Where the wild dogs are

One of the challenges we have in monitoring a population of endangered African wild dogs is the huge home ranges they cover. An average pack ranges over more than 750km2 in our area, where roads are few and far between. This can result in our searching for a pack for weeks or even months before we might have a glimpse or encounter a set of fresh tracks. Packs can literally disappear in this amount of time, and sometimes they do when they are poisoned or shot when ranging into a risky livestock area outside of the wildlife areas where they are protected. For effective research and conservation of this awesome endangered species, we simply have to do better at keeping track of them.

Satellite collars, which provide an exact location in near-real time, are one solution to keeping track of individuals. But these are often prohibitively expensive, especially when trying to make every donor funded dollar count. As with most such technologies however, the components within these devices are actually relatively inexpensive. This got us thinking; why don’t we  build our own collars?

Let’s make our own.

Using a private donation to buy the components, and lots of excellent advice from Rob Appleby at Wild Spy, we spent many late nights designing,redesigning and eventually fabricating our own home built Satellite collars, and we are really happy to report  that we recently deployed our first one on an African wild dog in our study population in Botswana! “Darius”, the dominant male in the AP pack, has been wearing the collar for six-weeks now, and so far it is working exactly as it should.

Now, trial a home built on a member of our study population.

The collar sends three locations a day,allowing us to respond almost immediately to any risky movements they may make into livestock areas. Taronga zoo’s field grants program provides a crucial linkage here:  through this program we have been able to employ a local “Community Coexistence Officer”, Olorato Antony.  Antony’s role is to liaise directly with local farmers and government and to follow up on the wild dogs and other predators ranging occasionally into livestock areas. Our expanded team can now quickly mobilize and respond to particularly risky excursions, by informing local participating farmers to increase vigilance for predators in their area, and in the end,  keeping both safe while reducing conflict, one of the most important drivers of predator species’ declines.

As we develop and continue to deploy these collars over the coming years, hopefully the field team will be able to worry less about where the wild dogs and lions are, and focus more on ways of keeping them alive and well.

Some home built satellite collars. The tan coloured connecting pieces of cotton fabric constitute a built in ‘drop-off’: this material is meant to deteriorate over time and typically comes apart within 10-15 months, releasing the two ends of the nylon belting from the animal.

Preying solitaire

“Kubu” is a lone African wild dog. On first thought, such a strange state of affairs clearly exonerates her – and any research data collected on her – from contributing usefully to our understanding of wild dog social behaviour. But on reflection, second thoughts are sometimes more insightful than their impetuous predecessors. While Kubu’s story is clearly atypical for such a highly-social species as African wild dogs, it might be argued that through her blurring of many established ‘facts’, the real pressures, drivers and constraints of ‘normal’ wild dog social behaviour are brought into sharper focus.
We thought that the story that follows, although long, was worth sharing in its entirety. Such as it is, Kubu’s story rebukes some wild dog social norms and maybe helps us better understand aspects of the species ’social’ behaviour as a whole.

‍Rules are for society; Kubu goes solo

In the beginning
In June 2009, deep in the mopane woodland of Moremi Game Reserve, Kubu was born into the Mankwe pack amongst a large litter of ten jostling siblings, and was labelled in the dry numbers and codes of science as “MWF0908”. The eight pup, a female, born into the Mankwe pack in 2009. We don’t name wild dogs until they reach the relatively safe age of a year, as over half of wild dog puppies are lost in this time. MWF0908 was, we thought, no exception in this respect, disappearing from the pack before she could be informally named. We were to discover however, that MWF0908 was unlike the unlucky majority. This young wild dog turned out to be an incredible survivor.
‍Pups at the den

On Easter weekend 2011 one of our research team photographed a lone female dog at Kubu pan, and we named her after that location. Her coat patterns were just about visible enough through the mud to add her to our database, and we were even able to match her to a dog photographed earlier that year (April) in Chitabe, some 40km and a river crossing away. But as yet we hadn’t quite connected all of her dots.

