Seven wild dog pups were born in Dublin Zoo recently. The four adults and the pups are sometimes mistaken by visitors for dogs or hyenas, but this is a unique species and arguably Africa's most threatened carnivore. Best guesstimates are that there are only 5,000 left.
The seven Zoo pups sprawl in a bundled medley of black, white and tan fur. “They love to be touching and rubbing off one another,” says keeper Helen Clarke. “They are highly socialised.”
When the pups were taken away for vaccinations, the adults gave off plaintive hooing (like a child’s train, says Clarke) until their return. Any reunion elicits excited greetings, with high-pitched chirpings and rubbing. Fed a slab of horse meat, the pups are allowed have their fill before the adults join in to feed; same in the wild.
Also known as painted dogs, this hunter is purely meat-eating and lives in packs up to 20 strong. Their usual fare is small or medium-sized antelope. Their ecology makes their conservation especially challenging. "This is a species really in trouble," says Prof Rosie Woodroffe, zoologist at the Zoological Society of London, who did the official estimates for the species. "There are probably fewer than 700 packs left." They are reduced to 7 per cent of areas once occupied, and west Africa may be home to just 50 dogs. They were persecuted as vermin up until the 1970s.
One problem is that wild dogs need large ranges; a single pack can range across 800sq km, an area the size of Co Louth. They might live in a national park, but they easily wander out and come into conflict with people. Their curious nature gets them into trouble, too. "Wild dogs seem drawn especially to snares, which are set out to other animals," says Woodroffe. They also like to travel on roads, so get hit by cars, and die from diseases contracted from domestic dogs.
Fencing does not suit their wandering nature, but they use it to lethal advantage. “They will deliberately chase animals towards a fence and are much more efficient predators with fences, catching bigger species and damaging the fences,” Woodruffe says. This makes them unpopular with game managers. But the dogs need to roam to find food and avoid enemies.
The ecology of wild dogs makes them naturally vulnerable. "Wild dogs blink out of intact ecosystems really easily, easier than [most] other species," says Prof Scott Creel, a conservation ecologist at Montana State University who studies predators as well as lions and hyenas in three Zambian national parks.
"If an ecosystem unravels, wild dogs are most likely to go." They also suffer when hyenas or lion numbers are high. Hyenas steal their food, and lions kill them, which influences where they can thrive.
But their larger feline nemesis is not having an easy time either. "We are realising now that lions have declined dramatically and the same thing may be happening to leopards, though they are much harder to study and have not attracted attention of conservation efforts," says Dr Luke Hunter, president of cat conservation organisation Panthera.
Still it is not all bad news for African carnivores. Dublin Zoo gives financial support to the Painted Dog Conservation programme in Zimbabwe. This pays for anti-poaching units, a rehabilitation facility and community programmes, making sure locals benefit from the presence of wild dogs. Snaring is sometimes commercial in scale and a serious problem in Zimbabwe and Zambia. “Snaring is ultimately driven by the poverty of the communities adjacent to national parks, so you can’t ignore that issue,” says Creel. Villagers in Zimbabwe collect and transform wire snares into “snare art” for sale. Community programmes are a key element in protecting carnivores.
For wild dog, their wandering nature has an upside. When Woodroffe began studying lions in northern Kenya, she dismissed any suggestion of a wild dog comeback. The dogs were driven to extinction in the 1980s, and the area has no national parks and lots of people and livestock.
“Around 1999 a small number of wild dogs came through and stayed. By 2008, it was the fifth largest wild dog population in the world,” says Woodroffe, delighted to be proved wrong.
She points to how local communities care for their animals to explain the comeback. “They walk with their sheep, goats and cattle, rather than fence the land. This is incredibly effective at dissuading predators from killing livestock,” she says. Locals set aside hilly areas for dry season grazing and dogs thrive there. Tourists now visit to see them, bringing jobs and cash into the area. Woodroffe would like apply lessons learned here to the small population in Senegal.
Readers can help conserve African carnivores too. Most national parks in Africa are self-financing. “The single best thing you can do is visit these areas and spend money. A once in a lifetime Safari is an incredible experience,” says Hunter. “Short of doing that, you could donate to organisations on the ground.”
A king under pressure
Lions are emblems of wild Africa, but their visibility in places like the Serengeti and Kruger National Park conceals trouble. "It creates a perception that they are doing well, but they have declined catastrophically in historical times," says Dr Luke Hunter of the conservation group Panthera.
Lions number around 20,000 in Africa, a 40 per cent decline since the 1990s and 60 per cent decline outside of their southern African strongholds. In West Africa, perhaps around 250 adult lions survive.
“In many areas the pressure on lion prey for the massive bush meat trade is a key factor,” says Hunter. “Snares are a double whammy, depleting prey and killing lions. “Trophy hunting of lions is rarely done in a sustainable way. And there are anecdotal reports of lion bones being sold as proxies for tiger bones in Asia.
"They are also killed intentionally or in retaliation. They can be easy targets: apex predators, they will stand and defend their kills or finds in the face of people. "Lions occasionally kill cattle," admits Hunter, "and it is difficult for rural herders, who rely so heavily on livestock, to live with lions."
On-the-ground action can help. Panthera intervened in northern Namibia where villagers were killing at least 20 lions a year. Lions wandered into their areas, attracted to cattle. “We resolved the problem by building fortified corrals for them that could house hundreds of cattle,” says Hunter. Zero cattle were killed at night and there have been no retaliatory killings of lions since.