Eyes on the Sky and the FutureJuly 15, 2015
Conservation | The Return of the OxpeckerJuly 20, 2015
African Wild Dog Population Assessment Project
By Robin Lines
The decline of the African wild dog, Lycaon pictus, has been well documented over the past 30 years. Distributed formerly throughout 39 sub-Saharan countries, the current population is estimated to fluctuate around 5,500 individuals, restricted to 14 countries, though perhaps only 9 countries maintain populations exceeding 100 individuals (approximately 10 breeding packs). The maintenance of viable breeding packs and connected populations is the key to African wild dog conservation.
Numbers are evocative and persuasive when applied to endangered species conservation. And none more so than in discussions around African wild dog conservation in Namibia since 1923 when the South West Africa Administrator estimated the African wild dog population of Etosha (then Game Reserve No 2 covering 99,526km²) to be in excess of 2,000 individuals.
While the value of such guesstimates has been questioned, the figures suggest a density of two animals/100km² for a dryland area ostensibly covering most of north west Namibia. This is well within the species known biological limits of one to four adults and yearlings /100km². Extrapolating nationally, this infers a pre-agricultural population of more than15,000. Reasonable?
Around the time of this first population estimate a State sponsored vermin eradication programme was enacted, which formalised persecution of this species and penalized farmers who didn’t actively shoot African wild dogs on sight. Figures are few and far between in Namibia, but many learned conservationists argue this programme laid the foundation for ongoing inherited prejudice and misunderstanding of African wild dogs that lasts to this day in all but a few farming communities throughout Namibia.
At cessation of the vermin eradication programme in the 1970’s, Dr Eugene Joubert and P.K.N. Mostert from South West Africa’s Directorate of Nature Conservation (today Namibia’s Ministry of Environment and Tourism) attempted to quantify the African wild dog population size through an extensive postal survey, coming up with a figure of 100 individuals for the whole country.
A generation later, Dr Philip Stander and Lise Hanssen applied more robust sampling methods following the first field studies on the species in the former Bushmanland, estimating Namibia’s African wild dog population at perhaps a more realistic 250 -1,250 adults and yearlings. Still, a dramatic decline from 1926. The last estimate in 2008, combining the methods of Stander and Hanssen with direct sightings and mapping of habitat change and human-wildlife conflict, put the population closer to 300 adults and yearlings.
Evidently a precipitous decline has been underway for many decades, irrespective of debate surrounding the relative value of the methods used and number generated. This discussion is set to continue given the effort, complexities and costs of gathering meaningful data over sufficient time periods to detect changes in population size in light of conservation interventions.
Notwithstanding debates around population estimates, it is perhaps illuminating to compare the existing population data with known drivers of population change to understand the population’s trajectory over time.
Fortunately we have a good understanding of how these drivers impact free ranging African wild dog populations from empirical evidence gathered from a wide array of field studies over 50 years. Fast roads through core habitat are bad. Vehicle collisions indiscriminately kill pack members, and African wild dog pack survival is very sensitive to removal of breeding animals. Generally livestock and game farming development too is bad for African wild dogs. Farmers persecute them irrespective of nominal legislative protection. The ‘Shoot, Shovel and Shut-Up’ approach to carnivore ‘management’ is common throughout Namibia’s farmlands. In many communal stock farming areas wild prey has been heavily depleted, and this is in addition to the expanding illegal bushmeat trade – another trend rarely discussed in Namibia, but almost certainly a growing threat to biodiversity. In essence a phenomenon known as defaunation is sweeping the globe. Carnivores and their prey are being brushed aside in the face of an expanding human tide.
So how do these drivers of African wild dog conservation stack up in Namibia? Road access is increasing throughout the Otjozondjupa and Kavango regions, and also in the bordering areas of Botswana. Increased high speed traffic and road kills follow. Ample evidence shows that a few signs on the road here and there, warning drivers of speeding through African wild dog habitat, is not going to change the behaviour of the majority of drivers any time soon.
Large areas of formerly pristine bush are being converted into stock farms within the Tsumkwe District and to the border of Khaudum National Park. Gam, Eiseb and Talismanis are witnessing a massive expansion of stock farming, road development and wild prey depletion. Much the same is occurring on the Botswana side.
The upshot is that while some areas remain a safe haven for African wild dogs in Namibia, the edge effects of all these developments are increasingly encircling the remaining population, and isolating it from adjacent populations in Botswana. Genetic studies clearly demonstrate increasing isolation of African wild dogs throughout Africa, Namibia included.
Some argue that the Tsumkwe District and the Khaudum National Park are huge areas, and for almost any other species it might be sufficient to maintain self-sustaining viable populations. But bear in mind that even in higher rainfall, and more productive areas of Africa, free-ranging African wild dog populations have become extinct from almost every intact wildlife managed area less than 1 million ha. Given home ranges of up to 3,000km², few of our remaining African wild dog packs can hope to live their annual lifecycle without threat of direct and indirect persecution. It is a sobering thought.
And what of connectivity between African wild dog populations in Namibia, Angola and Zambia? This might just be the saving grace for our African wild dog population, if unplanned and unhinged development and human population growth can be curtailed. It’s a big ask irrespective of promises surrounding sustainable development within the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area.
So what can we in Namibia do to maintain population persistence of our African wild dogs? An all-out effort to curtail persecution and road kills in the Tsumkwe District is critical, and this extends to the developing agricultural blocks adjacent to Khaudum National Park. Wild prey reduction and the growing bushmeat trade must also be managed.
With sufficient political will, a reintroduction of African wild dogs to Etosha National Park and adjacent wildlife managed areas in north-western Namibia is feasible, potentially spreading extinction risk with creation of a second population. A biological link between populations in the east and west might be feasible through farms in the Mangetti area and the Kavango where sightings of African wild dog occur.
In nine years we will mark the centenary of the first African wild dog population estimate for north-western Namibia. How will the number stack up in 2023?
Robin Lines (centre – with Slanger /ui and Kxao o!) has been involved in conservation since 1997, working in lodge tourism through a private reserve near Kruger, before moving into fundraising for Rhino conservation in Namibia (and beyond) with Save the Rhino International (UK). In 2002, with a grant from the Go Green Fund, he started the Namibian Wild Dog Project with Namibia Nature Foundation, focusing on applied conservation research around African wild dogs, believed to be Namibia’s most endangered large mammal. Recognising the increasing isolation of Namibia’s African wild dog population from adjacent populations in neighbouring countries, and the risk this posed to long term persistence of the species in Namibia, Robin now focuses his work at a landscape and transboundary level, and is currently working on a study investigating species connectivity between Kafue National Park in Zambia and the East Zambezi/Chobe region.
African Wild Dog – Fast Facts
- They are as fast as Usain Bolt, reaching speeds of 45km/h, but can maintain that speed for 5km
- African wild dogs have the strongest bite strength/weight ratio of any land mammal
- They have the highest hunt/kill success rate of any African land carnivore
- There has been no confirmed case of African wild dog ever killing humans
- They breed underground in a den in early winter
- There is only one breeding pair in each wild dog pack, though all pack members help to feed the young
- African wild dogs have immense home ranges, up to 4000km²
- They have experienced the greatest range reduction of any carnivore in Namibia
- They have the lowest population density of any large carnivore in Africa
- African wild dogs have suffered the greatest population decline of any African large carnivore