Dog Days in South Africa
The African wild dog is the second-most endangered carnivore in Africa, behind only to the Ethiopian wolf. Its population is dwindling due to human-wildlife conflict, disease and competition for food with larger carnivores such as lions.
Elizabeth Arredondo, a master’s student in the Department of Biological Sciences, is spending the summer researching the wild dogs at Kruger National Park in South Africa, which has one of the largest unmanaged populations of wild dogs in Africa.
“It is a great place to study the dogs’ natural behaviors and population dynamics,” Elizabeth said. “I am focusing on population dynamics and movements of the African wild dog in Kruger National Park, as well as the influence of disease on populations inside and outside protected areas in Africa.”
Elizabeth first visited South Africa as an undergraduate at the U of A. She was a Bodenhamer Fellow and a member of the Honors College.
African wild dogs can be individually identified by their markings because each one has a different pattern. Working with Grant Beverley of the Endangered Wildlife Trust, a non-profit in South Africa focused on work with endangered species, Elizabeth is using photos from a public photographic census conducted by the Endangered Wildlife Trust in 2009 and 2015, as well as tourist photos submitted in 2016, to monitor survival of the dogs and movement between packs.
“I love the behaviors I get to witness when I see the dogs,” she said. “They live in highly cohesive packs that can range from four to 30 individuals. Usually, only a single alpha female breeds and the rest of the pack works together to feed, raise and care for the pups. The pack functions as a large family: It moves together, hunts together, and protects each other.”
The dogs are highly mobile and have huge home range sizes averaging 175 square miles, she explained. They are persistence hunters, which means they use a combination of running, walking and tracking over a long distance until their prey is exhausted. The dogs are considered one of the most effective predators in the world, with an 85 percent success rate. However, they need to consume an incredible 30 percent of their body weight a day to keep up with the energy they expend while hunting.
“My favorite behaviors are the social interactions between dogs,” she said. “It’s incredible to see the how they react when a smaller group returns from hunting, or even when the pack wakes up in the morning. The excitement of being reunited is expressed through high-pitched yips and playful jumping, chasing, and licking, very similar to what you see from domestic dogs at home. I was also lucky enough this summer to visit a den site a few times, and witness interactions of a group of 10 puppies and the adults of the pack, which could only be described as adorable.”
Last summer Elizabeth’s work was done in both Kruger and in the Tswalu-Kalahari Private Game Reserve, a park in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa. She’s faced several challenges this summer. Her project initially focused on population dynamics and comparing the unmanaged, but protected, population in Kruger to the highly managed population in Tswalu. In May, a month before she was headed to South Africa, she learned that the two packs in Tswalu had contracted canine distemper, and all but one dog had died. Not even a week later, distemper wiped out an entire pack of 13 dogs in a week in the southern region of Kruger.
“With only around 250 dogs left in Kruger, this was startling and very scary,” she said. “I have had to drop my thesis chapter comparing the two populations, and I added a chapter focused on distemper in wild dogs throughout Africa. I will be analyzing information from papers, case studies, and personal stories from reserves on distemper outbreaks in wild dogs. The goal is for the Endangered Wildlife Trust and SANParks (the South African National Parks group) to use the information I compile in their new five-year project on disease monitoring in wild dogs in Kruger.”
Elizabeth is conducting her research as a Sturgis International Fellow in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences. The program, created through a gift from the gift from the Roy and Christine Sturgis Educational Trust, supports undergraduate honors and graduate students with creative international learning opportunities.