The African Wild Dog
African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus) are known for their bushy white tails and large ears. Commonly known as Painted Dogs or Painted Wolves, they hold the hearts of many across the world. As a top-order predator, they require vast expanses of land to roam and hunt. Unfortunately, South Africa is running out of suitable, safe space.
Wild dogs are listed as a globally Endangered Species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), with fewer than 6000 remaining in the world. They used to range throughout sub-Saharan Africa, however habitat destruction and fragmentation have caused them to become absent from most of their historical range. Persecution and widespread disease have further caused their populations to decline. Now, most wild dog populations in southern Africa occur in formally protected areas.
In South Africa, there are fewer than 650 known dogs, making them South Africa's rarest carnivore and mammal.
Most wild dog populations in South Africa occur in protected areas such as the Kruger National Park or are heavily managed on smaller reserves within the South African metapopulation as part of the EWT's Wild Dog Range Expansion Project. Free-roaming dogs outside of these formally protected areas are few and far between. The Waterberg in the Limpopo Province has continued to be the home of free-roaming African wild dogs, despite the many threats as the dogs move through private lands.
Due to their Endangered status, African wild dogs are a protected species in terms of the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act (Act 10 of 2004) and the Threatened or Protected Species Regulations of 2007 (ToPS).
The Waterberg is currently home to 23 known free-roaming African wild dogs: 12 adults, 4 young dogs born in 2020, and 7 pups born in the 2021 denning season.
The Waterberg is made up of a patchwork of livestock farms, game farms, agricultural lands, private and public nature reserves. The wild dogs range into these unprotected lands and face many threats to their well-being. The development of the bush veld into livestock and game farms has increased the interaction between humans and wild dogs, creating conflict when the dogs are suspected to predate on financially valuable stock species. WWDI works alongside community members to implement strategies that promote coexistence between community members and the Waterberg Wild Dogs.
Threats to the Waterberg Wild Dogs
Habitat Loss & Fragmentation
Habitat loss and fragmentation reduce the suitable space available for African wild dogs to live. Because they require such large expanses to roam, this threat is a serious one and will only become more prevalent as human developments increase.
The Waterberg is a relatively intact natural landscape, with little infrastructure and few roads to fragment the habitat. On the other hand, the Waterberg is also made up of many farms with boundary fences designed to contain game populations and keep predators out. These "predator-proof" fences are effective at keeping many predators out and is the first defense for conflict prevention, however, this exclusion has fragmented the habitat - causing the dogs to circumnavigate around entire properties.
African wild dogs are highly susceptible to contracting infectious diseases, including Canine Distemper, Canine Parvovirus, and Rabies from contact with human settlements where they may encounter domestic dogs. All three diseases can be fatal and, as such, are considered very significant disease threats for African wild dogs.
Due to their highly social behavior, disease can quickly spread throughout the pack. Wild dogs regurgitate food, greet one another, play, and rest together - all behaviors that increase the rate of transmission. One infected dog can quickly lead to the entire pack becoming infected.
African wild dogs are endangered due to persecution resulting from misconceptions about the dogs, human-wildlife conflict, and historic, negative associations.
African wild dogs have the potential to come into conflict with humans when they are suspected to predate on livestock or financially valuable game species. The rise of the game farming industry in the Waterberg has given a high financial value to game species like impala and blue wildebeest, natural prey for wild dogs. Now, because of this financial value on game, wild dogs are coming into conflict with humans when they predate on natural prey in their natural environment, in addition to the conflict faced for livestock depredation.
A snare is a loop of wire placed in the bush, often in a tree, on a game trail, or under a fence, with the goal to trap and catch prey. It is a method commonly used as a form of subsistence bushmeat hunting. Unfortunately, these snares are indiscriminate and often catch many other animal species that are not the targeted prey, like wild dogs.
Challenges to their Conservation
The free-roaming nature of the Waterberg Wild Dogs makes them unique, however, it also raises unique challenges to their conservation. They are not confined by the borders of any reserves and can move through multiple private properties in one day. This makes it very difficult to monitor and track the dogs. Additionally, every property in the Waterberg has its own land use, tolerance, and views towards wild dogs. Respecting these views while trying to conserve the Waterberg Wild Dogs as a free-roaming population is a delicate balance. By working with each, individual property, WWDI seeks to ensure that landowners' questions are answered, their concerns are addressed, and the wild dogs are safe as they move through the Waterberg.
Wild dogs naturally occur at low population densities and cover wide ranges, making it difficult to conserve them. To avoid inbreeding, both females and males disperse from their natal group as single-sex packs once they reach sexual maturity. Their naturally low densities and increasingly fragmented populations are making it harder and harder for these dispersing dogs to find other dispersing dogs, unite, and form new breeding packs.
Since, typically, only the alpha pair breeds and only once a year, they have limited opportunities to rear new offspring. Life for the young pups can be very difficult and only a small number may survive to adulthood.
Wild dogs' devotion to their pack means they will never leave an injured or sick member behind. This can help increase the likelihood of the injured dog surviving, but the stationary behavior can also put the entire pack at risk.
Complexity of Human-Wildlife Conflict
Human-wildlife conflict occurs with the Waterberg Wild Dogs when they are suspected to predate on financially valuable stock species. In the Waterberg, the rise of the game ranching and colour-morph breeding industries has placed a high financial value on game species that the wild dogs naturally predate on. Trying to protect landowner livelihoods while conserve the wild dogs is a balancing act.
When individuals feel that the lives of wildlife are prioritized over their own, human-wildlife conflict can quickly turn into human-human conflict. A dynamic approach to understanding and mitigating human-wildlife conflict that considers the social, political, and emotional implications of conservation work is critical for the protection of the Waterberg Wild Dog population.
Increasing Expansion into Wild Spaces
The developments of infrastructure, including roads, lodges, and houses, and the conversion of natural bushveld into other land uses in the Waterberg will decrease the space available for the wild dogs to range and increase the frequency of the dogs encountering human developments, presenting increased opportunities for conflict.