited all the local villages prior to the release.Here Rex would tech the local people more about wild dogs and other predators, and attempt to make them appreciate the value of tourism for the region and the country as a whole. There was naturally some opposition and apprehension regarding the reintroduction of 18 hungry wild dogs so close to goat and cattle farmers.
After learning more most people were far happier, and all in all the outreach project was a success.
March 2008– In an attempt to limit the ranging behaviour of the wild dogs, we tested the concept of a BioBoundary for the first time. Dr Tico McNutt from the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust has been working on the concept for several years and this is the first actual field experiment.In brief, wild dogs are territorial and respect the boundaries of neighbouring packs. Communication between wild dog packs is based on chemical communication with urine and faecal markings informing dogs about their neighbours’ whereabouts and much more. We have attempted to simulate occupied wild dog territories towards the periphery of the reserve and in doing so create a “BioBoundary”.
The first set of scent marks was deployed a few days before release and since then we have modified our approach a little, basically learning as we proceed, and have had some great results. In total we have placed 539 scent marks in the field!
Dr McNutt’s field staff collect the scent marks, freeze them, where after they flown down to the project periodically.
5 April 2008 – The big day finally arrives and the dogs are enticed out of the boma using two impalas as bait. There were probably about 50 people present to witness the event.
The dogs moved just outside of the boma and ate both impala. They did not move too far and rested under a large Mashatu tree close by. After about two hours they went for a walk and ran into the Limpopo River and seemed to be heading straight into South Africa! Fortunately the water was quite deep, forcing the dogs to return to the bank.They continued to splash around for about an hour and really appeared to be enjoying their freedom.
6 April 2008– Three of the younger males spilt off from the pack and dispersed. This natural process is vital for the formation of new wild dog packs. Interestingly, the three dogs moved west along the Limpopo River, and then appear to have picked-up on the scent marks that were placed out as part of the BioBoundary.The males followed this trail round the reserve and were most likely following it in an attempt to locate females. Unfortunately the only collar we had on these dogs failed within a few weeks and we do not know what became of the three. The last time we got a signal, they were close to the Tuli Circle, exactly where the BioBoundary was laid out. We also had another dog in the east of the reserve that was seen within a couple of days of release. We are not sure where the dog came from but it was seen close to the BioBoundary. Interesting?
Late April 2008– After being free for less than a month we lost the alpha female and had to remove a snare from another dog. We presume that the female died as a result of a snare. She was pregnant and about a month from giving birth.This was not good news, but I had seen the alpha male mating with a second female prior to her disappearance so new that there was at least another female that could hopefully produce some pups.
Later in the year we had another dog in a nasty snare, but fortunately he broke out and we were able to treat him and he made a full recovery. To date we have lost four dogs in total.
Mid-May 2008– after battling to hunt efficiently post-release, the pack gradually brushed-up on their hunting skills.At first they even battled to catch young impala and warthogs, but eventually moved on to catching adult animals more readily. They are now probably as efficient as any other wild dog pack. This is probably evident from the photos of kills in each update!
June 2008 –We expected the new alpha female, Cairo, to give birth in the second half June. Furthermore, we had noticed that another female, Nairobi, was also pregnant.The big question was “where would they den?” Once the females had given birth, they would remain within the vicinity of the den for a period of about three months. In mid-June, with both females very pregnant, the pack moved outside the reserve to the south west. When I found the pack one morning, they were lying at a freshly excavated warthog burrow. This did not look good; it appeared as though the dogs had decided to den far from where we had hoped and outside of the NTGR.
Dogs are particularly sensitive to disturbance close to their den. I had a few scent marks used in the BioBoundary work with me and decided to put these out close by. I was a little apprehensive at first, as I did not know how they would respond and if they did, where would they move to? It felt a bit as though I was destroying a bird’s nest.
The pack was resting about a 100m away from the burrow and I put out a few scent marks. A favourable breeze pushed the scent straight towards dogs and they detected it immediately.
Several dogs came to investigate, they called the pack together, and after a little more vocalisation, moved more than 2km away. This all happened late in the morning when the dogs would usually be resting and staying out of the heat. Three days the alpha female gave birth about 2 km east of Pont Drift border post – close to 30km away! I often wonder what would have happened if I had not put those scent marks out?
21 June 2008 –The alpha female gives birth. Nine days later Nairobi has her pups. I did not see the pups until they were about four to five weeks old; prior to that they are basically underground all the time. A total of twelve pups emerged from the den. We did not allow any game drive vehicles into the den area until the pups were six weeks old to minimize the risk of disturbance.The den site was located in thick riverine bush along the Limpopo River. The dogs remained around the den until the end of September. They occasionally shifted dens, but never moved more than about 100m at a time, which is actually very little as it is often 1-2km.
It was a great privilege to watch the pups grow and mature around the den. They gradually spent more and more time above ground and towards the end were hardly ever underground.
They would spend a lot of time playing and running about, gradually gaining strength and size.
October 2008– Eventually the dogs left the den and at first moved short distances with the pups.Prior to denning, the dogs had spent most of their time along the Limpopo River, with very little movement into the central parts of the reserve. Once they left, the headed due north. Monitoring their movements thereafter it appeared that they were now actively exploring the region and setting up a territory. After moving north they returned to the den, then moved west for two weeks, moved back towards the den before proceeding south east into South Africa for a two week holiday.
Not too long thereafter they had a quick trip across into Zimbabwe then moved all the way down to the western corner of the reserve… Since then they have been all over the reserve, not moving outside of its boundaries as far as we know.
Below is a map showing the packs movements after leaving the den at the end of September.
The red dots are GPS positions that are recorded by the collar at specific times, normally providing two readings in the morning and another two in the evenings. This helps us know exactly where the dogs are moving about even if we are not with them.
So, what will 2009 hold in store for the wild dogs? It will be interesting to see. In about three months time the alpha male will start mating with the alpha female and a little over two months later we will have more pups again! Hopefully all goes well until then.