by Robin Lines, NNF researcher
African wild dogs, Lycaon pictus, once roamed the entire Namibian landscape, even venturing into the far western desert areas following migratory prey during periods of good rainfall. Since the development and expansion of agriculture, the species has experienced a population decline of about 98% and range decrease of about 90%, broadly comparable with the decline of the species throughout Africa.
By the time the explorer Captain Shortridge made the first comprehensive assessment of the mammal fauna of South West Africa in 1934, the African wild dog was already under immense pressure from human-induced persecution, and was largely extinct from the southern half of Namibia.
A state-sponsored ‘vermin control’ programme followed, further increasing pressure on the species.
By the late 1960s African wild dogs had been largely eradicated from the central and western areas of Namibia, and by 1973 they were functionally extinct in the Etosha National Park, Namibia’s premier wildlife refuge.
Then in 1975 came the Nature Conservation Ordinance, reclassifying the ‘vermin control’ policy to one of ‘problem animal management’. Terminology and policy change had little effect, with widespread unsustainable persecution of wild dogs continuing, irrespective of the increasingly endangered status of the species.
Three pioneering attempts at reintroduction of African wild dog into the Etosha National Park within the following decade all failed for reasons we now understand clearly.
A research-based approach
Early field research in the late 1990s and early 2000s, supported by the NNF, culminated in the Carnivore Atlas monitoring programme, providing the first science-based population estimates and providing a tool for tracking changes in range, population size and other key baseline data.
After four years of research through this work, the best estimate of African wild dog numbers was between 355 and 601 individuals, suggesting a population decline approaching 10% per annum. Interestingly, 95% of the population occurred outside formally protected areas, across a mosaic of rangelands characterised by increasing human population density, intensifying livestock farming activities and infrastructure development – all considered negative influences on African -wild dog conservation.
African wild dog conservation begins
With the acclaimed Namibian Community Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) Programme expanding into the eastern communal lands, the NNF was instrumental in assisting the development of the Namibian Wild Dog Project – to date the longest-running and most comprehensive research and conservation initiative for the species in Namibia.
From 2003 to 2005 applied research and conservation on human-wild dog conflict and population dynamics and land use were undertaken, as well as environmental education outreach projects through the media in the local OtjiHerero language across four emerging communal conservancies in the Okakarara District. This was a great step in this area, both scientifically and geographically, and built a solid base from which to develop.
From 2005 to 2009, the Namibian Wild Dog Project operated from a ‘rustic’ camp deep in the bush, approximately 20 kilometres south of the Khaudum National Park in the Nyae Nyae Conservancy, researching the conservation status of the species in what was termed its ‘core’ range in Namibia.
Environmental education was again a key component of the project. Informing the local community of the importance of the species and its conservation status was important to build trust and understanding. As part of this work, an African wild dog cultural/environmental tourism package was piloted to emphasise the direct financial value of the species to the local community and the tourism sector.
Based on research to date, the free-ranging African wild dog population in Namibia is estimated at 160 to 259 individuals – a significant decrease from the figure reported not more than five years earlier. An extensive mapping process of known threats to the species backed up these negative population trends in African wild dogs.
Trans-boundary movements to Botswana and Angola were confirmed, and important data was collected on, inter alia, feeding and ranging eco-logy, kleptoparasitism, human-wildlife conflict and mortality causes. Research findings indicate that few breeding packs in Namibia are fully protected from negative human influences throughout their life cycle. Annual human depredation rates, excluding natural mortalities, are likely to exceed breeding recruitment and reduce population viability.
Source-sink dynamics play an important role in the maintenance of this species in Namibia, as it does elsewhere, and as such, the viability of Namibia’s African wild dog population is tied intrinsically to wider trans-boundary conservation efforts.
The NNF and partners are exploring opportunities to support efforts in understanding trans-boundary movements and shared populations of African wild dogs (and other high-value wildlife species) and welcome open collaboration and ideas. One such effort is in Zambia, specifically in the Kafue National Park where the NNF is providing institutional support to the work on African wild dog and other large carnivores there, as these have linkages with populations in Namibia and further across the Kavango-Zambezi (KaZa) Transfrontier Conservation Area.
A move from research to management
From the field-based research came solid baseline data enabling researchers to work closely with regional and international experts to assist in the development of an IUCN/SSC region-wide Conservation Planning Strategy for the species. Following the successful strategy development, the best hope for developing and implementing a National Management Plan for the African wild dog in Namibia would come on the back of this to support country efforts to help conserve one the world’s most critically endangered species.
The project published and disseminated a Namibian-targeted booklet to key stakeholders across the country (and free online) under the title African wild dog: Background Information and Species Management Guidelines (www.nnf.org.na/NNF_docs/Wild_Dog_Booklet_low_res.pdf).
A reintroduction plan for restoration of the African wild dog in the Etosha National Park and north-western Namibia was also formulated to help provide options for the Government, should these re-introductions be deemed appropriate, and an analysis was undertaken on the role of captive facilities in the conservation of African wild dogs in Namibia to support the development of a national stud book for the species.
As we move forward to conserve Namibia’s African wild dog population, we hope that public, private and communal support can be harnessed, because when it comes to these critically endangered species, the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. We have few choices and need to act now, lest this iconic species become Namibia’s first extinction of a key mammal species in living memory!
The Namibian Wild Dog project would like to acknowledge the support of Drs Chris Brown and Julian Fennessy and their staff at the NNF, who have stood firmly behind this challenging conservation project.
This article appeared in the 2012 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.
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