Hopes for reintroducing African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus) to the northern part of the Kruger National Park are now resting on the ability of one three-legged alpha male, Foxtrot, to make his artificially created pack thrive.
A regular escapee from Mkuze Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal – along with his three siblings – Foxtrot lost his lower left leg in a snare.
“Don’t be worried, he’s doing very well and is the dominant male. He’s not disabled at all,” says zoologist and bioengineer Dr Antoine Marchal for the Endangered Wildlife Trust.
With only an estimated 350 wild dogs in the park, the critical project that hopes to boost the species’ numbers and restore a genetic link to those in Zimbabwe – and allow for genetic diversity and prevent inbreeding – is being run just outside the Shingwedzi rest camp in the Kruger.
The idea for the reintroduction of the wild dog is a first for the Kruger.
Kept in a high-security, relatively small plot, compared with their normal range of up to 1 000km, the eight animals have been bonding well, Marchal says.
“These dogs arrived on 1 August; four males came from Mkuze reserve in KwaZulu-Natal, and four females came from the uHluhluwe Mfolozi Game Reserve, also in KZN,” says Marcel.
Because the animals are highly sociable and identify each other by scent and unique markings, the likelihood of a pack forming would have been tenuous, so while they were still sedated – in another first – they were all rubbed on each other so they had the same scent.
“They woke up thinking they were all from the same pack, so we created a pack in captivity,” Marchal explains, adding they would stay in the boma so they could acclimatise to the dry and dusty environment of the Kruger.
He noted the dogs would also complete bonding with each other.
“You don’t want to release them too early because they might want to go back home.”
The dogs are all “problem” animals in that they were regular escapees from their former reserves.
Notoriously shy and extremely wide ranging, exact numbers have been difficult to pinpoint, which is why the dogs remain listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red Data list as endangered.
According to results released by EWT in April 2017, 680 wild dog sightings were submitted for a census conducted between 24 September 2014 to 25 June 2015.
However, due to software issues, the real number has yet to be tallied, and the 13 losses of 2016 due to canine distemper also need to be factored in.
With an inoculation drive under way, it’s part of the reason Foxtrot’s pack will spend so much time in the boma so they can receive their booster shots before release.
It’s not that the wild dog is completely lost to the northern Kruger either.
In as much as it is a pack animal, it doesn’t accept outsiders easily and there are nomads wandering about – one of which has found Foxtrot and his crew.
“Last week, a very young single female wild dog started visiting them at the fence, so she might change the way things happen the day of the release,” Marchal says.
“She may integrate into the group, or maybe the group will split, where the dominant male keeps his females to one side and the three other males form a new pack with the visitor,” adds Marchal.
It’s an unknown factor that has Marchal worried, his brow creasing as he talks about the visitor.
He’ll be able to monitor the problem, however, as all have been fitted with a radio collar and he’ll be tracking them daily in order to monitor their progress.
On the lighter side, things do appear to be going well, with Foxtrot enjoying his position – not to anthropomorphise the situation.
“I’ve seen signs of mating between the dominant male and female. But it is completely out of season now, so I think it is more for fun. It’s good to see and trust me. With three legs, it’s not very easy, it’s a bit clumsy,” Marchal says with a grin.