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Tracking Wild Dogs in Botswana’s Okavango Delta

Tracking rarely seen wild dogs on the run across the waterways and islands of Botswana’s Okavango Delta was almost impossible. These painted canines are swift hunters and despite our high-powered safari vehicle we had trouble keeping up with them. African wild dogs hunt with formidable speed in tightly coordinated packs that seem to think and act as one.

We first spotted the Lower Chief’s Island pack across the floodplains of the delta on a palm-fringed island. The hunting dogs were stalking through the high grass, their mottled coats blending seamlessly into the surrounding bush. They jumped into the water and began swimming to the next island, before suddenly turning back and disappearing without a trace.

African wild dog
African wild dogs have wide jaws, large rounded ears, and bushy tails with a white tip. All photos by Marcus and Kate Westberg

On game drives from Sanctuary Stanley’s Camp, we sought out the pack and followed them on their hunting forays. At the southern tip of Chief’s Island, we travelled around a vast private concession bordering the Moremi Game Reserve. The Moremi is known as the “predator capital of Africa” and keeping track of the hunting dogs across this wetland wasn’t an easy task.

Our guide Kot Basuti maneuvered the game-viewing vehicle with considerable skill through the swamp. We pulled up our feet to avoid getting wet in the deep channels between the islands with small fish swimming past in the clear water. Our perseverance paid off when the pack made a successful kill of an impala after a high-speed chase across the Okavango floodplains.

Driving between islands formed by the seasonal floodwaters in pursuit of the wild dogs
Driving between islands formed by the seasonal floodwaters in pursuit of the wild dogs.

At the end of our stay with Sanctuary, we were completely taken with these smart and sociable animals. We spent hours with the pack, watching them interact with one another, playing and resting in the shade between hunts. It was obvious how close the wild dogs were as they communicated with each other constantly through touch and vocalizations.

Wanting to learn more about these critically endangered canines, we spoke to Dr. “Tico” McNutt, founder and director of the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust. Tico and his wife Lesley have been running a research camp in the delta for the past 18 years. Their ongoing work with wild dogs has greatly increased our understanding of these once maligned animals.

Painted dogs are highly successful in bringing down prey such as antelopes and warthogs
Painted dogs are highly successful in bringing down prey such as antelopes and warthogs.

Having seen African wild dogs in action – hunting, playing and looking after their young – it is not difficult to understand your fascination with these incredible animals. When did you first decide that this was the species for you?

Dr. “Tico” McNutt: When I arrived in Botswana in 1989, I had little intention of staying for more than a year. At that time I had ambitions to conduct my PhD research project on Darwin’s Rheas in southern Patagonia. I had come to Botswana for two reasons: 1) because my grant applications for funding to return to southern Chile had been turned down and it would be another year before funding would be available; and 2) my supervisor at UCDavis, Bill Hamilton, had NSF funding and needed someone to bridge a gap between students to manage and administer a baboon research project in the middle of the Okavango Delta.

In the first several months I was in Botswana my colleague/fellow graduate student from UCD, John Bulger, (who was finishing his research on baboons) and I discussed at some length the prospects of starting a wild dog research project analogous in scope to the long-term baboon research (which our supervisor had started in 1978) that we were both involved with. He said he had given it considerable thought when he first arrived in 1984, but had focused instead on the baboon research.

In a trip intended to investigate possibilities and logistics of a possible wild dog study, John and I drove an old Land Cruiser into the Moremi Game Reserve in September of 1989 and by an unusual stroke of luck, after a long day of driving, and before the sun had gone down completely, we encountered the Mboma pack of wild dogs – 14 adults and 10 pups. We spent no more than 20 minutes watching them before they disappeared into the bush hunting, but it was long enough for me to get identification sketches/notes of all 14 adults, and to realize these were possibly the most spectacular (including from a social behavior perspective) mammals I had ever seen (remember I was a bird person before that).

Before the end of the year, with the research permit for the baboon project renewed for another 3 years, my supervisor had somehow managed to get the Frankfurt Zoological Society – Help for Threatened Wildlife (FZS) to agree to buy a Land Rover for wild dog research in Botswana. When that (new V8 1989 petrol) Land Rover arrived was when I decided that I was obliged to initiate a study (since FZS had made the commitment), but I was also inspired by the prospects of spending time learning about these spectacular predators. But really, it was that first evening encounter with the Mboma pack in evening light when everything changed for me.

The Latin name, Lycaon pictus means “painted wolf” and each wild dog has unique markings
The Latin name, Lycaon pictus means “painted wolf” and each wild dog has unique markings.

