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African wild blog
Protecting Room to Roam
by Briana Abrahms, PhD Candidate, University of California, Berkeley
We now know that most of the world’s protected areas are too small to sustain healthy populations of large animals, which require a great deal of space in order to survive and breed. When these protected areas don’t offer enough space, animals will roam outside of these areas to find new resources like food or mates. Unfortunately, animals leaving protected areas often run into numerous dangers, such as contact with humans, barriers like highways, or diseases from domestic animals. If populations are too isolated from one another, animals within a single population may resort to inbreeding because they can’t find new mates, ultimately reducing the genetic diversity in the population.
Of Africa’s prized large carnivore species, the endangered African wild dog needs the most space to survive and as a result has suffered the greatest impacts from the loss and fragmentation of its habitats. In fact, the species now occupies only 12% of its historical range, and is mainly limited to a handful of protected areas (Fig. 1).
Figure 1. Today’s remaining African wild dog populations are highly fragmented from one another across the continent. Credit: The International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
Faced with this situation, conservationists increasingly recognize the need to protect or restore the connections between habitats to allow African wild dogs and other species to move from one area to another. The most promising tool for doing so is the establishment wildlife corridors, swaths of habitat that connect core habitat areas and allow the safe passage of animals. In order to know where to protect these linkages, we must first ask “How much land, and what types, do animals need to safely move between habitats?” Thankfully, new GPS collar technology lets animals answer this question for us.
At the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust, in collaboration with the Royal Veterinary College of London, we’ve deployed custom-built GPS collars on over a dozen African wild dogs. These collars allow us to track both individual dogs and their larger packs, and get their precise location every five minutes, around the clock. From this we can begin to understand not only what kinds of habitats African wild dogs need, but also how infrastructure that humans have added to the landscape like roads or fences are affecting their movements. And there’s more: these collars contain novel motion sensors that continuously tell us what behavioral state the animal is in. This means that at any point in time, we can determine if the animal is hunting, eating, traveling, resting, denning, et cetera. By pairing this behavioral information with the animal’s GPS location, we get a picture of which habitats are important for any given behavior.
What we have learned from the incredible dataset we gained from these collars is that what habitat an animal chooses to use, or how the animal responds to a particular feature of the landscape (like a road), greatly depends on what behavioral state it’s in. Just as humans don’t drive over houses nor sleep on highways, animals may not select the same habitat they would for traveling as they would for resting or any other behavior. For example, we learned that African wild dogs avoid the unpaved roads that lattice our study area when the dogs are resting or denning, but, just like people, African wild dogs very much prefer to take roads when they are traveling between destinations (Fig. 2). We also learned that wild dogs are a lot more willing to tolerate potentially hostile environments, like pastoral areas where they come into conflict with farmers, when they are traveling.
Figure 2. A pack of African wild dogs, one of Africa’s most endangered species, traverse their landscape via road in northern Botswana. Credit: Neil R. Jordan.
This research, which we recently published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, has important implications for designing wildlife corridors. Based on the habitat preferences we measured when wild dogs were traveling, versus the general preferences we measured without paying attention to behavioral state, we made predictions about where important corridors for movement might be. We then tested these predictions against real long-distance movements of African wild dogs. We found that the corridors based on habitat preferences when traveling protected 87% of the long-distance wild dog movements we observed, as opposed to a paltry 33% for corridors based on general habitat preferences that did not consider behavioral state. Therefore, our study highlights the need to take into account behavior-specific habitat preferences when determining where wildlife corridors should best be placed.
This lesson couldn’t have come at a better time for protecting room to roam for large animals in southern Africa. The governments of Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Zambia, and Zimbabwe recently signed an agreement to establish the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (Fig. 3), an effort to link 444,000 square kilometers (or 171,000 square miles) between 17 protected areas for the protection of wildlife movement. Protecting linkages for large animals like African wild dogs has the added benefit of protecting connections for many other species that rely on similar habitats.
Through the detailed study of animal movement, we now have the science to support conservationists and governments as they begin planning these critically important wildlife corridors. As pressures from changing landscapes and climates continue to rise, effective corridors will become increasingly important for maintaining the viability of Earth’s wild populations.
