Researcher: P.A Lindsey & S.S RomanachRegion: Savé Valley Conservancy, Zimbabwe
Established in 1996, the Lowveld Wild Dog Project (LWDP) initially focused on investigating the behaviour and ecology of the African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) population in an environment where the densities of lion (Panthera leo) and spotted hyaena (Crocuta crocuta) were low. Lion and spotted hyaena are wild dogs’ two main competitors and the newly-formed Savé Valley Conservancy (SVC) in the south-east lowveld of Zimbabwe provided an ideal study site as it had a healthy wild dog population but very low densities of lion and spotted hyaena.
While the main focus was on the field research, much awareness and education was done with the ranching community within the region and also with the local African communities. This work did a lot to improve the image of wild dogs and it is important work that continues today. The wild dog population in the SVC has since grown from about 64 individuals in 4 packs in 1996 to an estimated 190 individuals in 10 packs by October 2004. This is currently the highest known density of African wild dogs anywhere in their range.
The challenges facing wild dog conservation have changed since the project began, moving away from researching and protecting populations in large, state-protected areas to looking more intensely at the viability of wild dog populations outside of these areas. The SVC is perfectly placed for this as it lies entirely outside of state-protected areas, and due to the recent land redistribution programme in Zimbabwe, now constitutes a mosaic of land uses, comprising commercial game ranches and subsistence livestock farmers. In addition, due to the large size of the SVC population, wild dogs are beginning to expand beyond its boundaries and into neighbouring communal land.
Consequently, the SVC provides an ideal site to study the combination of threats due to conflict over both livestock and wildlife, to a viable wild dog population of global significance. The LWDP can therefore contribute significantly to the knowledge of wild dog ecology and to the conservation of the species.
Recent changes in SVC affecting wild dogs
SVC has been badly affected by the recent land redistribution programme in Zimbabwe. During the last four years, approximately 26% of the land area of the SVC has been invaded by subsistence farmers, resulting in widespread habitat destruction due to the clearing of woodland for crops, the influx of large numbers of livestock, and the local depletion of wildlife due to intensive snaring. At least 11 wild dogs were killed by snares in 2004. In addition, during 2004, there were multiple incidents of wild dogs from within SVC ranging into neighbouring communal lands and killing livestock, including 16 adult cattle; this may lead to revenge killings of wild dogs by livestock owners. Finally, the lion population has been expanding in the area and is likely to further increase the extent to which wild dogs use wild prey-depleted areas inhabited by livestock farmers both within and next to the SVC.
By virtue of the recent political climate in Zimbabwe, and the resultant changes in land tenure in parts of the conservancy, SVC now represents a microcosm of the problems facing wild dog conservation over large parts of their geographic range. Finding tools to reduce conflict and promote coexistence between wild dogs and game ranchers and subsistence livestock farmers represents the key objectives to the proposed research project.
- Assess the current distribution and status of wild dogs across the south-eastern lowveld
- Determine the extent of human-wild dog conflict, and how this conflict can be minimised
- Determine the effect of multiple anthropogenic (caused by humans) mortality factors on wild dog conservation in SVC
- Determine the effects of the expanding lion population on the population of wild dogs
- Conduct educational and awareness programmes with local communities bordering SVC in which we outline the importance of wildlife conservation and potential economic benefits to be accrued from wildlife conservation.
- Attend to complaints of livestock depredation by local communities neighbouring SVC and attempt to provide a conservation presence, which has had success in increasing tolerance of wild dogs for other wild dog study sites.
The LWDP represents an invaluable long-term field research project on the ecology and conservation of wild dogs and it is vital that monitoring continues to permit detailed investigation of the response of a wild dog population to ecological changes, and changing human threats. The education and awareness programmes targeting the different communities have had great success and should be ongoing. However, there is also a real need to expand the work of the LWDP by developing tools to reduce conflict, and promote coexistence between wild dogs, game ranchers and subsistence livestock farmers that can be applied to promote wild dog conservation outside of protected areas elsewhere in their range.
We are well, work is progressing nicely. October is peak poaching season though, and so these incidences are occurring at a rate of knots. We lost another wild dog in a snare the other day, sadly (a giraffe and 5 impala in the same snare line). We have now completed about 70 interviews with game scouts, 150 with poachers and 200 or so with people who buy bush-meat, so the data is coming in thick and fast. I think we will come up with some very interesting insights from these data which should really help to address the problem. We are still busy conducting more interviews to get the sample sizes up, and of course we continue to gather information on poaching statistics which keeps us very busy.
Things are going well here – though the dog numbers are definitely down this year. We have found only four dens so far, and two of those may have failed (i.e., no pups produced – this remains to be confirmed yet though). In the southern part of the conservancy, there only seem to be two small groups (of 2 and 5), and in the north, we think there is perhaps one more pack to find. So a definite fall in the population – probably due to the snaring, disease (one pack in the south seems to have disappeared due to disease, most likely rabies) and possibly due to the increasing lion population.
There may be more dogs that we are missing. Also, dog populations do fluctuate widely. But we suspect that in future the population highs of the past may not recur. This is because of the increasing lion numbers, and in the south due to the habitat fragmentation, high incidence of snaring, and disease risk through contact with domestic dogs. We will keep you updated and let you know if we have any more successes. Finding dens has been very hard work this year