Wild Dog Urine May Be Used as "Fences" in Africa

Leon Marshall in Johannesburg
for National Geographic News
March 11, 2004

The African wild dog (Lycaon pictus), listed as endangered by the World Conservation Union (IUCN), is in serious trouble, largely because its instinct to roam widely keeps bringing it into lethal contact with humans. Now researchers are hoping to keep the dog from wandering where they are not wanted by using wild dog urine samples. The urine scent marks would be used in the same way the dogs use urine to demarcate their territory.

The concept has been dubbed a BioFence. It is based on the same technique domestic dogs use to leave messages and presumably stake out their territory—by lifting a leg against trees, poles, car wheels, and other landmarks.

Wild dogs do the same throughout their ranges. But they do so especially at the extremes. This marking action appears to form territorial boundaries, which are generally respected by neighboring packs. Such scent markings seem to constitute "biological fences" erected by the animals themselves.

If the experiment to replicate natural scent barriers is successful, it might help protect not only the mere 5,000 to 6,000 wild dogs left in isolated pockets in Africa but perhaps also other predators that use scent to mark their territories.

The experiment is part of a research project in Botswana's Okavango Delta, a maze of riverine channels that eventually soak into the sand to form a vast oasis, rich in animal and plant life, in the northern extreme of southern Africa's Kalahari Desert.

The Okavango's wild dog population of about 800 makes up more than half of the estimated 1,500 left in northern Botswana and adjacent desert in Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.

Wild Dog Research Project

To promote the conservation of wild dogs that are in conflict with human communities, Seattle native John "Tico" McNutt started the Botswana Wild Dog Research Project in 1989. His research is supported in part by the National Geographic Society.

Living in a small field-research camp near the Moremi Wildlife Reserve in northern Botswana, McNutt uses radio telemetry and small aircraft, including an ultralight, to monitor a sub-population of about 180 wild dogs. The dogs make up 10 to 11 packs, ranging over an area of about 1,000 square miles (2,600 square kilometers).

The project, seen as vital to the future development of the Moremi Wildlife Reserve and its surrounding wildlife management areas, is being carried out in close cooperation with local communities, tourist operators, and Botswana's Department of Wildlife and National Parks.

South African environmentalist Ian Player says that if the experiment works, it could be of great help in saving wild dogs as they are reintroduced in other parts of southern Africa.

Any means of confining wild dogs to sanctuaries would be helpful, Player says. "These are magnificent beasts, to me in a way even more so than lions. I sincerely hope the experiment works."

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