Figure 3. The Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area was signed into action in 2011, and aims to protect animal movement between 17 protected areas in southern Africa. Credit: Peace Parks Foundation.
Solving the puzzle
Image 1: Each spotted hyaena has a distinctive pattern of spots on its coat. We use these patterns to identify individuals within the study population.
This task was made easier by the efforts of a previous postgraduate student, Gabriele Cozzi, whose GPS collars deployed within this hyaena population often brought him to large carcasses and communal den sites. Gabriele started to compile ID photos of both collared and un-collared individuals, matching hyaenas to a given clan based on associations between individuals. At the beginning of my first field season, I created a Microsoft Access database to organize and visualize information about each individual hyaena within the population (see image 2). This database started out with 183 identified hyaenas, and has now grown to 460 individuals after 18 months of fieldwork. The number of photographed hyaenas in the population was greatly enhanced by the large-scale camera trap surveys conducted by another BPCT graduate student, Lindsey Rich.
Can painting intimidating eyes onto the hides of cows reduce predation and promote coexistence with lions and other large carnivores?
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?
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.
This is a scary-ass cow, but will lions be intimidated?
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.
The “i-cow” or “scary-ass cow” concept is the brainchild of Dr Neil Jordan (Lecturer at the University of New South Wales and Conservation Biologist at Taronga Conservation Society Australia), who says that “shooting lions is an inexpensive, but ultimately ineffective method of protecting livestock, 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, and perhaps scary-ass cows are a non-lethal ‘weapon’ they could use instead”.
Dr Jordan, and the team at BPCT now need to test whether the i-cow theory works in practice,
and they are in the process of raising funds to collar conflict lions and leopards to answer this question.
Jordan says, “We already know that the pen is mightier than the sword, but is the paintbrush mightier than the gun too? It seems to me it’s worth a shot”.
Dr Neil Jordan painting cows at the livestock-carnivore interface, Botswana.
What can you do to help?
Please consider supporting this work, and BPCT’s other large carnivore conservation projects, by donating directly HERE.
A day in the life of a field research assistant
Hallie Walker, Field Research Assistant
Creatures that Lurk in the Night
Lindsey Rich, PhD student, Virginia Tech
Northern Botswana has an abundance of wildlife and one of the most diverse carnivore guilds in Africa. Hearing lions (Panthera leo) roar, leopards (Panthera pardus) saw, and spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta) whoop as you drift to sleep is one of the many pleasures and novelties of living in this incredible ecosystem. But what other animals silently and covertly move about under the cover of darkness? My dissertation research, focused on monitoring and conserving carnivore communities, is helping to shed light on this nocturnal world. With the assistance of camera trap surveys, I will gain insights into the densities, distributions, and ecology of carnivore communities including elusive small and meso-carnivores such as African civets (Civettictis civetta), wildcats (Felis libyca), and aardwolves (Proteles cristata).
A serval marches by
A heavily set 1 to 1.5 meter animal darts across the road and into the cover of shrubs. It was black with white bands and blotches, an African civet! I have only seen one civet but in just three weeks, my camera traps have detected this secretive viverrid 89 times. Civets remind me of raccoons as they are a similar size and shape and share the distinguishing feature of a black mask across their eyes. Also similar to a raccoon, they are omnivorous, feasting on fruits, insects, carrion, and vertebrates up to the size of a newborn antelope. Individual civets have unique patterns in their fur, just like leopards, cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus), and wild dogs (Lycaon pictus), which will allow me to estimate the number of civets residing within BPCT’s study area.
African civet, Civettictis civetta
My car headlights illuminate what appears to be a domestic cat hunting mice on the floodplain. That would be a wildcat, only distinguishable from its domestic counterpart by rufous, unmarked ears and longer legs. Thousands of embalmed cats were retrieved from Egyptian tombs suggesting that the wildcat was domesticated as early as 4000 B.C. Wildcats are widespread across Africa, as well as places in Europe and Asia, occurring almost everywhere that rats and mice are plentiful. These small, cryptic cats appear to be abundant within BPCT’s study area as my camera traps have already detected wildcats 142 times! One camera trap photo even caught a wildcat carrying its dinner, which appears to still be alive.
