HLUHLUWE-IMFOLOZI PARK, South Africa — Cast in stark relief against the dawn’s grey sky, Zama Zwame held a radio close to his ear, hoping to hear something positive. He heard a few soft clicks from the radio, getting louder as he scanned the horizon with the antenna in his other hand, and he seemed satisfied.
“Ah,” Zwame said, heading back to his truck to follow the signal across the park. “We might get lucky today.”
Zwame is a Wild Dog tracker in South Africa’s Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park in the northeastern part of the country. He had driven to one of the park’s highest peaks, Mpila Hill, to begin his daily search for the radio signal given off by the Wild Dogs (which have been tagged for tracking by park officials). They are an endangered species whose population numbers only 84 animals in this park, and roughly no more than 400 throughout the country.
Also called African Hunting Dogs, the painted-fur species face a particularly challenging set of circumstances threatening their survival. And while Wild Dogs are being bred in captivity, their numbers continue to drop.
Breeding isn’t the problem. “People were saying to us, 'Why don't you just breed them in captivity? That'll sort out all of your problems,'” said Brendan Whittington-Jones, manager of the KwaZulu-Natal Wild Dog Project. Breeding rarely becomes an issue: “It's keeping them alive afterwards that's the problem.,” he said.
Game reserves like Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park are often established out of convenience — following government actions that distribute available land along political lines or private property claims—rather than taking concerns for the animals’ habitat into account, according to Whittington-Jones. SANParks, the government agency tasked with managing all of South Africa’s parks, continues to make adjustments to park boundaries and deal with issues on the parks’ borders.
Because the parks’ boundaries usually limit the dogs’ comfortable hunting areas, they’re forced into contact with lions, which Zwame calls the dogs’ “eternal enemies,” as well as other predators. The dogs must then compete for food as well as avoid becoming prey themselves. The dogs’ packs are also especially fragile. As Zwame continued scanning for the dogs from his truck, he explained that losing only a couple of dogs — especially the pack’s alpha male or female — could mean that a pack dissolves altogether.
Breeding more dogs in captivity won’t solve this problem; they miss the opportunity to learn to hunt from parents born in the wild. And when they enter the cramped habitat in Hluhluwe-IMfolozi they have trouble adjusting to the pace set by their natural-born peers. And, of course, poaching within the park and killings by farm owners who lose livestock to Wild Dog attacks threaten their numbers as well.
“We are a part of the biodiversity, and yet we need to understand, 'How do we fit [into] the system?” Zwame said about the need to educate local residents about the dogs. Poaching within the reserve has been a rite of passage for boys living outside the park, one that Zwame’s father explained to him as a test of manhood when he was younger. Whittington-Jones explained that the dogs have been historically considered pests, with government-endorsed programs to exterminate large numbers of dogs existing as late as the 1960s.
Zwame added that, as a result of the global trend towards conservation, local residents often feel that they’re being “robbed” of their own land when the South Africa government designates new areas for conservation. To them, their land appears to be populated by wild animals as far as the eye can see.
They aren’t aware, Zwame said, of how rare the species is, and they treat the animals as a nuisance when they escape the park’s boundaries. The reality is often that the dogs are escaping through the same breaches in the fence that poachers use to enter the park.
Consistent research is the way to improve the dogs’ condition, with Zwame and others like him representing the best way to address the species’ daily threats to survival, experts say. In monitoring the dogs’ population sizes each day, Zwame is able to identify issues requiring attention — like when the slower pace of a group of females in one pack meant that the male dogs left them behind. The males were found days later in the wild, seriously ill without the help of their female counterparts.
“Kruger’s considered a population where they’re viable in that they can be seen to be persisting on their own without anybody interfering,” Whittington-Jones said, explaining that the dogs’ numbers in smaller parks like Hluhluhwe-Imfolozi aren’t high enough to withstand problems with inbreeding, epidemics, or attacks from inside and outside the reserve. Constant vigilance is the only way to keep populations stable until they grow large enough to become self-sustaining.
“We’re at such a fine line at the moment.”