Mid-summer in the Limpopo Valley
2006 was a challenging year for the Venetia-Limpopo Wild Dog Project. Most of our efforts were focused on managing the population to prevent inbreeding. Two separate groups of females were brought into Venetia from other meta population reserves in an attempt to bring in new blood and bond them to the males.
After two months of careful monitoring the males rejected the first group of females and now only one female remains from the second group. This female, Fender, is being held in a boma on the reserve adjacent to nine of the Venetia males and all behaviour and interactions between the groups is being monitored carefully.
The dogs being held in the bomas have displayed the wild dogs’ incredible ability to learn. We know that dogs on small reserves will quickly learn to use the fences for hunting, chasing game into them to make catching their prey easier. But what I’ve seen in the bomas is nothing short of Pavlovian! The dogs have learn that, about half of the time, my presence at the bomas means they are about to be fed. Not only that but they can now distinguish between vehicles as well! If I approach the bomas in our sponsored Land Rover Defender the dogs immediately begin running alongside the fence squealing and yittering excitedly.
Once, when the Landy was in for service, I used a different vehicle to feed the dogs and their reaction was much more subdued and unenthusiastic. The group of nine males are always fed in a ‘feeding crush’. This crush forces them to enter into the small feeding area through a trap-door tunnel.
The reason for feeding them in this manner is to ensure that, if we need to dart the males in order to move or collar them, they can easily be confined in a small area and darted in the minimum time and with minimum stress. So far this approach has been hugely successful.
The remaining wild dogs (outside of the bomas) are continuing to hunt, move and entertain the researchers. A few nights ago they provided a viewing experience better than any Hollywood Blockbuster. After hassling a large herd of wildebeest without much luck they came upon a female cheetah and her two cubs that had just killed a steenbok right in front of Dozer (the project’s research Land Rover). The dogs promptly stole and devoured the steenbok and proceeded to settle down to what we thought would be an uneventful rest of the night….not so! Soon after they settled a brown hyena turned up to finish up the steenbok scraps.
The dogs were not particularly bothered by this but became somewhat rattled when two male lions started roaring nearby. The dogs wisely decided to move on. Never ones to pass up an opportunity the dogs were able to hunt and eat another small antelope while on the move! During the rest of the night and next morning the dogs bumped into two more separate groups of lions, got hassled by an overzealous jackal and moved over 15 kilometres!
I have come to realize something very important about being a wild dog researcher: the majority of ones days are filled with frustrating hours of trying to locate dogs with weak collars, punctures, accidental electrocutions from electric fences, days without a decent sighting of ones research subjects…the list goes on, but then one experiences a session like the one mentioned above and it makes all the hardships and difficulties absolutely worthwhile!