On the Trail of Africa's Endangered Wild Dogs

December 31, 2003

In the predawn at Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park in northeastern South Africa, Micaela Szykman stands on a hill with an antenna held in the air, listening for signals from the radio collars of African wild dogs.

If the dogs are within range, Szykman jumps back into her jeep to rendezvous with them before they awake. Szykman, a research fellow of the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C., is tracking the dogs for the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Predator Project.

The African wild dog, Lycaon pictus, also called the painted wolf or the Cape hunting dog is the victim mainly of human persecution. The dog is listed as endangered by the World Conservation Union (IUCN). Lycaon pictus once roamed most of sub-Saharan Africa. Now only about 5,000 dogs can be found in isolated pockets.

In 1997, 2000, and 2003, wildlife managers reintroduced several packs of wild dogs from elsewhere in South Africa at Hluhluwe-iMfolozi in hopes of rebuilding the species.

Wildlife officials, ecologists and scientists like Szykman are watching and studying the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi reintroduction because such programs are integral to Lycaon's survival.

Adult wild dogs, with round saucer-like ears and a "painted" black, white, brown, and yellow coat, weigh up to 55 pounds (25 kilograms) and stand about 2 feet tall (60 centimeters) with the delicate build of a greyhound.

"This is one of the most intensely social animals out there," said Szykman, a behavioral ecologist. "The entire pack—sometimes up to 20 dogs—always hunts, plays, walks, and feeds together. They never leave an animal behind and are always reinforcing social bonds."

Efficient Killers

Each pack has only one breeding pair, and the rest of the pack helps raise the annual litter—up to 20 pups, one of the largest litter sizes of all carnivores. Lycaon pictus hunts in packs and kills by disemboweling, a technique that never helped their reputation among humans.

Szykman's job is particularly tough because wild dogs are tough to track. These nomads travel up to 20 miles (30 kilometers) daily, with vast home ranges, 200 to 300 square miles (600 to 800 square kilometers) on average.

"As a discipline, the science of reintroduction has been poorly studied," said Steven Monfort, Szykman's collaborator and a research veterinarian at the Smithsonian's Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal, Virginia.

"Reintroduction is a black box. Governments set aside land, and other people dump animals in there, which makes them feel good. If the animals increase, the reintroduction is a big success. If they decrease nobody knows what went wrong," Monfort said.

Continued on Next Page >>


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