Stefanie Strebel

In search of Kenya's elusive wild dogs

Liz is a staff writer for Science.

MPALA RESEARCH CENTRE, KENYA—Most visitors to Africa come for the lions, elephants, and rhinos. But for the tourists who helicoptered into this somewhat remote region of central Kenya last month, wild dogs topped their list. Once so common in Africa that they were shot as vermin, the elusive canines are becoming poster children for conservation: Fewer than 7000 are left in Africa, their native range.

A reporter visiting the center, I love dogs and so jumped at the chance to track some down in advance of the tourists’ arrival. It was a dusty, bumpy ride into the bush, for a fleeting view of animals that aren’t really dogs after all. But along the way, I came to appreciate their incredible story. They are full of wanderlust, and their packs show camaraderie and coordination to rival the best military unit. Yet they are quite vulnerable, and even though several teams of researchers have dedicated large chunks of their lives following these animals, much about them remains mysterious.

Despite the name, Lycaon pictus is a distant relative of household canines. Dogs, wolves, and coyotes can all interbreed but not with wild dogs, which are sometimes called painted wolves because of their colorful and variable coat patterns. Compared with their domesticated namesakes, wild dogs have bigger ears, lack the fifth dewclaw on the front feet, and have a distinctive musty smell like the badger that they are distant cousins with. Dogs take a long time to mate—wild dogs do it in a minute or less.

Today’s mystery: locating one of the numerous packs that roam the 20,000-hectare Mpala ranch and research center grounds. It should have been an easy task. For the past 3 months, Stefanie Strebel, project manager for the Kenya Rangelands Wild Dog and Cheetah Project, based at the Mpala center, has monitored the movements of these animals, continuing an effort begun in 2001. Wild dogs had disappeared from that part of Kenya in the early 1980s. But one day in 1999, three females jumped out of the bush onto the road in front of Rosie Woodroffe as she was driving back to the center. “I burst into tears,” recalls Woodroffe, a conservation biologist at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL).

At the time, she was studying how people coexist with lions, but 2 years earlier she had co-authored a species survival plan for wild dogs, and the prospects hadn’t looked promising. “Wild dogs are victims of their own wide-ranging behavior—they wander so far that most reserves are too small to contain them,” she explains. When she realized wild dogs were back in the area, she and her colleagues immediately began to look into how these carnivores might coexist with people outside reserves. “By working on a community conservation area rather than a centrally protected national park, they have extended our understanding of wild dog ecology,” says Scott Creel, a behavioral ecologist at Montana State University, Bozeman.

In contrast, Creel and his wife, Nancy Creel, and independently Robert Robbins and Kim McCreery, who founded the African Wild Dog Conservancy in Tucson, Arizona, have studied wild dogs in reserves. During their 9 years watching wild dogs in Zimbabwe, Robbins and McCreery tracked known individuals to learn how packs formed and changed through time and cataloged the range of vocalizations. “Wild dogs sound like birds, cats and dogs,” they say. “They are complex social carnivores very similar to human families.”

In 1990, very little was known about why wild dogs were always found at low densities—averaging between 300 to 1200 square kilometers per pack—and the Creels spent 5 years in the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania trying to find out, leaving only after their infant daughter got very sick. They wrote a book about wild dogs, and ultimately concluded that the animals were rare when lions and hyenas were common, as those larger predators could steal the wild dogs’ prey and sometimes prey upon them as well. Today, they study wild dogs and other large carnivores in reserves in Zambia.

Another team, led by J. Weldon "Tico" McNutt, has a similar long-term project in Africa's Okavango delta called the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust.

"Surprisingly, we do not yet have good, reliable estimates of the size of many important wild dog populations," Creel says. Nor do researchers know what controls wild dog numbers in many places.

All of these researchers are awed—and challenged—by the nomadic life of these animals. "There’s very little you can do to predict where they are going," says Joshua Ginsberg, incoming president of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York. Over 24 hours, they can roam many or few kilometers, depending on how hungry they are. During the day, they settle down for 4 to 6 hours of napping in the shade of an acacia tree, staying within 300 meters of each other.

Credit: Stefanie Strebel

Typically, siblings will sleep with each other; the top male will rest with his head on the alpha female. “They don’t like to be alone,” Strebel says, and this close proximity seems to reinforce the cohesiveness of the pack.

As sunset approaches—about 5:30 p.m.—young dogs will start to chase each other and they and others begin to twitter, sounding like a flock of birds instead of a pack of dogs. A romp and greet session ensues. As young dogs race around, older ones nuzzle. There’s lots of licking of noses and mouths (as in this video). They set out, the direction often determined by the alpha female, first trotting and then running full speed when prey are spotted, silent until a prey is killed, often through the coordinated action of the pack. Then they “hoo” as a dinner call. Older dogs ensure that pups eat first, then they chow down. If there’s nothing left, the latecomers beg food from the well-sated, who may regurgitate some. Once it gets dark, they settle down for a few hours, regrouping just before sunrise for a hunt that lasts until about 9 in the morning.

ZSL’s Woodroffe discovered that given the right circumstances, wild dogs can thrive in human-dominated landscapes. “This was a huge surprise and a rare piece of good news,” she says. Coexistence worked in Laikipia, the local county, for three reasons. The local Maasai and Samburu people focused on raising sheep, goats, and cattle and rarely hunted antelope and other ungulates, leaving them fair game for the wild dogs. At the same time, shepherds kept close watch on the livestock, protecting them from wild dogs and therefore reducing the likelihood that people would kill wild dogs in retaliation for livestock losses. Finally, these communities often set aside the hillier and less accessible land for dry-season grazing, leaving the areas free for wildlife to use. Wild dogs prefer these areas, further reducing contact between them and people and their dogs. Today, the area supports the sixth largest wild dog population in the world.