You started up the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust – at the time called the Botswana Wild Dog Research Project – in 1989. It is now 2013, and you are still here. How did a Seattle native end up in the Okavango Delta to begin with? Have you ever been tempted to leave? 

Yes, I had entertained some ideas about ‘what next’ and making decisions about ‘a career’ as a behavioral ecologist. Having finished a doctorate in 1995, and only been away from the field for less than three months, I had returned to Botswana to continue with the Wild Dog Research Project, with FZS continuing its support for the project. I considered it a self-designed Postdoc. However, by 1999, Lesley and I had been married and had our first son, and we felt a 10-year life change might be in order.

When we suggested that we were thinking about leaving Botswana, we suddenly received a ration of criticism about leaving wild dogs ‘with nobody to look after them’ and speak out on their behalf from all directions, including from people we didn’t even know (but who clearly knew about us and our project). With complete understanding of this general sentiment, we decided we should work on a compromise. What we envisioned was being attached to a university faculty where we could both be involved with teaching half the year (Lesley has a graduate degree in Development Anthropology) and continue to maintain the ongoing predator conservation research project in Botswana with students, enabling us to be part-time in the field and part-time on a campus.

We took a ‘sabbatical year’ away from the research camp in Montreal where Lesley was finishing her coursework for a PhD at McGill. Our son Madison was 3 years old and we had our second son Wilder on the way as we deliberated about our future. It became clear that for us to continue to obtain the type of financial support we needed to continue and to expand our predator conservation program (all of which came from personal connections with private donors and small foundations (FZS discontinued funding in 2000, with the passing of the former Director, Dr. Richard Faust).

So, we returned to Botswana after Wilder was born and carried on while expanding and growing the predator conservation research project, now with graduate students and an expanding research staff.

The hunting prowess of these stealthy predators is due to close cooperation in the pack
The hunting prowess of these stealthy predators is due to close cooperation in the pack.

When you began your work in Botswana, not much was known about African wild dogs. Do you feel that this has changed? How would you compare our knowledge and understanding of African wild dogs to that of better-known predators such as lions or cheetahs?

When I began my field studies of wild dogs there was little known about wild dogs and what we did know about their social behavior and basic natural history was from spotty observations over a period of about 11 years in the Serengeti short grass ecosystem. It did not take a genius to realize that, for starters, our understanding of this species was incomplete (at best), given that these animals clearly are not species of the short grass plains. Since I was finding them much more associated with the woodlands, even when open habitats were available.

In the early publications about wild dogs, a great deal was made about their social structure being unusual for a mammal: the interpretations of the collective observations of the wild dogs in the Serengeti described them as patrilineally organized social carnivores, where males were described as the caregivers, raising and caring for the young, and the comparatively more philopatric sex, while females were the free-to-disperse sex (liberated so to speak, which I believe was embraced in the U.S. when it was first published – at least partly because it was appealing in the socio-political environment of the early 1970s). Even though my research has attempted to correct this misperception (based on incomplete observations of long-term patterns), it persists even today in animal behavior textbooks as an unusual mammalian social system.

Despite this, our understanding of this spectacular, endangered African predator is deep and at least as detailed now as for any other large carnivore including more ‘popular’ iconic species of the African large predator guild such as cheetahs and lions.

 Wild dogs differ from other canines in having only four toes on each foot instead of five
Wild dogs differ from other canines in having only four toes on each foot instead of five.

It is often said that wild dogs are one of the most misunderstood of Africa’s wildlife species, and you have addressed this issue in the book you co-published, Running Wild: Dispelling the Myths of the African Wild Dog. What are some of these myths, and why do you think they have been so persistent?

Nothing in the past 16 years since I wrote the text of Running Wild has changed in terms of my understanding of the historical and current relationships between people and African wild dogs. If anything, my early perceptions, understanding, and interpretations of the lore associated with this species have been supported by our long-term observations of the species and by the ever-increasing interactions we have with people on behalf of wild dogs. I believe that in general, people who are interested in wildlife have made notable advances in their understanding of wild dogs, especially among wildlife tourists, and guides who work in the industry, but also among educated local Africans in general.

However, among the less educated, rural-area Africans, informally educated by elders or not at all, the age-old myths about wild dogs, and especially the threats they represent to people (a common belief is ‘they will kill and eat anybody they catch wandering around out in the bush’) continue to be part of their narrative.

What is interesting about the perceptions that popularly characterized wild dogs historically, and although less so, still today, is that they were almost universally negative. Whereas, particularly in Western culture, other large carnivores, especially the cats, were seen as noble, majestic, and ‘kings’ of the African savannas worthy of our respect. In contrast, wild dogs were seen as vermin, ruthless killers and worthless members of the carnivore community.

