A Tale of Two Wild Sisters
Saga of African wild dogs siblings offers a stark reminder of the challenges predators face in Man’s world
One of the greatest things about spending your time studying endangered African wild dogs (Lycaon Pictus) is getting to know the dogs as individuals. Also known as, African painted dogs or painted wolves, there are only 6,600 of these sub-Saharan, pack animals left in the wild. Their populations have been in steady decline largely due to their wide-ranging behavior coupled with habitat loss and human-wildlife conflict.
All photos by Megan Claase
Throughout my time at Botswana Predator Conservation Trust (BPCT), where I was part of a team studying large carnivores, the pack I spent most of my time with was Apoka, so-named because of a previous dominant female. Wild dogs are cooperative breeders, with the dominant pair typically being the only breeding pair within a pack. The other pack members help protect and raise the dominant pair’s offspring. BPCT follows and studies eight wild dog packs in the eastern part of Botswana’s Moremi Game Reserve and the neighboring wildlife management areas.
The Apoka pack ’s dominant pair is now Darius — an immigrant male of unknown origin, and Seronera — a disperser from the formerly formidable Mathews pack. In wild dog society new packs are formed when dispersing groups, male or female, from different packs meet up. Apoka pack has been around since 2013. (BPCT, which began as the Botswana Wild Dog Research Project in 1989, is one of the longest running conservation projects in Africa.)
When I first arrived at Dog Camp in mid 2015, Apoka pack had three surviving pups from their 2014 litter of five — the two sisters Trinity and Taryn, and their brother Titan. On average 50 percent of pups survive to yearling stage; this pack had just managed that. My first impression of these three dogs was that they were curious, playful and they stuck together.
As I spent more time with the pack I began to observe the more subtle details of wild dog pack dynamics. At the time, Trinity, Taryn, and Titan were still pups; the best fed dogs in the pack. Upon making a kill, adult wild dogs will step back from their prey, allowing the pups to eat their fill. Sometimes, with small kills and lots of pups, the adults go hungry and have to hunt again. As these three got older, they started contributing more to hunts and submitting their food to the dominant pair, but they still got their fill.
As the denning season came around again in June, these three dogs, newly demoted to the status of yearlings, they were no longer assured of being the best fed. Instead, they were expected to give up their food for the new pups. While the dominant female remains down the den with new pups, the rest of the pack go hunting, returning with full bellies. They regurgitate meat for the dominant female and the pups as well, once they are old enough. This pattern continues as long as the dogs are at a den. Soon, Trinity, Taryn, and Titan were helping feed 11 new pups in Apoka pack.
Once the pups were three months old, they began to run with the pack. Following the dogs at this stage is always entertaining. The adults are sleek, confident, focused on the hunt, but are followed by a gang of curious, playful and easily distracted pups loping about in a big tangle, always poking their noses into holes or nipping at buffalo feet. It’s not really a surprise when you hear that only 50 percent of pups survive to be a year old. For this reason we only give dogs a name once they are yearlings.
Watching Trinity, Taryn, and Titan interact with the new pups was interesting and amusing. You could see them abide by the rule, to always let the pups eat first. But you could also see them getting impatient. Old hands in the pack just lie down and let the pups get on with it. These three would always be watching the pups eat like hawks, trying to grab a scrap here and there, sometimes trying to steal the remains of the kill off the pups who were taking too long.
Yet even with their less than altruistic behavior at feeding time, the yearlings were caring on the whole. When I arrived at the pack one day in October 2015, I found one pup, known as APF1507 (AP = Apoka, F = female, 15 = birth year, 07 = pup number), grievously injured. I found her under a tree by herself, which, in itself, was unusual as the pups usually lie in an undifferentiated pile of twitching ears and flicking tails. It soon became apparent that this little girl was not in a very good way. Her jaw was broken, she was bleeding from the top of her head and she had puncture marks in her abdomen. It seemed possible that a hyena had bitten her and I was sure she would die.
The only dogs that paid her any attention were Trinity and Taryn. Trinity would occasionally go over and sniff the injured pup, but Taryn would often go over to her to sniff and lick her wounds. Remarkably, when the dogs started moving off at the end of the day, the little pup got slowly to her feet and started following the pack, lagging behind. Once again Trinity and Taryn were there, waiting for the pup periodically, checking it was still in tow. Unbelievably, every time we saw the pack in the following weeks and months, there she was, a little trooper: APF1507. She couldn’t eat for a while due to the broken jaw, but she managed to keep up with the pack and the pack protected her. It took her a long time to heal, but heal she did, although she was always uncharacteristically small due to her forced famine. It’s amazing the injuries that wild dogs can recover from. A key benefit to living in a pack; keep up and you will probably survive.
Apoka pack had a very successful year. By the time the 2016 denning season rolled around, 10 of the initial 11 pups were still alive. Well above the 50 percent survival rate. With Seronera pregnant again, ten soon-to-be yearlings and some other older males in the pack, everyone suspected Trinity and Taryn would disperse. Dispersal of individuals is a fundamental process governing the dynamics of African wild dogs’ socially structured populations.
At two years old, Trinity and Taryn were prime candidates. Titan seemed more likely to stay behind with the pack until his younger brothers were a bit older.
