Denning Season - Grant Beverley
The past few month have been particularly exciting in the bush, firstly winter is finally coming to and end and the savannah sun is warming up Kruger’s Lowveld with afternoon temperatures over 30 degrees Celsius on a more regular basis. The excitement of not having to dress up as an Eskimo and head out on a sled in search of Wild Dogs every morning is one thing but what makes the months of August-September the best for a Wild Dog researcher is the fact that we are nearing the end of denning season. This means that Wild Dog pups are starting to emerge from den sites.
The location of four dens had been determined in southern Kruger and one on the western boundary in Sabi Sands. Of these dens only two were accessible to view the pups. A den on the Jock Safari Lodge private concession and one in the western sector of Sabi Sands. We were able to determine the exact location of the Jock Pack’s den site by a combination of following the adult dogs after a hunt with Rangers Pete Dippenaar from Jock Safari Lodge and by using the telemetry to track the VHF collar on the beta female in order to pin point the den. After spending many days waiting near the den site listening to the alpha female and the pups “squealing”, “chittering” and calling from within the den the wait was finally over.
One morning while the adults were out on the hunt we managed to attach a digital camera trap to a tree just in front of what is thought to be a main entrance of the den, at the time we had no idea if the pups were actually going to come out of this specific hole. Wild Dog dens generally have more than one entrance and exit point. The adult Dogs had been seen moving in front of the camera so it was hoped we would eventually get photos of the puppies. One early on particularly cool morning just after sun rise Pete and I slowly approached the den site on the only two track road in the area. The road runs approximately 50m away from the den but in clear line of sight of the front entrance to the den.
Looking towards the den with intense concentration I faintly saw three yellow/brown and white balls of fluff running around the rocks in front of the den. After closer inspection with binoculars they were indeed three Wild Dog pups approximately three months old. A sighting like this reminds you exactly why you dreamt of living and working in the bush since the age of 5. I look forward to the opportunity I have to watch these three little pups grow to yearlings and become part of the pack successfully hunting impala.
The Sabi Sands on the western boundary of Kruger National park offers a unique opportunity to monitor Wild Dogs as the dogs are extremely habituated to the safari vehicles used in the reserve. This allows for guides to approach the sogs without affecting their natural behaviour. The resident pack of eight Wild Dogs in Sabi Sands is well known by the guides and rangers throughout the reserve. The fact that they are so relaxed around vehicles allows one to follow them while on the hunt, watch them sleeping and potentially get a glimpse of the puppies playing around the den at a young age.
I had received reports from the rangers saying that the adults had been observed digging in the western sector with a heavily pregnant alpha female so hopes were high for them to settle down to den in the same area they had previously. The pack was eventually observed hunting without the alpha female present, a clear indication that she had gone underground to give birth to the pups.
The area where they were thought to be denning was sectioned off from tourists to reduce the pressure on the pups while they were still young. Within a few weeks of the pups emerging from the den it was decided that it would be acceptable to approach the den site by vehicle. The joy of seeing the first sighting of six Wild Dog puppies playing on a termite mound is indescribable, their coat patterns only vaguely visible with short stumpy legs and fat little bellies . Seeing how quickly they have grown in just three weeks gives me hope that the pack will go from strength to strength and hopefully continue to grow.
It seems to be much easier to identify a cause, a victory or a product with prominent individuals, or a defined collective, like a brand, rather than to be able to recognise that rarely do individuals or projects achieve anything without real teamwork. Everyone from Jeremy Clarkson to the Taliban or the hideously popular, glitter-bomb-like Korean pop boy band “Big Bang” is part of a team, or has a team managing and promoting them so we recognise the product. I’d like to think I could never recognise Korean boy bands but unfortunately having just read about them in Time magazine, I feel I may be temporarily tainted by that little photon of knowledge. There is obviously individual talent or skill around, but if isolated it is often ineffective. Wild Dogs of course gain an enormous amount of value through hunting as a team or defending food or the pack collectively, even when there are severely injured or weakened individuals. It’s the sort of legendary glue and results that clichéd corporate bonding sessions like to draw on before having employees write down their emotions and jump through burning hoops and muddy puddles, together.
The reason I bring this up though is to warm you up to the fact that most effective conservation relies on committed organisations that are filled with committed, effective individuals. It is these committed individuals that develop relationships with members of the public, donors, media and communities. So while a greater organisation may be the face of a project or many projects, there are often elves running around, often unseen in the background, working tirelessly to ensure a final delivery. I have the good fortune to be based in a game reserve in Zululand, partly by choice and largely since I am part of an Endangered Wildlife Trust team which enables this to happen. Fortunately we have colleagues and bosses who prefer (at times) to be based in Johannesburg, so we don’t have to be. We have colleagues who work tirelessly to find funds for us to operate in the field, we have long term sponsors like Jaguar Land Rover South Africa and of course we need to ensure we produce results to justify our positions, and to produce enough feedback that the cycle continues and we can deliver effective conservation.
This delivery also relies on critical cooperation between organizations and individuals, who may have the same broad aim, but which have differing skills and approaches. Many people I talk to think that Wild Dog conservation only involves tracking animals, or breeding them somewhere in a captive centre and dropping them in the wild. Problem solved, let’s move onto conservation of spotted-fox-owl-newt-x or whatever is the flavour of the day. Those who start asking questions are often amazed at the complexities of conserving Wild Dogs. Yes the animals need to be tracked. It’s crucial for pragmatic management decisions, but that alone doesn’t conserve them. It is the information on the pack dynamics, what they are feeding on, whether they are still in the reserve or not, which individuals have died or left or bred or not fed which all feed into management decisions taken by reserve managers, provincial officials, conservationists like us and our colleagues. To track animals or remove wire snares requires veterinarians and skilled staff; and funds. To move animals from one subpopulation to another requires crucial cooperation between the reserves which may be several provinces apart, may be closer, or may be at times in another country. That may require pilots, would require veterinarians and permits, and will always be a logistical challenge. At the end of all that the Wild Dogs may chose to ignore their enforced/”chosen” mates, may try kill one another or may just splinter off into new groupings and leave the “allocated” reserves.
The fact that Wild Dogs still exist in parts of our country is a credit to all those individuals and the very few organisations out there, past and present, who committed in some way to preserve the species, whether by tracking animals, observing behaviour, navigating politics and opposition, responding to farmer and community reports of sightings, removing snares, generating public awareness and reliable information, generating funds to keep it going, filing paperwork or designing media. Next time you see Wild Dogs take a small moment to think of all the efforts that have gone into enabling those precious few animals to still be, or once again be there.
The initiatives to expand the current range, and facilitate proactive management of Wild Dogs in northern KwaZulu-Natal is carried out through collaboration between the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, Wildlife ACT, Wildlands Conservation Trust and the participants within the KZN Wild Dog Advisory Group. The EWT’s national Wild Dog metapopulation project is supported by Jaguar Land Rover South Africa, Land Rover Centurion and Painted Wolf Wines.
If any readers observe Wild Dogs outside of protected areas, please note the location of the sighting, whether the animal is wearing a tracking collar and identify, or ideally, photograph any characteristic markings. Please notify Brendan Whittington-Jones on 072 992 9483
In South Africa, Land Rover has been working with the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) since 2000 to protect wild dogs, the most endangered carnivore in Southern Africa. Habitat fragmentation, persecution and loss of prey were the major causes of the historic decline of the wild dog and direct persecution by man is still probably the biggest threat to its survival.
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