Why this is so is anybody’s guess, but I still believe it relates to our long history of close associations with domestic dogs – dogs are a part of our homes, families, and lives. They also feature in very specific ways in the cultural transmission of the Western world’s narrative (cf. Lassie, Ole Yeller, Rintintin, Little Red Riding Hood, The 3 Little Pigs, etc.). Perhaps as a consequence, there is a general reaction to, or interpretation of the behavior of wild dogs that is visceral and almost innately condemning in nature of any pack of wild dogs seen to be ‘ganging up on and ripping apart Bambi,’ so to speak.

One of your aims is to reduce or prevent conflict between humans and predators. How do you go about this? Has it been successful? What still needs to happen for a more or less peaceful coexistence between people and African wild dogs in Botswana to be possible?

Perhaps the most important aspect of attempting to shift attitudes and behaviors to be more tolerant towards wild dogs and carnivores generally is information.  The absence of information or understanding is fertile ground for apathy and antipathy. Inversely, a little bit of compelling education about wild animals goes a long way toward planting the seeds of empathy.  So, various projects at BPCT, those that involve an interface with communities, have education and awareness as a guiding principle. In addition, we believe by applying knowledge of the behavior of wild animals to addressing specific management issues that we can add details to the (admittedly limited) set of tools available for mitigating the costs of free-ranging predators in landscapes variously populated with people and livestock and maybe even add some new and innovative effective tools to that toolbox (cf. our Bioboundary Research Project).

In the end, whatever that might look like, we have to acknowledge that some individuals of certain species (especially among large carnivores) are not going to be friendly, benign neighbors, able to coexist with people and livestock, and we should not expect people to have to give way in all or certain circumstances or landscapes. We do not expect a warm embrace or peaceful harmony, but a greater tolerance, understanding of the value (at all levels) of wildlife, and empathy for all living things would be an ideal to aspire to.

Wild dogs live in packs of six to 20 and have a life span of up to eleven years in the wild
Wild dogs live in packs of six to 20 and have a life span of up to eleven years in the wild.

How do you see the future of the wild dog across Africa? Is it one that is changing for the better, or is their existence still fragile? What do you think needs to be done in the next ten years to secure their future?

The future of African wild dogs is by no means secure in the indefinite future. In fact, the future of wildlife in general is increasingly at risk as human populations continue to grow. There are more than a billion people in Africa today. Wildlife is being extirpated at increasing rates almost everywhere with few exceptions. If we are going to place the responsibility for the future of the world’s wildlife and biodiversity at the feet of wildlife-based tourism, solely justifying its protection on its derived economic value, as opposed to engendering an ethos and an ethic of intrinsic value in the natural world and non-human living things, then I fear the long-term future for anything consumable or disposable, is less than rosy.

However, we continue to commit our lives and resources to doing what we can because: 1) we might be able to make a difference in the long run; and 2) we need to while the option is still available.

Wild dog packs are dominated by a breeding pair with pups cared for by the entire pack
Wild dog packs are dominated by a breeding pair with pups cared for by the entire pack.

Marcus and Kate were hosted by Sanctuary Retreats (www.sanctuaryretreats.com).

To find out more about the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust (BPCT) go to: www.bpctrust.org.

To see more photos by Marcus and Kate, visit their website (www.lifethroughalens.com) or follow them on Facebook (www.facebook.com/LTALP). 

Comments

  1. holly
    united kingdom
    December 11, 2013, 8:19 pm

    I have spent all evening and night reading about the wild dog the more I read and looked at the pictures of them I fell in love with them thank you so much for all the pictures and your knowledge on these beautiful animals. I’m hoping I can purchase I calendar here in the UK with pics of the wild dog if im unable to im going to make one these dogs are so lovely and deserve to be on all stuff just like the lion or the zebra . my daughter works signing up people for the charity which is the wwf I had to tell her to her company that these wild Dogs should be on the wwf as well if they were to be I would sign up … sorry I do waffle on and thank you for all the lovely pictures iv seen I hope these dogs don’t become extinct and there around for many years to come ….

  2. gregory paul fietz
    Australian
    June 14, 2013, 9:21 pm

    WELL SAID !! -excerpt from above- “If we are going to place the responsibility for the future of the world’s wildlife and biodiversity at the feet of wildlife-based tourism…….I fear the long-term future for anything consumable or disposable, is less than rosy.” MY EXTENSION “….due to the inevitable shift of Africa’s economic dependancy to mineral and mining income, however both animals and mining could coexist if the humans used this new wealth responsibly.