In preparation for her anticipated dispersal we fitted Taryn with a satellite collar for a study by researchers Dominik Behr and Gabriele Cozzi specifically looking at wild dog dispersal patterns. The 2016 denning season came and went leaving seven new pups with the pack. In a cruel twist of fate during the denning season, the newly named Garamba, plucky APF1507, was found dead next to an abandoned den. The dogs had moved to a new den leaving her body behind. My little trooper was gone. By the time we found her scavengers had destroyed any clues to what killed her. We’ll never know what happened.
After the denning season 2016 continued to proceed like a normal year. The pack persevered; Trinity and Taryn remained. One pup, APM1601 lost a foot when he was very young and managed to survive on three legs for over half a year. Unfortunately, just like Garamba, he eventually died. Living in a pack greatly increases your chances of survival if you are sick or injured, but it cannot guarantee it. The 2016 pups had a worse survival rate with only 4 pups left at the start of 2017.
The 2017 denning season was fast approaching and we all thought “Ah! This must be the year they go.” Finally Trinity and Taryn started showing signs of itchy feet. They often sat away by themselves, sometimes resting over 100 meters away from the pack during the day. They were increasingly independent, running by themselves, sticking together. Eventually, in May 2017 the pack was seen without them; they had dispersed! This was their opportunity to form a new pack, to set up their own home range and to have pups.
We eagerly awaited fixes from Taryn’s satellite collar. The fix rate had been ramped up so that we could keep a closer eye on them. On their first real foray they ran south to within 12 kilometers of Maun, then back to their natal range. A distance of 40 km covered in one day. They stayed in their old home range for a few days, but did not join up with the rest of the pack. Their second attempt took them south again, then far to the east, before they turned back north, right through the heart of a neighboring pack’s range. Again, after seven days and 160 km they had no luck in finding any dispersing males.
We were beginning to worry about the lack of available males around. Trinity and Taryn came back to their natal range again for a few days, where I caught up with them. I was proud of them and thought of them almost as friends. They were sticking together, going out into the world and I hoped they would be successful. I was excited to see which one would become dominant (I hoped it would be Taryn!), how many pups they would have, who they would meet up with, where they would live.
Less than three days after I saw them, we had a mortality signal for Taryn’s collar. This was not unusual for these collars as we were having problems with the biodegradable drop-offs causing the collars to fall off too soon. Taryn was due to have a replacement collar the very next week. We assumed that the collar had dropped and that finding Taryn and monitoring her dispersal would now be nearly impossible. Dispersing dogs travel long distances in unpredictable ways, making them hard to track down without a collar.
However, the reality of the situation was far worse than any of us had realized. Trinity and Taryn were found dead on the road near a buffalo fence. The lives of my two favorite dogs and all the possibilities of their dispersal had ended.
The buffalo fence (technically the “vet fence”) separates Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs), like the one we work in, from cattle posts and settlements. The proximity of their bodies to the fence raised concerns, but we couldn’t be sure if foul play had been at work. There were no visible injuries, no animal tracks of other predators, no human footprints to give us a clue. We wondered about snakebite but that didn’t make sense, the two dogs dying together. Upon hearing the news about their collared dog, the lead researchers wanted to test the dogs for poisoning. When we returned to retrieve the carcasses we found 12 dead or dying vultures from three different species; white-backed, white-headed, and lappet-faced. We didn’t need to do any more testing; the vultures’ deaths proved that poison was involved and represented a further bitter blow.
Poachers have targeted vultures in recent years by lacing freshly-killed animals with poison. Poisoning carcasses destroys the beacon that circling vultures create, helping poachers to hide their illegal activities. Vultures are slow breeding birds and mass killings such as these are having a big impact on populations in southern Africa. Some species have declined by as much as 90 percent so that the white-backed, white-headed, and hooded vultures are now all classed as critically endangered, with lappet-faced vultures classified as endangered. Still, this was a relatively small scale poisoning; hundreds of birds have been killed at previous incidents.
Did Trinity and Taryn stumble across a deserted carcass laced with poison by poachers or farmers? Scavenging is unusual behavior for wild dogs, but if they were hungry after travelling such vast distances it isn’t impossible. They may not even have been the intended targets, but sometimes, farmers who are sick of lions and other predators killing their livestock resort to poison as a non-selective means of killing wild predators.
Human-wildlife conflict is a very real and dangerous threat to predator populations. These conflicts may only be small-scale events most of the time: one lion shot here, a couple dogs poisoned there, but it happens just about everywhere and the cumulative impacts are still being calculated. If we’re not careful, if we don’t come up with coexistence solutions, for many species in this region, it may become too late all too quickly.
This isn’t the happy ending I had envisioned for those two dogs. I had developed a special affection and a personal bond with Trinity and Taryn. It saddens me that my last memory of those inquisitive and adept dogs is of them rotting in the sun beside a buffalo fence, stark reminders of the challenges that predators face in Man’s world. But even now, Seronera is underground nursing 15 new pups from the 2017 litter. Meanwhile Titan remains, the last survivor of the 2014 litter. Who knows what the future might hold for him?