Honey badger, or Ratel, Mellivora capensis
One of the silent, covert carnivores that I would be most excited to see is an aardwolf. The camera traps have photographed them with their manes up as well as down. When the aardwolf bristles its mane and tail, it can enlarge its silhouette by up to 74% which serves as an impressive defensive-threat display! Aardwolves are one of the most specialized carnivores, dining almost exclusively on harvester termites. This specialization allows them to consume a protein-rich diet with minimal effort and minimal competition from other predators. Termites are located primarily by the aardwolves’ unusually acute hearing and once they are found, the aardwolf rapidly licks them up, mmm mmm.
Aardwolf, Proteles cristatus
There are many other silent, stealthy carnivores that move through the floodplains, mopane woodlands, and acacia savanna under the cover of darkness. The camera traps are showing that just because you don’t see something, doesn’t mean it is not there! If you are lucky, in the beams of your vehicle’s headlights you may see a serval jump into the air and pounce onto an unsuspecting rat, a caracal batting a sandgrouse to the ground, or the fearless honey badger using its knife-like foreclaws to unearth concealed prey.
Preying solitaire: Kubu’s story
(Neil Jordan & Krystyna Golabek)
“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.
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.
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.
African wild dogs making their mark –
an update on the Bioboundary Research Project
(Dr Krystyna Golabek, Research Coordinator)
The Botswana Predator Conservation Trust (BPCT) has been studying African wild dogs in Northern Botswana since 1989. Wild dogs are wide-ranging and commonly come into contact with livestock, being persecuted as a result. However, wild dogs are also territorial and advertise their presence in an area using scent marks. Our team at BPCT hopes that by understanding wild dogs’ natural scent marking behaviour and its chemistry, we may be able to replicate the scent marks of neighbouring packs, and deter dispersing wild dogs from settling in areas with high potential for human-wildlife conflict.
The development of this biologically-relevant boundary, or "BioBoundary", took a step forward recently with recent research conducted by Dr Neil Jordan and colleagues published in the journal Animal Behaviour. This work showed that the scent-marking behaviour of the dominant pair in a pack likely functions to advertise the presence of a mated pair. Extensive field observations allowed the team to show that dominant wild dogs alternately place their scent-marks on top of each other's in a repetitive sequence which results in a layered "tandem-mark". Each member of the pair is more likely to place its mark over their partner's scent than the scent of other dogs, and do so with stereotyped raised-leg postures. This sequence of behaviours can be easily observed when watching a pack of wild dogs, where the dominant pair clearly invest more time in scent-marking together than the other members of the pack.
A resting pair of African wild dogs
Ordinarily, the male completes the marking sequence, possibly advertising his 'ownership' of the female in this way. Importantly though this strategy falls away when the pair are not reproductively viable (related), suggesting that it is possibly a message of pair-bonding and pack stability. Tandem-marking may therefore be a key message for would-be intruders. When a dominant wild dog dies, there is often a period of transition (a breeding opportunity) before new unrelated individuals immigrate into the area. During this time a subordinate steps into their shoes, and 'tandem marks' with their relative. The research team found that in these situations, the dominant female was more likely to leave the last scent-mark than they were in an actual breeding pair, and these unpaired females did so by actively sneaking away from their related males to scent-mark alone and leaving her signal indicating “I’m available” like a notice on a singles/dating website. This result, and others suggests that related males and females in groups with no reproductive pair scent-mark competitively to advertise their own status, rather than a combined signal that identifies a mated pair. Interestingly, these results also suggest it may be possible to identify the pair bonding of a male x female pair by observing the details of how they scent mark with each other. As a rule of thumb, if the marking bout in the same place contains more than three marks from each of the pair, and the dominant female “has the last word”, it is likely that they are related to one another!
These findings have helped our team better focus our energy on dominant 'tandem' marks and the chemical compounds within them. These almost certainly hold the key to replicating a viable, already pair-bonded, resident wild dog pack. Being able to synthetically produce these in areas of high potential conflict with livestock and humans may provide the key to securing their future.
