Let the dogs run free

Dr Victor Siamudaala
Dr Victor Siamudaala

We all love dogs (well, some of us do), and the African Wild Dog Lycaon pictus is fast becoming a “must see” for visitors to the KAZA area: the largest conservation area in Africa.

Providing space for wildlife to roam is what KAZA is all about. Centred on Namibia’s Caprivi strip the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation area (KAZA TFCA) takes in large swathes of Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia.

It’s a common misconception that KAZA is a park. It is not. The conservation area encompasses national parks, communal conservancies, forests and farm land. If you are flying from Europe, it is as large as Sweden or Italy. If you are an American, think of Colorado: KAZA is bigger; in fact 50 times bigger than Yellowstone National Park!

The African Wild Dog, sometimes known as Painted Dog due to its mottled coat, needs space to roam; which is why KAZA organized a Symposium on Wild Dogs in May this year, held at Mahangu Safari Lodge on the Okavango River. During the day scientists discussed the needs of the Wild Dog population, and during the night experts Lise Hannsen and Dr Ortwin Aschenborn dived into the nearby forest to look for Wild Dogs, Hyenas and other carnivores.

The African Wild Dog is a canid, not immediately related to modern domesticated dogs. Research suggests that a number of wolf like canids diverged from a common ancestor about two to three million years ago. The hyena, wild dog, Australian dingo and our friends the domesticated dogs all came from a common root.

Why love them? The passion of the Symposium participants was expressed by Dr Greg Rasmussen of Painted Dog Conservation, Zimbabwe, who calls them “probably the most social animal on the planet.” Years in the field have taught him to appreciate Lycaon pictus – Painted Dogs – as lovable, if not exactly friends. “They tolerated me,” he said, recalling the early research days in Hwange National Park, where he first got to know them.

“A lion had mauled a dog,” he said, “and the vet said to leave it, as it was going to die. But no, the pack dragged it away and fed it for three months until it recovered. I realized that all the myths were wrong.”

The old time cattle ranchers in what is now Zimbabwe had no time for Painted Dogs, and shot them at every opportunity. There was a government led eradication campaign, with sixpence paid in bounty for every dog killed. A lion, by the way, was worth a shilling, a jackal threepence, and a baboon a penny. Thankfully, times have changed.

Back then, ranchers believed that Wild Dogs caused major stock losses. Greg Rasmussen did a test. He persuaded farmers near Bulawayo to allow two packs of Wild Dogs to be introduced to the area, and then studied the result. 1.7% of the cattle killed were taken by Wild Dogs. The major factor in cattle deaths was bad management. 17% of the deaths were attributed to cattle swallowing plastic bags.

The KAZA landscape holds the largest Wild Dog population in Africa, with a great deal of genetic diversity. There are sound reasons for Wild Dog conservation. They move the herbivores about, rather like farmers rotate cattle to preserve the grazing. They take off the weaker ungulates, including duikers and kudus, whose genetic stock is strengthened as a result; and Wild Dogs are a big draw card for tourists.

The Wild Dog Symposium was organized and funded by WWF in Namibia, as a major contributor to KAZA, with the generous assistance of private donors: the Gibbs family in the USA.

The experts at the Symposium came from far and wide to find ways to improve the KAZA area for Wild Dogs to roam. One pack needs 750 square kilometres. Modern roads are a huge problem for many species, not only dogs. Last year I saw five Wild Dogs hit and killed by a truck on the main Caprivi highway, through Bwabwata National Park.

Dr Shelley Alexander brought experience from the USA and Canada, where wolves are the focus of her work with radio collars. There, underpasses and fencing are used to create wildlife corridors. KAZA is concerned to create corridors for elephants and other species to range freely from Botswana to Angola, from Zambia to Zimbabwe, and through the Caprivi strip. Angola is planning another highway parallel to the Caprivi road, and Zambia wants to upgrade the road next to the Zambezi in order to bring in more tourists. Somehow, a balance has to be struck between development and conservation.

The Symposium room was flush with the passion of scientists, but there was also a rare chance to see one of Namibia’s premier attractions from close up. Participants took a river cruise down the Okavango through Bwabwata National Park towards Botswana and the Delta. There were hippos in the water and fish eagles in the sky. Piet Beytell from Namibia’s Ministry of Environment and Tourism was looking for a croc he had collared last year. We saw lechwes and buffalo along the river banks. But sadly, no dogs, painted or otherwise.

Steve Felton
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