It’s a (wild) dog’s life

frican Wild Dog litter at Somkhanda Game ReserveAt the end of 2014, the Gumbi Community made history by being the first community owned game reserve in South Africa to introduce a pack of endangered African Wild Dog onto their land. The pack settled in well and their success was cemented, as the alpha female gave birth to the pack’s first litter earlier in the year.

Since their introduction late last year, the pack has had some great successes, but also some tragedy. After establishing their hierarchy, the alpha female (dominant female who leads the pack) was caught in a snare one night. This snare was not put out specifically for dogs but rather to target small antelope for subsistence poaching of meat. Unfortunately Wild Dog are particularly susceptible to snaring as they cover large areas when hunting and also fan out as a pack, thus increasing the likelihood of encountering a snare. She was found first thing in the morning by the Wild Dog monitor on the reserve but unfortunately the snare had killed her.

Shortly after this incident, there was confusion in the pack as hierarchy was once again contested. One of the other females had left the pack briefly during the night and was caught and killed by a leopard. She was found the following morning with bite marks to her head and leopard tracks in the area.

These two fatalities have left the pack extremely vulnerable, with only a single female left with the two males. The incidents have, however, resulted in a stabilisation in the pack dynamics and they have settled down well. It was with great excitement that the new alpha pair were seen mating and, several weeks later, the female was seen inspecting warthog burrows around the reserve.

She eventually settled on one near a drainage line which offered good cover and soft soil in which to dig. Wild Dog typically gestate for just under two and a half months and when the monitors noticed her spending more time at the den site and less on the hunt, the excitement started to grow. Over the weekend of 16 May, Axel Primmer, the Wild Dog monitor from Wildlife ACT Fund, noticed her to be visibly thinner and also heard chirping noises coming from the den itself. “She had been venturing out with the males less frequently, relying more heavily on regurgitation from the males for food,” commented Axel.

“This is an extremely happy time for the reserve and the painted dogs of Somkhanda,” stated Nkosinathi Mbhele, Reserve Manager. “With the introduction and success of this pack of African Wild Dog, Somkhanda and the Gumbi community are contributing significantly to Wild Dog conservation in the country, not only increasing the number of Wild Dog in the country, but more importantly increasing available habitat for, and pack numbers of this endangered species,” commented Mark Gerrard, Wildlands’ Threatened Species Coordinator.

The reserve

Somkhanda Game Reserve is situated in the Zululand District Municipality, in northern KwaZulu-Natal. The Gumbi people, who had lived in the area until the late 1960s when they were forcibly removed by the apartheid government, laid claim to the land through the land reform process and it was restored to them in 2005. The Tribal Authority decided to keep a large proportion of their land (12 000ha) under conservation and to create a consolidated game reserve that could be used as an economic engine to drive development.

As part of the economic model for the reserve, a large number of game species have been reintroduced to Somkhanda, including Black and White Rhino. These animals have been released in an effort to increase the tourism and the live game sales capability of the reserve. Wildlands has also recently implemented another project to develop the tourism operations on Somkhanda, through training and infrastructure development. In addition to this, a pack of endangered African Wild Dog was released in September 2014 as an additional draw-card for tourism on the reserve.

The Dog pack was introduced with assistance from the KwaZulu-Natal Wild Dog Advisory Group (KZN WAG), including Wildlands, EWT and Wildlife ACT Fund. In order to maintain genetic variability, and pack viability, the females were brought in from Madikwe Game Reserve in the NW province and the males from Zimanga Game Reserve in KZN. The dogs were initially released into a boma for a couple of months on the reserve to allow them to bond before they were released. They are monitored daily to ensure that the pack initially settled in well and then also to monitor dynamics, movements and health. This monitoring is vital for the long term success of the pack in the reserve and within the greater meta-population of South Africa.

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