Return home
Collarless, and highly mobile, Kubu was not seen for another four-months when she was, quite unexpectedly, found resting with the Mankwe pack.  It was so strange to see an immigrant female completely integrated with the rest of the pack, especially the resident females, and so we were prompted to return to our photo database once again, and we matched this individual to “Kubu” and Kubu to a fuzzy picture of the six-month old MWF0908 from the 2009 pup photos. Where had she been?!

‍Resting at home
Far from the young pup she’d been when last seen with the pack, Kubu had clearly picked up a few life skills during her gap years. Over and above her stay-at-home littermates, she was an extremely accomplished hunter, often leading the pack as the initial ‘ears-back, head-lowered’, conspicuous approach towards the prey began. More often than not Kubu was one of the first dogs to bring down prey, and she was very good at it. Was she making up for lost time, ‘paying to stay’, or just doing what came naturally and putting into practice everything she had learned during her time away?
For a while Kubu seemed settled. While her surviving siblings Thuto, Thuso and Colly chose to disperse at the standard age (28-months for the two males, and 22-months for the female), Kubu stayed on and set about helping her dominant older sister, Masego, raise a new litter of pups with a male named Dotski. This small pack of three was not exactly optimal, and finding enough food without being ambushed by lions or otherwise succumbing to stochastic events was always going to be challenging. But with ample enemies on the outside, it was with some shock that we were soon to observe Kubu herself playing the role of “the enemy within”.

The enemy within
In the breeding season of 2012, Kubu departed the pack again with her new RVC GPS collar betraying her position at an obscenely intrusive resolution of five-minute intervals. We followed her signal and found her with a group of three males and later, as we waited back at the Mankwe den, we witnessed Kubu return, leading the new trio of males closely behind her. As the four rushed in, Kubu immediately attacked her dominant older sister Masego, and the males ran-off the  dominant male, Dotski; his radio-signal fading to a distant beep through the autumnal mopane woodland.

The new males trotted back to the den and, as Kubu lunged and snapped at a cowering Masego, preventing her from accessing and feeding her own pups, the males were seemingly unsure of what they should do. Unlike lions, there is no direct benefit for immigrant wild dogs to kill the offspring of the usurped male; wild dogs in Botswana breed but once a year, and killing the pups does not bring the female into heat any faster. In fact it would actually be detrimental due to the positive effects of larger group size; more eyes, noses and satellite ears to scan for danger and, in the future, more legs to run down prey and provide for the pack. In this scene of intense struggle and high stress, it was insightful to watch the diminutive pied pups running at the new unknown males, begging furiously for food, while Aztec, Zulu and Viking, as we named them, tiptoed around them very unsure of what they should do. It brought to mind a couple of young men left holding a hungry screaming baby.

The following day I found Masgeo and Dotski resting away from their den, where instead lay the three males watching intently as Kubu sniffed, licked and attempted (unsuccessfully) to suckle the pups.  Occasionally she pulled herself away from her self-appointed extra-parental care duties, to socialise with the males, performing an intense series of shoulder-lifts so characteristic of newly-formed pairs. It seemed that Aztec was Kubu’s chosen suitor.

Breaking the mould
While the drive to be dominant breeder is understandable enough, such a series of events is highly unusual in many respects. First it is unusual for an older female to have been dominant over a younger sibling, where younger dogs feed first and are socially dominant over their elders (with the exception of their parents as the dominant pair). Second it’s unusual to have a related dominant pair actually raise pups (though it’s possible that an itinerant male fathered the pups). It’s also unusual to see a dominance change within a pack, but is that even what we had observed?  Might we better describe what we witnessed as another pack ‘kidnapping’ the pups? However we name it, all of this is exceptionally unusual behaviour for wild dogs, but as we’ve seen so far, such events seem to follow Kubu around.

