African wild dog

Loved and despised, African wild dogs are critically endangered. There’s hope yet, discovers Wild magazine’s editor Romi Boom who long ago lost her heart to these underdogs.

In 2007, Brendan Whittington-Jones moved to Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park to study wild dogs. Over the next seven years he learnt first-hand what daunting challenges these predators face. In African Wild Dogs – On the Front Line he recounts his experiences.

Halfway through this no-holds-barred exposé I had already considered putting the book down at least half a dozen times. Upsetting is an understatement. Whittington-Jones’ personal account highlights the odds stacked against this hardy and charismatic species who have survived despite innumerable threats.

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Seven packs survive in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park. “Come catch these damn dogs or we’ll shoot them!” Hostile statements from local KZN police are all in a day’s work. “Arbitrary livestock disappearances […] were blamed on our allegedly insatiable land piranhas,” writes the author.

It is a frustrating challenge to teach local communities the difference between wild dogs and stray dogs. False-alarm sightings are rife and mostly the strays are responsible for killing livestock.

Snaring is a serious concern and it takes an emotional toll on game reserve staff to remove dead (usually as a result of strangulation or a severed throat) or severely maimed wild dogs from snares. Moreover, road kills have claimed several individuals on the tarred R618 corridor road which bisects the park. Speed limits are frequently ignored and reserve animals are run down weekly.

Then there are more extreme incidents, such as the Ellisras landowner who had recently discovered denning on his game farm. He was adamant that not only should the wild dogs be removed, if he was not to be paid compensation, he would kill the pack. Upon learning that he would not be compensated, the den was bombed and the remainder of the pack shot.

In one season breeding was severely compromised in two reserves. In Mkhuze a brutal snaring incident killed the alpha female and a pup. The beta male’s scrotum was damaged to a point where he would be unlikely to breed. Then three yearling males split from the pack.

In Thanda a lion attack on the den left the alpha female dead, the pups killed, and the beta female in such a damaged state that she was humanely euthanised by a veterinarian. The pack had enough members to persist as a small functioning unit.

The book, a gripping read with plenty of anecdotes, is a window onto the conservationists’ struggle to manage wild dog subpopulations. – Romi Boom

Conserving the species requires a certain amount of meddling in the dogs’ social lives. Should diminished packs be left to maintain themselves as cohesive units within the confines of the reserves, or should they be augmented? Some phantom packs may not be seen for over six months. If they don’t have functional collars, it is impossible to monitor what has become of them. Could they be dead? Could they have escaped and be avoiding community dwellings?

The book, a gripping read with plenty of anecdotes, is a window onto the conservationists’ struggle to manage wild dog subpopulations. Fortunately wild dogs have found refuges to breed and survive. Even so, subpopulations in isolated, confined reserves face constant trials and tribulations, and each reserve faces different pressures.

The good news is that over two decades, the SA population has nearly doubled. The bad news is that there are still fewer than 450 free-ranging wild dogs in the country.

African Wild Dogs – On the Front Line. Brendan Whittington-Jones. 2015. Jacana. R221.