[To read the original research article "Top marks from top dogs: Tandem marking and pair-bond advertisement in African wild dogs" recently published in Animal Behaviour click here.]
a dozen dogs and a big cat; observations of hunting
(Ari Whiteman, Research Assistant)
Despite observing large carnivores on a daily basis, it’s still quite rare to see the entire process of a kill. Thick brush, fast-moving prey, and darkness are just a few of the common struggles we must overcome in order to witness a predator earning its name. Every so often though, through a combination of both luck and skill, we catch a glimpse of the incredible power that our study species' reserve for mealtime. Over the last month, I’ve been fortunate enough to observe two different kills, both very different from each other, and both providing key insight into the hunting strategies of our resident carnivores, as well as the defensive maneuvers of their prey.
The first kill was courtesy of a pack of African wild dogs commonly seen in the area surrounding Dog Camp. It was late afternoon and Neil and I had been with the dogs as they rested under Mopane trees through the hottest part of the day. Around 5:00pm, the “rally” began. The rally refers to a short period of excitement after the dogs extended mid-day siesta and before their evening hunt. Usually initiated by the fast-growing and ever-hungry pups, the rally includes copious amounts of scent-marking, vocalizations, and play behavior, leading to an overall sense that a hunt is about to take place! As the dogs left the area in search of food, led by the dominant male and female, Neil and I quickly collected some of the scent-markings for analysis and hopped back in the car in order to follow their pursuit.
Following African wild dogs while they hunt can be an extremely hectic endeavour. They move very quickly as a group and when prey is spotted they begin to course, splitting up, searching woodland patches, and finally reaching a full sprint in order to run down and corner their potential meal. This strategy of hunting generally has quite a high success rate, yet due to the rapid changes in direction often in dense brush, it’s also one of the most difficult to witness in person. Using telemetry sets to locate the strongest signals, Neil and I positioned us alongside the dogs as they trotted across the landscape. All of a sudden at one point several of the lead dogs split up and broke into a sprint, an indication that they had locked in on something. We lost visual contact with them and so decided to reposition the car in what we felt may be their direction of travel. Amazingly, the decision paid off, as perhaps a minute later we saw an adult female impala running towards our car. She had several dogs on her tail and made a sharp right turn into an acacia bush only a few metres to our left. At that point, one of the dogs had a hold of her leg, though the long thorns of the acacia seemed to force him to let go. However, when the impala burst through the other side of the bush, other adult dogs were already upon her. It was an almost instantaneous process, lightning fast, as every dog descended on the unfortunate antelope. Once the adults had managed only a few small bits of food, the pups arrived on the scene and the adults immediately surrendered the kill to them. The vast majority of the kill was in fact left to the pups, while some adults waited close by for the pups to finish, and others left to search for more food for themselves. This "youngest feeds first" phenomenon is a common occurrence in African wild dogs, one that we’re currently investigating in detail. Overall, it was an incredible sighting, since the kill took place very close to our car, and since we were able to document the entire process of the hunt, from the rest and rally, through the coursing, encounter and chase phases, and eventually to the successful kill and consumption of their prey. It was also the first kill I’ve personally ever seen and therefore something I’ll always remember.
The second kill I witnessed this month was a very different experience, as the predator was a male leopard we have named Charles (after Charles Lindberg, following our tradition of naming leopards after pilots). Charles is also often found in the immediate area around Dog Camp, yet on this particular afternoon he happened to be deep into the Acacia scrubland that dominates the landscape to our south. With seeds from the tall grass continuously filling my radiator and overheating my engine, and the signal on his collar remaining consistently inconsistent (indicating him moving), the tracking process took several hours. Thankfully, as the mid-day sun had finally settled in a golden aura on the acacia studded horizon, the oppressive heat had vanished leaving a much-welcomed coolness in its place. This is my favorite time of day. As dusk approaches in the Okavango Delta, the magical nocturnal orchestra begins. Cicadas and katydids highlight the string section. Pearl-spotted Owlets, Vereaux’s Eagle-owls, and African bullfrogs arrive with the woodwinds. Lions roars in the distance, a magnificent crescendo.
Male leopard Charles, surveys the scene from a lofty perch.