Unfortunately all of these pups ultimately died, and Kubu’s males left her, preferring to join a three female group recently widowed from the neighbouring pack. Her highly intrusive GPS collared failed us prematurely and we lost track of her lone wanderings later in 2012. But then she came back.

The Kubu effect
In September 2012, Kubu was associating with an unusually blonde dog called Savile, but again this match was short-lived, Savile making a similarly smart numerical assessment (perhaps!) as the Mankwe males by joining several females from the Santawani-based Apoka pack, presumably preferring the security of multiple females to a singleton. (Savile himself fell victim to the numbers game later on, and was usurped by five males before the breeding season in 2012 came around).

Simultaneously, the males of the Apoka pack, having split from their sisters following the death of both of their dominant parents in late 2012 early 2013, were available, and Kubu made her move, but failed and spectacularly so! Having trailed the pack on the periphery for a while, Kubu was caught off guard and was suddenly turned upon by the males who attacked her, inflicting quite a few wounds before she was able to run away, slowing to a limping trot and licking her wounds only after she had put about 800m between her and the unwelcoming males. This attack was extremely strange behaviour, and we are still unsure why dispersing males would behave so aggressively to a potential suitor. In the absence of any better alternatives, why had they behaved so strangely? Why not accept her, at least in case of no better option came along in time? We started to put these strange ‘decisions’ and events down to “the Kubu effect”, an unexplained phenomenon that seemed to follow her around like a bad smell.

Unfortunately, the Kubu effect also doomed her recently-fitted new radiocollar which was damaged in the incident, switching on and off intermittently ever since. Despite these difficulties, Kubu was seen, mostly alone, except one afternoon when her “never give up” attitude was on display again as she trailed the hostile Apoka males close to Mababe village, about 35kms from where they had attacked her. This latter meeting was in even less conducive social circumstances as, in the meantime, the males had joined two females and formed a new pack. Another breeding season passed Kubu by with no genetic reward for a lot of energetic effort.

Alone again
Since late 2012, Kubu has continued a life alone. She has clearly become, from necessity, a supreme huntress. For example, we observed her chase an adult male impala right through our research camp and pull him down in the flood plain just out front.  Wild dogs are a twitchy species at best, and usually reach peak levels of paranoia at kill sites; feeding quickly and nervously owing to the threat of ambush by lions and hyaenas attracted by the ‘death cries’ of the prey. But again Kubu bucks the trend. We saw her sleeping out the heat of the day right next to the impala she had killed but not finished eating yet.

‍Table for one
Of course “Wild dogs don’t scavenge, eating only what they kill”. While that is generally true, they, like any other species, will take the opportunity when it arises or when circumstances dictate it is necessary. Last month we found Kubu scavenging from an enormous elephant carcass, again playing “bushmeat roulette” with the risk of ambush by other carnivores attracted by circling vultures and the ever increasing smell. Having fed well here, we expected Kubu to take it easy for a while, and so we were surprised to follow Kubu on a “mousing” mission, foraging intently in an old log before pouncing and catching a dormouse in a style reminiscent of a red fox hunting mice. So in only one week Kubu has expanded the known diet of African wild dogs at both ends of the scale, enriching our knowledge and satisfying her hunger to varying degrees. But Kubu of course is not done there. Back at the elephant carcass, where she has returned a number of times to feed, our knowledge was expanded again when we saw her eating an attending white-backed vulture we suspect she killed; one of heaving mass squabbling noisily over this behemoth of a meal.

‍Kubu feeds at elephant carcass

Clearly there is much we can learn from Kubu. Perhaps she will eventually successfully reintegrate into wild dog society, or maybe she is one of those animals that embarked on a different life history strategy. Only time will tell if Kubu is a successful a social pioneer or a mutant misfit? (Not to suggest that those two conditions are mutually-exclusive). Whatever the outcome, Kubu is interesting for her differences, and we will continue to follow her and to record these differences, and the challenges that they present her with. Her story, like any other, is no more than a series of anecdotes, but I it tells us much about the ecology and social behaviour of ‘normal’ African wild dogs. Though single African wild dogs can survive, they very rarely thrive, and in that sense, despite all of her aberrant behaviours; usurping her sister, kidnapping the pups, surviving alone for years, scavenging, lone-hunting, Kubu may well be a true symbol of the struggles and survival of African wild dogs as a species.

