How did the painted dog first capture your imagination and become such a central part of your career as a scientist and conservationist?
When I was younger, I actually started out as a herpetologist. I loved reptiles and was dead set on studying them for my career, but as a young biologist just starting out in Zimbabwe, I was hungry for all the field work I could get. When I heard news of a painted dog research team who were in need of an extra hand on their next trip, I jumped at the chance.
While out in the field, I heard an interaction between the pack I was following and a lion, and when I got into the bush there lay a severely injured dog who couldn’t even lift his head, and I was sure would soon succumb to his wounds. I made the difficult decision to leave the dog – there was nothing I could do for him, so nature was allowed to take its course. The next morning I returned, the dog was missing and drag marks were seen from the spot. I assumed hyenas had found a free meal.
However, after following the marks, I discovered to our surprise that the dog had been dragged into a thicket by the rest of its pack. Over the course of a few months, the pack proceeded to feed this injured dog and aid in his recovery, literally licking his wounds, until he had regained his strength. It was then that I knew I would dedicate my life to painted dogs. They were simply too fascinating not to study!
The painted dog is listed as Endangered by the IUCN, with only a few thousand thought to remain across the whole of Africa. What are the main threats facing the species today?
Human-wildlife conflict is the big one. They’re caught in snares set for other animals, they’re hit by cars, they’re shot by farmers and ranchers who want to protect their livestock. Even film crews and the tourism industry can play a role, as well-meaning people setting out to film a documentary or find the dogs on safari can inadvertently disturb their dens, which can cause a pack to move. Pups can be lost on the move while the dogs find a new den. Often the opening of tracks to take people to dens assists lions and hyenas to find the dens, and the dogs will have to move more often than they should, disrupting their feeding habits and endangering any young whose place of relative safety has now been compromised.
Tourism has also contributed to changes in habitat that can negatively affect painted dog populations. For example, the elephant population in Hwange National Park has jumped from 2,000 to 44,000 over the last few decades. This is great for elephants (and for tourists seeking elephant sightings), but the deforestation that they cause means that Hwange’s other herbivores suffer, which in turn affects predators like the painted dog. They are also pumping water from boreholes year-round to improve wildlife-viewing. Elephants gather at water aggregations and destroy the vegetation there, an additional detriment to painted dogs who are mainly ambush predators that prefer thickets. In Hwange, the dogs’ standard hunt success rate of 80% has dropped to 70% or less.
High-speed roads through national parks are another threat. Hwange sees an average of 2.5 fatalities and four broken legs a year, which may not sound like much, but these cases can impact hugely on painted dogs as they are highly social pack animals. When an alpha in particular dies, the pack collapses.
The wildlife of Africa has been decimated over the last few centuries, with an increasingly large number of iconic species now facing extinction. The plight of lions, elephants and rhinos is well known, but how do painted dogs fit into this picture? How important are they to African ecosystems, and what value does saving the species hold?
Painted dogs travel huge distances and move game around as they do so, which prevents herbivores from overgrazing and thus damaging an ecosystem. They also won’t touch prey within the first kilometre of their den in order to prevent it from being discovered.
They are nomadic, keeping herbivore herds moving and on their toes, so it’s not just about managing prey populations to prevent them getting out of control, as all predators do. This ensures a healthier ecosystem for all!
The species is a flagship for conservation – it cannot live in isolation. Large (and this is important) connected protected areas will help them thrive. Transfrontier parks stretching over multiple painted dog range states are in the works, which could be a dream come true.