Conservation Spotlight

African Wild Dogs

Exerpted from S. Rotz Mamakos, AZA Communique, Dec 1996

Once numbering in the hundreds of thousands, the African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) is now one of the African continent's most endangered animals. It is believed that fewer than 5,000 wild dogs currently exist in the wild, and their range has declined from 33 to 15 countries. The largest populations exist in Botswana, Zimbabwe and Tanzania. The initial population reduction came during the early part of the century as a result of a very successful extermination campaign led by ranchers who feared the loss of livestock. Today, the effects of diseases (e.g., rabies, canine distemper, and parvovirus) spread by domestic dogs are having an even more devastating effect on wild dog numbers. Of additional concern is inbreeding due to the formation of genetically distinct groups of dogs in the southern and eastern regions of their current range.

Wild dogs are about the size of a German shepherd, have long legs, large ears and mottled fur of browns, black and white. They live in tightly bonded social groups or packs of 2 to 30 individuals led by a dominant male and female. Pack members exhibit well-defined greeting behaviors, the most obvious being affectionate face licking.

Recent research has shown the wild dog to have behaviors verging on classic altruism. This is particularly evident in pup raising, which is a pack effort with males shouldering much of the responsibility. In fact in one instance, following the death of a pack female, male pack members were observed successfully raising her pups from the age of five weeks.

Perhaps the most obvious expression of the wild dogs' altruistic tendencies is their feeding style. After a prey animal has been successfully brought down, each pack member is allowed to eat. The feeding scene is a peaceful one rather than a savage frenzy. Disabled pack members share alongside more able adults, and pups receive regurgitated food from any adult in the pack. This behavior is uncharacteristic of other large carnivores, such as lions, which often fight over a carcass, jostling with each other for access to food.

The behaviors that maintain close social bonds between pack members are a large factor in the decline of wild dogs; the close contact and associated licking promotes the spread of introduced diseases. Research efforts aim to gain information such as identification of social, ecological and demographic factors that affect pack reproductive success, breeding populations and population viability. Of additional interest is why wild dogs utilize such large territories and the interaction between wild dogs and other large predators.

Two of the projects currently under way in Africa to conserve and increase the number of wild dogs are supported in part by the One With Nature conservation program at the Philadelphia Zoological Garden, one of only 18 zoos in North America that maintains this species. The Botswana Wild Dog Research Project, in the Moremi Wildlife Reserve, is headed by Dr. J. Weldon McNutt. Kim McCreery and Dr. Robert Robbins lead research focused on the population of dogs in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe. The projects are located in two very different ecosystems and are using technology such as global positioning systems and DNA analysis to track and learn more about wild dog biology and behavior. Information gained through research will be valuable in the development of conservation strategies for this species.

For additional information on the African wild dog research projects or the Philadelphia Zoological Garden's One With Nature program, contact Reg Hoyt, Vice President for Research and Conservation, or Heidi Jamieson, Director of International Projects, Philadelphia Zoological Garden, Philadelphia, PA 19104. Tel: (215) 243-1100.

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