Rare-Dog Search Meets With Success, Then Tragedy

John Roach
for National Geographic News
October 18, 2002
Success followed by sudden heartbreak befell researchers this summer at
a remote outpost in the Peruvian Amazon.

The researchers, who are conducting the first detailed study of the elusive short-eared dog, spent three years trying to capture one in the wild. Very little is known about the extremely rare canine's habits.

They finally succeeded in August, capturing a dog on the edge of the Alto Purus Reserved Zone, a recently protected area of the Amazon in southeastern Peru. It was fitted with a collar and released.

Two weeks later, the dog was shot and killed.

"The whole situation seemed like a horrible nightmare. It still seems that way now," said Maria Renata Pereira Leite-Pitman, a research associate at Duke University's Center for Tropical Conservation, who is leading the study.

The person who shot the dog, a Sharanahua subsistence hunter, told Leite that it was an accident, saying he had been hunting for four days with no success and instinctively shot the first thing he saw.

There is no legal remedy available to Leite. Since virtually nothing is known about the rare dog, (Atelocynus microtis), there is no scientific basis for its protection under local or international laws, she said.

Leite hoped the radio collar would provide basic data about the dog's habits—when it is most active, where it goes, how it finds food, where it rests. They want to know how much habitat the dog needs to survive.

Ultimately she hopes the information can be used to raise the protection level of Alto Purus from "Reserved Zone" to national park status. Under such a status, hunting with guns is allowed only in controlled areas.

"Renata's work may give the park impetus an added boost, but I doubt it will be in any way decisive," said John Terborgh, director of the Center for Tropical Conservation (CTC). "The role of research in conservation is largely an indirect one."

Conservation Science

Leite's research project on the short-eared dog is part of a larger quest to answer one of conservation's greatest questions: How much space do different plant and animal species need to survive?

Answering this question will enable scientists to make sound recommendations to government agencies and world conservation leaders regarding how much land should be protected as reserves and national parks.

According to Leite, what little is known about the short-eared dog indicates that it thrives in pristine primary forests. Primary or old-growth forests are those whose fundamental ecological processes have been relatively unaffected by human activity.

"There are only a couple of confirmed sightings around settlements or in secondary forest. All the rest are in primary forest," said Leite. "When primary forest is disrupted by loggers or colonists, as is happening across larger and larger areas of Amazonia, the dog seems to vanish."

Even in the wild the population count is not high. The Cocha Cashu Biological Station in Manu National Park is located in one of the least human-disturbed tropical areas on Earth. However, researchers there report spotting a short-eared dog only about once a year. Prior to 1990, it had not been seen in the wild for 20 years.

Canine Hunt

After three years with no dog captures in Manu National Park, Leite expanded her search this past summer to the Alto Purus Reserved Zone, which is contiguous to the northern end of the national park.

"Purus is such a remote place that only a single mammal survey had ever been done there," said Leite.

She trained an assistant, Virgilio Cochani, a native Ashaninka Indian, to recognize the dog's tracks and set traps, and then returned to her home in Lima leaving instructions that he radio her immediately if he met with success.

"On August 9th, Virgilio left a mysterious message with the radio operator: 'Tell Renata my work is done,'" said Leite.

Three days, two flights, a boat trip, and a ten-minute walk into the woods later, Leite was reunited with Cochani and looking at a short-eared dog growling at them from inside a cage constructed out of palmwood planks.

Leite used a blowgun and darts to sedate the dog for an hour while they fitted it with a radio collar and recorded identifying information—male, 18 pounds (8.2 kilograms), slightly bigger than a gray fox.

Short-eared dogs have a distinctive fox-like muzzle and bushy tail. The ears, while short, are not a striking characteristic, said Leite. "Some old authors used to call it 'flag-tail dog,' which seems more appropriate to me," she added.

He was named Felipao after the coach of the Brazilian soccer team that won the 2002 World Cup in Seoul, Korea.

Felipao's radio collar was designed to transmit a VHF signal 24 hours a day for two years. Researchers in the Amazonian forest can pick up the signal within 0.6 miles (one kilometer). Triangulation allows them to pinpoint the collar's location.

"By mapping those data over weeks and months, you get an idea of what time of day the animal is most active, where it lives, where it hunts, which sorts of habitats it uses and which it avoids, and how big its home territory is," said Leite.

The telemetry receiver the researchers at Cocha Cashu Biological Station use to track radio-collared animals, however, malfunctioned at the time Felipao was captured. Leite, who was scheduled to go to the U.S., picked up a new receiver on her trip.

"By the time we got back to Purus, Felipao had been dead for two weeks," she said.

The data gained by the short study of Felipao is gleaned from his capture and untimely death. He was captured sometime between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. and shot around 4 p.m., suggesting that the species is at least partially active during the day.

Prior to Felipao's capture, researchers knew so little about short-eared dogs that they did not even know whether the species is most active at night or during the day.

"We also know Felipao was shot two kilometers [1.2 miles] from where we released him, just a few meters from the edge of the river. This fits with other data suggesting the animal moves a lot and spends a lot of its time near rivers," said Leite.

Cochani, who Leite says was furious over the shooting incident, is back at work trying to capture another short-eared dog. Now that he knows the technique and where to set the traps, he is optimistic that he will capture another by the end of October.

Maria Renata Pereira Leite-Pitman's research is supported by TEAM Initiative of the Center for Applied Biodiversity Science of Conservation International, the Walt Disney Foundation, IdeaWild, and Procarnivoros Association.

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