Think African predator and the likely mental image is one of a huge male lion. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s odd then to learn that, while the iconic big cat is certainly at the top of his food chain, he is far from the most successful hunter on the continent, let alone the planet.
In fact, none of AfricaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s felines, and none of the worldÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s carnivores period, can compare to the African wild dog, Lycaon pictus.
Its Latin name literally means ”painted wolf” — a tribute to its unusual, colourful spotted coat — but the wild dog even outclasses its northerly canine cousin when it comes to taking down prey, achieving an amazing 80% success rate.
Paradoxically, this uniquely African hunter is one of the continentÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s most endangered species, the prime reason for which is one of the main reasons it is such a successful killer — the huge size of its range.
Unhindered, a wild dog pack will traverse a range of between 1 500km2 to almost 3 000km2 in a year, most of it at an easy, loping run. A pack will only settle in an area when pups are born, when it will den until the pups are able to keep up with the pack.
The huge ranges allow the wild dog to compete with AfricaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s other carnivores, especially its social predators — lion and hyena.
But the reduction and fragmentation of such large tracts of suitable habitat, together with persecution from humans, have resulted in a dramatic decline in numbers. And because there are few parks or protected areas large enough to cope with the dogsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ natural range, conserving the species has been something of a nightmare.
In South Africa the only viable population of wild dogs is in the Kruger National Park. There are other, smaller, reintroduced populations in areas such as Madikwe game reserve in North West which are managed together as a metapopulation, and some extremely persecuted packs in the north, in Limpopo.
One of the smaller packs that makes up the South African wild dog metaÃ‚Âpopulation is also situated in Limpopo, close to the borders with Botswana and Zimbabwe at De BeersÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Venetia-Limpopo nature reserve, which abuts Mapungubwe National Park.
This pack has been the subject of intense scientific research and has formed the basis of a five-year monitoring programme carried out by the Endangered Wildlife TrustÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Carnivore Conservation Group (CCG).
The head of the CCG, Harriet Davies-Mostert, has studied the dogs for her PhD thesis, examining pack dynamics, movement and dispersal rates, as well as the causes of mortality and hunting behaviour.
The pack, originally 16 dogs — four adult males, five adult females and seven three-month-old pups — was released into the reserve in January 2002. Five were fitted with radio collars so that the pack could be closely monitored.
”These collars emit a constant VHF radio signal that can be tracked with a telemetry receiver set. The pack is located up to six times a week in this way,” explains Davies-Mostert.
”During the time we have been studying the dogs, we have managed to get a visual on them 85% of the time,” she adds.
The spin-off of this has been the launch of wild dog-based eco-tourism at Venetia, with visitors to the reserve able to pay for the experience of learning how to locate the pack using radio-tracking equipment, and see free-roaming wild dogs in their natural habitat. The project has acted in an ambassadorial role for the much-persecuted predator.
”Economic activities in the area centre around safari hunting and live game sales — activities the many landowners feel are incompatible with the presence of large carnivores. As a result, wild dogs are held in very low regard by local farmers, who have systematically eradicated them in the past,” says researcher Kath Potgieter.
”If the value of such eco-tourism can offset the costs of wild dog predation, this will go a long way towards persuading other landowners to tolerate wild dogs on their land. And more land is what the African wild dog really needs.”
Potgieter adds that the Venetia pack has bred successfully every year since their release and, although the structure of the pack has changed dramatically over the years, continues to contribute dogs to the metapopulation to pioneer the formation of new packs in other reserves.
Potgieter has been working for the EWTÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s CCG on its wild dog projects since 2004 and conducted a pack formation and pup provisioning study as part of her MSc study on the wild dogs in Venetia. She is currently at the University of Cape Town writing up the results of her fieldwork on wild dog pup provisioning.
”The study focuses on the vocal aspects of the wild dogÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s behaviour when new packs are bonded within the metapopulation, as well as the packÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s ability to provide for and raise their pups.
”This work holds the exciting potential to contribute to the management and conservation of wild dogs, specifically in the metapopulation, in the future.”