I managed to find Charles before dark. He was in a towering acacia tree. It’s commonly agreed that a leopard resting in a tree, silhouetted against the peach-hued African sunset, is among the singularly most beautiful images in nature. With such a scene before me, and with the enchantment of the nighttime orchestra nearly in full swing, I was overwhelmingly reminded just how incredible this place is and how lucky I am to be here. Charles wasn’t done with the show, however; he was hungry. With the flowing grace and clarity of movement that only cats possess, he stood up, stretched, and lowered himself onto the ground. Leopard hunts are far easier to follow then dogs hunts, utilizing patience and surprise to sneak up on unsuspecting prey. After perhaps only 100m, I saw Charles crouch down in the grass. He’d seen something. I turned my engine off and stared intently ahead of me, waiting for the right moment. All of a sudden, he pounced (or moused as some people call it), and I realized why I hadn’t seen his target. With all four feet off the ground, his front-half dipped downward and his whole body softly landed onto a family of guinea-fowl. All of the birds, except for one, flew up into a tree with a cacophonous riot of alarm calls. One wasn’t so lucky though and was quietly and efficiently consumed right in front of my car. It was an amazing sighting, as I was able to witness the full adaptive skill-set of a classic ambush predator.
At the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust, we use sightings such as these in order to learn more about large carnivore behavior in Africa; and we are accumulating quite a large dataset now over the years. While witnessing the entire process of a kill is rare, it remains an integral part of our work in aiding the conservation of the predator guild. Hopefully, with the wet season drawing to a close, easier off-roading conditions are ahead and will lead to even more observations as useful and exciting as these.
Scouting for girls
One of the most interesting aspects of being a research assistant on the Bioboundary Project is the opportunity to spend nights out in my car to collect data on distant wild dog packs.
After getting the coordinates for Mankwe Pack, obtained by Tico by aerial tracking, I made my first attempt at sleeping out in the bush. Some dog packs are so far way that it's just not economic to drive back and forth to camp, so in order to get as much data as we can on distant packs we often camp out close by. Unfortunately, however, by the time I arrived to the fix, some 30km from camp, the dogs had moved off. I searched the area, travelling the roads at dusk, as the dogs do, looking for fresh tracks and a radio-collar signal, but despite my best efforts I did not manage to pick them up. Driving home the next morning, a bit of luck came my way when I spotted the tracks of multiple dogs on the road to Moremi's South Gate, some 15km from camp. I got out to radio-track and to my surprise, the tracks belonged to Matthew’s pack, a dog pack oftentimes found only a few kilometres from Dog Camp.
Matthew's pack yearlings enjoying the rain
Matthew’s pack were clearly enjoying the rain and were in a very playful mood, jumping in the water-logged pans and fighting in the road (basically being really great fun to observe). At this point, all pack members were present, and after a good long observation session, I left them resting off-road in the shade and returned to camp. However, when Neil returned to the pack later that day, three of the older sub-ordinate males - known to us as Claudio, Stetson and Toque - were absent. It seemed that that day they had left their natal pack to try and establish one for themselves and luckily we had had the foresight to get collars on some of them in anticipation of such a dispersal event.
Collaring old subordinate wild dogs is a technique that Tico has used for a while now that has allowed new packs to be found, dispersers to be followed and provided some amazing information of how far wild dogs may disperse in order to pick up a potential breeding mate and/territory. We once had two females travel to the border of Zimbabwe and back to the Delta again, presumably, and worryingly, not finding a suitable mate in all that space in between.
Since one collar was a GPS radio-collar (designed and built by our collaborators at the Royal Veterinary College, London) collecting and storing location data as the dog travelled, we found out that Claudio (3yrs), Stetson and Toque (2yrs) spent many of the following weeks travelling all over Moremi Game Reserve, from Xakanaka to Khwai, back down to South Gate, even briefly returned to Matthew’s pack in a rather aggressive encounter we observed that led to them leaving later that night...
A few weeks later I went out up north in hope of picking up these roving Matthew’s males and to see if they'd had any luck prospecting for females. After failing to pick up any signs on the first day, I decided to sleep out again and search a new area in the morning. Amazingly I got a strong radio signal on the first attempt and minutes later, I saw three dogs running along the Xakanaka airstrip. It was Stetson and Claudio, but the third dog was not Toque. The two males had joined up with a Xakanaka pack female called Lila; a new pack was born.