Human-wildlife conflict is draining Africa of it’s lions

This is short video I put together explaining the impact that predator-livestock conflict is having on predator populations, even those within protected areas. Admittedly it casts a bleak outlook, but to conserve lions and rural livelihoods in Africa, we desperately need investment in developing practical and innovative conflict-prevention tools.

If you want to learn more about my exciting NEW PROJECT doing just this in collaboration with the Botswana Predator  Conservation Trust, then please check it out HERE and spread the word.

 

 

 

The hunt debunked?

Our new research shows that African wild dogs don’t hunt collaboratively or chase prey over long distances.

Pack-living African wild dogs are known as super-successful hunters, supposedly collaborating in coordinated attempts to run down their prey in long-distance chases. Such hunts have been dramatized in numerous wildlife documentaries, including Sir David Attenborough’s sensational series “The Hunt”. However, our new research, published as a pair of papers in Nature Communications, challenges these popular perceptions. Rather than collaborating to out-manoeuvre and wear down prey over long distances, wild dogs actually owe their hunting success to short high-speed runs, undertaken during hunts that typically lack high-level coordination between dogs.

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An African wild dog doing what we now know they do best: hunting prey in a series of short chases independent of its pack-mates. (Credit: Neil Jordan)

At our study site in Botswana, we fitted an entire pack of six dogs with sophisticated solar-powered data-logging collars that were built in-house by Professor Alan Wilson’s research team at the Royal Veterinary College in London. These collars are a sensational feat of engineering, and we were rewarded with the first simultaneous recordings from all individuals in a pack in their natural environment, and some really interesting and novel insights into the hunting ecology and dynamics of this incredible endangered species.

While popular and historical accounts describe high level collaboration between dogs hunting over long distances (usually in the short-grass plains), the reality in the woodland savannah of the Okavango delta was quite different. In fact we found zero evidence of high-level cooperative hunting. Instead, individual dogs ran independently of other pack members, did not assume particular roles and never ran ‘relays’ (taking over the chase from a tiring pack-mate; a common misconception). In fact, hunts lacked any evidence of advanced levels of coordination at all.

While this lack of coordination was unexpected, perhaps even more surprising to us was the short distances and high speeds over which hunts took place. African wild dogs are considered the epitome of endurance hunters, chasing down their prey over long chases lasting many kilometres, but once again we found that the dogs confounded our expectation. Instead of engaging in marathon chases, ‘our’ African wild dogs typically employed short bursts of speed over distances averaging a mere 213-metres, and they only ran at high speed for a mere 1km each day. This is well short of the many kilometres previously reported and considered to be typical of the species.

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Sharing the spoils: individuals from our radio-collared study pack feed together after a hunt (Photo credit: Megan Claase).

So why is all of this important? Marathon chases were the main reason that African wild dogs were considered vulnerable to the impacts of losing their hard-earned spoils to competitors like spotted hyaenas. However, because wild dogs appear to ‘pay’ much less for their dinner than was previously thought, it’s also cheaper to lose that food. Their ‘tactic’ of hunting via a series of independent shorter chases and sharing the spoils with their pack mates therefore makes African wild dogs more energetically robust to losing their prey than was previously thought.

Neil Jordan_010

African wild dogs attack and drive off a single spotted hyaena. Haven’t they heard the news that they can afford to give up their prey occasionally? (Photo credit: Megan Claase).

A note of caution though. While this is obviously a welcome bit of good news for this endangered species, African wild dogs are not out of the woods yet. Wide-ranging packs are often exposed to human threats outside protected areas, which are generally too small and filled with competitors to maintain viable populations of African wild dogs. We clearly still need space and coexistence strategies to protect these iconic hunters, and that ultimately is our major research focus.