By the time Strebel joined the Mpala project, Woodroffe was following eight packs including three with radio-collared individuals, of the 30 in Laikipia and the surrounding region. Strebel is systematically photographing each wild dog in those packs, so the researchers can pick out coat color patterns and other characteristics that enable them to identify each individual. In this way, they can build a more detailed picture of their movements. She knows her animals well. “If you love dogs, you associate with them right away,” she says. With their big ears, “they look pretty goofy.”

To track down the pack this morning, she climbs into a dusty Toyota Land Cruiser equipped with an omnidirectional antenna on the roof. Strebel attaches a radio to the antenna so she can hear any beeps indicative of contact with a radio-collared animal—each pack has one or two animals with tags. As she goes to leave the research center compound, a security guard comes up, and there’s an excited exchange in Swahili. She beams as she translates: Two wild dogs were sighted running past the nearby campsite. She heads that way first but soon decides they belong to one of the packs without a collared animal and so will be hard to track down. She turns on to a different bumpy road.

We speed at 30 km per hour or less along dirt tracks that wind around the countryside, past giraffes, zebras, and tiny antelopes called dik-diks. We’ve traveled 40 kilometers, but so far, there’s only static on the radio. She frets that perhaps the two wild dogs spotted earlier this morning may have been a better quarry. But by now, they are well out of range.

Because the wild dogs do not respect boundaries, they often cross from conservation areas to community land, where children tending goats tend to run away from the wild dogs, leaving the animals vulnerable. Strebel and Woodroffe spend a lot of time trying to convince locals that adults should care for the animals and that when they stand their ground, the wild dogs will move on.

As part of their community outreach, the Kenya Rangelands Wild Dog and Cheetah Project has teamed up with the Zeitz Foundation, which has programs to encourage sports in developing nations. During halftime at Zeitz-sponsored soccer tournaments, a theater group performs a play about the dilemmas presented by wild dogs and cheetahs. The play begins with a herder who loses several goats to wild dogs and wants retribution. A meeting of the elders ensues in which the herder’s, dogs’ and cheetahs’ points of views are aired.

Credit: Mohammed Boru, Zeitz Foundation

Although the wild dogs can be a menace to livestock, they represent a draw for tourists and, in the end, the herder comes to realize there are steps he can take so he can coexist with these animals.

The play reflects the changing view of wild dogs. "Also, 25 years ago, they were not considered something tourists would want to see, says the Cary Institute’s Ginsberg. "That is not true anymore." Tourists are charmed by the doglike nature of these animals. And researchers find them extraordinary. "Watching a wild dog move is to see the perfection that arises from eons of natural selection to perform an exceptionally difficult task," Scott Creel says. "Everything unnecessary has been whittled away, leaving only a perfect running machine."

But first one needs to find them. At one point we get stuck in a traffic jam of camels, kept as livestock on the ranch.

Credit: Elizabeth Pennisi

But at last, Strebel hears beeping coming from the radio, so she stops the car and pulls out a directional antenna, circling with it held high. The dogs are still down the road, and as she drives, the signal gets stronger, then weaker. She pulls over, hops onto the roof, and tries the directional antenna again.

Credit: Elizabeth Pennisi

Her purple sneakers leave a footprint in the dust on the hood. The dogs seem to be on the right side of the road, back a little ways, so she turns around and looks for a place where the banks are low enough to breach.

We bushwhack, stopping frequently to take another reading. But Strebel no longer gets out of the car and instead sticks the antenna out the roof hatch. The animals let cars come really close, but they shy away from people on foot. The tree density thickens and we reach a point where no amount of obstacle course driving will help. Strebel wiggles the car back toward the road and tries twice more from two different directions to get to the source of the beeps. Her frustration is palpable. Her nostrils flare, and she shakes her head. “Usually they are such good dogs and don’t go into difficult places to get to,” she apologizes. “They are right in front of us.”

Blocked on all sides with bushes and trees, Strebel decides we should hike the rest of the way. We’ve now been searching for 3 hours. We soon hear a short, deep bark and a lot of twittering. They know we’re here, and they quickly leave. There are 24 adults in this pack, 10 of them pups, but all I catch is a fleeting glimpse of the side of one pup and the legs of one adult as they take off. We’ve driven 70 kilometers total. Eventually a pack was tracked down for the tourists to see, but for me, it was a wild dog chase.

At Mpala, these elusive animals seem to be doing better. “They appear to be in better shape now than I would have thought 20 years ago,” Ginsberg says. Yet there’s still a lot to be learned about what makes them thrive, as there are many places in Africa where they are still missing or are in dire straits, say Robbins and McCreery: “Some key challenges are to get researchers to start thinking in novel ways to address wild dog conservation questions and the people that live with them to understand we are all part of the great web of life.”

If that happens, many wild dogs won’t be so hard to find.

Postscript: Two weeks later, driving through Tsavo East National Park, I did finally see wild dogs—twice by the side of the road. They were in the bushes when my husband and I and a Kenyan scientist drove by in the morning and then resting in the road as we returned that afternoon. The scientist said we were quite lucky, as they were a rare sighting in that park.

For more on man's best friend, see the Science News team's latest coverage of doggy science.

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