Lila looking pretty well fed
Wild dog packs have an unusual hierarchical structure; at the top lie the dominant breeding pair, but the subsequent order is age-reversed, with the younger dogs being dominant over their older siblings. I was surprised then to observe that Claudio seemed to be dominant over the younger Stetson. Whilst Claudio and Lila were scent marking their surroundings, as all dominant pairs will do, Stetson was idly watching from a distance.
The future is likely to be tough for this trio of dogs, as they attempt to establish their own territory, and build up numbers. Three dogs can hunt very effectively, but raising pups to the age of dispersal is a much more formidable challenge.
A white tail flashes out of the shade, momentarily painting an “S” shape on the dry grass canvas before falling abruptly back to earth. Back to the dust. Invisible again.
The world is still. No hint of a breeze. The carpet of crispy brown leaves and long dry grass doesn’t even quiver beneath the outstretched acacia arms. Minutes pass like thick hot soup through a narrow hour glass. A twitch of black- an ear- and then nothing. The flies give away the resting dogs, but no one is watching, only me.
These efficient high speed killers lie dormant. Digesting. We are six hours from dark, one quarter of a full day from the dulling of this oppressive heat. Plenty of time to gather my thoughts before they rise again, and I play the previous evening back in my mind. The last chase. The frenzied rallying of the troops preceding the march. No overt dominance, just ritualized submission. Licking the lips of another, circling, twittering, defecating and then away. First walking, and then at a canter. Always together in a line. All three of them, and there are only three. And then they stop abruptly, and alert. There’s an impala ahead and within range; seventy-meters perhaps. The tips of its twirling horns almost glint in the fading rays of the evening sun as it is confronted by the dogs, its lean ochre body tense and poised for ‘flight’. Predator and prey face one another, eyes locked.
Ears back, the dominant female approaches, in a slow crouched walk. It’s almost casual but she is poised. She advances in full view. She is watched. After an eternity, he bolts, an explosion of impala kicking sand as he jerks his head, swivels around, and accelerates for his life. I don’t see his eyes but I do see the fear, and I feel it too. The dog catapults itself off in response, pushing the sand back with her galloping legs as she accelerates quickly, her body stretching in increasingly athletic bounds. The pursuit has begun. A tri-coloured bullet flashes through the acacia scrub, honing in on its fleeing target. In seconds they leave the scene, the other dogs following, but out to the sides, perhaps trying to anticipate the quarry’s next move.
They get it. They almost always do. The bitch returns to the others with a tell-tale face and throat of crimson. They don’t wait for her to lead them to the kill, as they did for her to return, racing off instead in the direction from which she emerged, the thorn scrub quickly swallowing up their forms. By now what little light is left paints a dull grey scene. She turns and trots into it too, but more casually. She is full.
But that was yesterday. Now they wait for that time again, tails swishing in the sand, waiting for the sun to fall. We wait together.
By Neil Jordan
I was lucky enough to join the BPCT as a research assistant at an ideal time, just as several of the female lions gave birth to their cubs. Once a female lion gives birth, she will leave the pride and remain on her own whilst the cubs are small, for the first three months or so. Fortunately, two of these females with new cubs are fitted with radiocollars (Krystal and Valentina), which allows us to monitor the growth and survival of their offspring while they are separate from the pride.
Lion cubs are very vulnerable during this early stage of development and mothers hide their cubs to protect them from intruding male lions and other predators. When we know a female may be with cubs it's a long waiting game for us, sitting away from the thicket, eyes pinned through binoculars and camera lenes watching, counting tails, waiting for movement. When we first got a head-or tail-count we found Valentina had four cubs and Krystal with just one cub. Unfortunately, unless we push ourselves into their safe haven thicket right after the lioness has given birth (which we opt against) there is no easy way for us to know for certain whether Krystal gave birth to only one cub, or to multiple cubs that had since died. So in this case we accept that loss of data for the benefit of habituation and keeping our observations as natural as possible by not disturbing the animals.