If you’re interested, you can access the papers here: Hunting strategy paperEnergy balance paper, or via the links under my Publications page.

 

Links to this research in the press

Science magazine:  Wild dogs have adapted to threats by hunting more like cheetahs

National Geographic blog: African Wild Dogs Sharing Kill With The Pack Are More Efficient Than Cheetahs

Natureasia: Sharing is key to wild dog hunting success

IFLScience: African Wild Dogs Sharing Kill With The Pack Are More Efficient Than Cheetah

 

[Note that the study described above was funded by the European Research Council, Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, and Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and with the kind permission of the Government of Botswana. The Botswana Predator Conservation Trust is supported by grants from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Wild Entrust International, Tusk Trust and private donors.]

i-cows! Could saving lions be this simple?

Eye patterns painted on the hides of cattle is a rare sight in more ways than one: it’s a low cost, locally implementable potential solution to human-wildlife conflict.

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Although trophy hunting of African lions and leopards has been banned in Botswana for many years, still the killing of lions continues. Lions kill livestock and, in the absence of alternative methods of preventing these losses, farmers retaliate. Such lethal control of these majestic animals is a temporary respite for farmers at best, as removing the culprits simply creates a vacuum of a vacant territory that is quickly filled by other lions. And so the deadly cycle continues, and large carnivores, including leopards, lions and African wild dogs, are literally draining away before our eyes. What can we do about this?

lion

Lioness in her prime, shot by villager in Sankuyo, northern Botswana (within the wildlife management area).

One of the biggest conservation challenges we face is to provide subsistence farmers with cheap and effective alternative methods of protecting their livestock, without shooting large carnivores. The good news though is that although the problem is a complex one, the solution doesn’t necessarily need to be complex too. In fact the most effective solutions to human-wildlife conflict really MUST be simple and inexpensive. This is the only way to ensure they are available to subsistence farmers who simply don’t have access to funds or resources. We’re hoping that our novel “i-cow” approach to preventing human-wildlife conflict may just such a solution.

There is ample evidence from the animal kingdom that being watched, or at least feeling like you are being watched, will affect your behaviour. Humans are less likely to steal from a store if there are eyes painted on the wall “watching”, and man-eating tigers appear to be less likely to attack woodcutters working in Bengal forests if they are wearing masks on the backs of their heads. Perhaps the eyes have it. For predators like lions and leopards whose entire hunting strategy relies on stalking and maintaining the element of surprise right to the last second, being seen by their prey usually results in the hunt being abandoned. It’s not a big leap to suggest that painting intimidating eyes onto the hides of cows might work in the same way and reduce predation and promote coexistence with large carnivores. Until now however, this has never been suggested let alone tested.

Scary ass cows

These are scary-ass cows, but will lions and leopards be intimidated?

I have developed the “i-cow” or “scary-ass cow” concept because shooting lions is an inexpensive, but ultimately ineffective method of protecting livestock losses, but it’s almost the only action that farmers feel they can take. Instead, what farmers need are cheap and effective solutions that PREVENT livestock losses. Perhaps scary-ass cows are a non-lethal ‘weapon’ they could use instead.

In collaboration with the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust, I now need to test whether the i-cow theory works in practice, and am in the process of attempting to raise funds to collar conflict lions and leopards to answer this question. We already know that the pen is mightier than the sword, but is the paintbrush mightier than the gun? It seems to me it’s worth a shot. A non-lethal shot of course.

Do you want to help?

Because farmers need to know that this can work before laying down arms, I am currently fundraising to formally test the concept. The ultimate aim is to roll this tool out over large areas, where we can make a big difference to big cat conservation. Please do consider supporting this important work, by donating to the project (link above), staying in touch with my updates from the field, and spreading the word far and wide.

Thank you for thinking of and acting towards large carnivore coexistence!