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THE BRAVE JOURNEY OF SMOKE AND HER PACK OF AFRICAN WILD DOGS

Photo credit: Terri Honiball

Cole du Plessis, Wild Dog Range Expansion Project Coordinator & KZN Regional Carnivore Coordinator, EWT Carnivore Conservation Programme
coled@ewt.org.za

In South Africa, most of our reserves (protected areas) share boundaries with dense rural community settlements or farmers – this means that the direct threat to any wild animal significantly increases when they leave a protected area. Deliberate persecution, snaring, hunting, disease, and roadkill are some of those threats.

In 2018, the Nqolothi Wild Dog pack, led by a female named Smoke, left the protection of the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park and settled in nearby communal land. To the communities, , a predator like a Wild Dog can pose a threat to  people or their livelihoods. The latter is far more likely. While there has never been a documented case of a Wild Dog killing a person, they do prey on livestock and large packs can do significant damage, particularly in rural subsistence farming communities.

Unfortunately, there was no functional tracking collar on the Nqolothi pack and monitoring them seemed like an impossible task. It was also almost like the pack had sensed the loss of their protection when leaving the reserve as they became highly elusive…only leaving the odd clue behind when they moved. When there was a sighting or report, we made a valiant effort to get there in time, but the pack was always long gone upon arrival. Tension was mounting in the community. Many goats had been reported dead and, whether there was evidence or not, it all pointed to Smoke and her pack. The community was losing patience and wanted to kill the pack to protect their livestock. It became a race against time to find them.

After almost a year of living in communal land, the pack finally exposed themselves. Smoke had fallen pregnant and went down to den. The weakness here was that the den site anchored them, and they started leaving traces. One day, community members used their hunting dogs to follow the scent back to the den and managed to dig out and kill two of the pups. When we arrived, just the carcasses of the pups remained. The rest of the pack had abandoned their den and took the remaining pups with them. We needed to intensify our efforts.

We immediately set up remotely triggered field cameras to monitor the area and spent nights in the field closer to where the Wild Dogs operated. A vet was on call and would be flown by chopper as soon as we received reports of sightings or discovered fresh signs. Eventually our luck changed. The pack made a brief appearance back in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park. The team responded immediately and for the first time the pack stuck around long enough for us to see them. One of the Wild Dogs was immobilised, and a satellite collar finally fitted. This was the game changer. We could now monitor the pack and plan their capture. We would normally call the pack in using recorded Wild Dog “hoo” calls and free dart them from a vehicle. Unfortunately, this pack had become far too skittish to use this method. Capturing this pack would involve careful planning and preparation, large capture nets, experienced game capture staff and a helicopter to guide them into the capture site. This operation needed to be perfectly executed, and it was. In one go, all the pack members were safely captured and transported to a holding facility nearby. At last, they were safe.

But the pack now needed a new home. Fortunately, Madikwe Game Reserve in the North West, was in a position to take them and the ever supportive Bateleurs offered to fly them there. Three months later, when all the permits were in place and preparations made, the pack was re-anaesthetised and driven to the Mkuze airstrip. The plane was prepped and ready on arrival. We carefully transferred the sedated Wild Dogs into the plane, and we were ready to begin our four-hour journey with our VERY SPECIAL cargo.

Once we touched down, the pack was transferred to vehicles and driven to the boma. They had arrived at their new home. What we only realised on the plane was that Smoke had fallen pregnant again and only had a few weeks before she would have her pups. Normally, we use the soft-release method, where the pack stays in the boma to acclimatise to their new environment. This counteracts their instinct to return to their former territory and ensures that they will establish themselves in their new home. But Smoke needed time to explore her new territory and scout a safe den site. So, the pack was only in the boma for a brief period before they were released.

Using the satellite collar data, we were able to remotely monitor the pack as they started to explore their new home. And, after a few weeks, the collar data showed that the pack kept returning to the same point. Smoke had started denning and the rest of the pack was hunting and bringing food back to her. The pack was given their space to live in peace – they had the code to survival and didn’t need anyone checking in on them. But after weeks of eager anticipation, one of the researchers on Madikwe was given the green light to go in and check on the pack. Much to our excitement, they were all present and healthy, with the new offspring stumbling around at their feet.

As a result of an increasing human population and development, Wild Dogs no longer have the space that they need to thrive. South Africa is quickly approaching its relatively small Wild Dog carrying capacity. Many of the Wild Dog reserves are surrounded by farmland, so when Wild Dogs choose to expand their range or disperse, by default, they come under threat. In order to save our most endangered carnivore, we need to keep working at expanding safe space by reintroducing Wild Dogs into South Africa’s many fenced reserves. These reserves, in turn, serve as source populations as we work with partners such as African Parks, Peace Parks, and the Carr Foundation to recover former Wild Dog range across the continent.

It wasn’t ideal that we had to relocate Smoke’s pack, but we owed it to them to give them refuge. They can, once again, be at peace.

Thank you to our long-time partners Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, Wildlife ACT, the Bateleurs, North West Parks Board and Madikwe Game Reserve, and donors Richard Bosman, Painted Wolf Wines, Tania Ihlenfeldt, Tata Consultancy Services, and the Relate Trust. It is a pleasure to work alongside you and share the common goal of conserving our most endangered carnivore.