One day when the females were resting together, lying within fifty meters of each other and the cubs now playing and resting out in the open. Krystal’s cub that day seemed to be much more active and alert than any of Valentina’s offspring, despite being a few weeks younger age. Subsequent observation sessions with Krystal revealed that this lone cub was indeed growing fast and acting very responsive to his mother. Perhaps we are witnessing the benefit of being an only cub; receiving all of his mother’s milk. Krystal also started to travel with her young cub much sooner than Valentina, possibly due to the fact that it is much easier to keep an eye on one mobile cub than four! During this time Krystal would emit quiet contact calls to which her cub would reciprocate, he would then approach her, and together they would either move off together or rest together away from the other cubs in another thicket. At this stage Valentina and her four older cubs still stayed and would always be found resting in the scrub not far from their birth thicket
One morning, whilst Neil was tracking Krystal, her cub now 4 months old, he found a foreign coalition of three large adult males very close to Krystal's signal. Non-resident males are a danger to young cubs and will kill any cubs that are not their own, they do this to induce female receptivity again. Neil observed the three foreign males calling and searching around, and when he picked up Krystal he found her walking away from the males, but her cub was nowhere to be seen.
It was my job to get out their early that afternoon to do an observation session on Krystal, recording her behavior in this unfortunate situation. When I found her she was moving, this is unusual for lions in the mid-afternoon heat. She was constantly on the move, making contact calls as she went, it appeared that she was searching for her cub. Following her we returned back to the very spot at which Neil had seen the interaction with the male coalition in the morning, but there was no sign of the cub. I followed her through the dusk and into the night until I lost her in dense vegetation, she walked, sniffed the air and called the whole time, and still no sign of her cub. I had little hope that the cub was still alive.
The next evening, Krys and I tracked the lionesses again and found them back in an area of thick scrub, not far from where they had hidden their cubs originally almost 7km from where I've left Krystal last night. There we found Krystal resting with three other females (F5, F9, F10) and a cub! Excited at first, but unsure if the cub belonged to Krystal or another female, we waited, watched and took ID shots. The cub was having lots of fun jumping on the sleeping adults and chewing on their tails until they batted it away and then the cub would run back to Krystal, and then he began to suckle. It was soon clear after watching these interactions that this was Krystals cub and the ID photos of his distinctive whisker spots confirmed it.
By Jessica Vitale
Welcome! These pages will be dedicated to providing news about our research and the study animals, and hopefully give an insight into the life of the researchers here at dog camp but also keep you up to date with our work.
My husband (Neil Jordan) and I (Krystyna Golabek) joined the BPCT team in May 2011 where we took over as management of the wild dog research camp (DC). I hope you can forgive our lack of information and newsletters since our arrival, we have fully immersed ourselves in dog camp life; getting to grips with the large and effective machine that is wild dog research camp.
After getting into the rhythms of life and work here at DC, seeing all the seasons through in all their glory; the rusty orange of the Mopane in winter (Jun-Aug), the annual floods transforming dry grasslands to wetlands (Jul-Sep), the parched and hot days of the dry season (Oct-Nov) and finally the wet and humid challenges of the rainy season (Dec-Feb), it feels like we may just be now qualified to write this blog and keep those interested up to date with activity here at camp. We hope that these new blog pages will keep you more updated and informed as to our progress.
Team dog camp 2013
The end of 2012 saw the departure of our two research assistants Geoff Gilfillan and Jessica Vitale, after 12 and 9 months (respectively) these two hard working graduates are now off in search of funding to fulfil their PhD research ambitions at the BPCT study site. We wish them luck and hope to see them return, funded and ready to do exciting and useful conservation ecology. In March we welcomed two new research assistants Kasim Rafiq and Drew Vanetski. These two assistants will join Dikatholo Kedkilwe, our local assistant working with us since October 2010, and together will assist with the daily field work, collecting data for both our bioboundary project and the ongoing research into coexistence and competition within the large predator guild, as well as helping maintain the population whilst our Ph.D students grind away at their respective universities.
More updates to come soon.
Krystyna and Neil - learning to be Land Rover mechanics.
Being stuck in the bush is something you need to learn to laugh about!
But our work also has much more romantic sides.