Australian researcher, Kellie Leigh returned to the Lower Zambezi Valley in Zambia in May to start another six months of fieldwork on her wild dog project, and the year got off to a positive start. The Zambian Wildlife Authority granted renewal of African Wild Dog Conservation’s (AWDC) permits to radio-collar the wild dogs and continue research activities, which was a great relief after a delay of 18 months. Under the original permits in 2000 it took five months to get the first radio-collar on a wild dog due to the logistics of finding the dogs and staying with them long enough to fly in a veterinarian and darting equipment to assist with the collaring. The opportunity came much earlier this year. The first sighting of the dogs since the permits came through revealed a very pregnant alpha female, and a male (Billy) with a new neck snare. The dogs were lying on a wide open plain, the perfect place for darting. Fortunately the snare was loose, and Kellie was able to dart Billy with the assistance of Ian Stevenson from Conservation Lower Zambezi to remove the wire. This provided a perfect opportunity to fit a radio-collar, as there was no neck wound and it was one of the males targeted for collaring. The pack has not been seen in that open area since, but has disappeared up in the escarpment to den. Not a bad first day in the field for the year.
The radio-collar has allowed her to obtain regular sightings and home range data, even in the thick bush of the Game Management Area (GMA), where this pack is now based. She has tracked the dogs returning morning and evening to the same area for the last ten days, which indicates they have a den. The den location was confirmed yesterday on an aerial tracking flight, where one of the dogs kindly stood up and flashed his white tail so they could spot him from the plane. It is right in the foothills of the mountains in a deep and heavily vegetated gully. The area has low predator density so the remote and hidden den should be well protected from lions and spotted hyaenas, which would prey on pups. Getting to it to obtain a count on the pups may be a challenge, but it looks like they should be able to drive most of the way up a dry river bed and then walk in and spy on the dogs from a ridge above them.
The end of last year saw a social shuffle between the wild dog packs in the area. The males from the Mushika pack split off and joined the two remaining females from the Jeki pack, leaving six lonely females in the Mushika area. The Jeki females are now breeding, and the new combination have been named the Mhunyamashi pack, after the area they are now hunting – this was voted more imaginative than “Pack Three”.
The first sighting of the Jeki females for nearly twelve months occurred three days before the end of season last year, when they appeared with two seven month old pups in tow. The father is a mystery but it is likely it was Blacksaddle, a male who visited their area quite a bit last year, before the Mushika males joined them permanently. Unfortunately there is now only one of those pups left, a yearling named Galadriel. This is a very poor survival rate from a litter that was probably nine or more pups, and is likely to be a consequence of the high snaring in the GMA and possibly a lack of adults to feed and raise the pups. There may have been only the two females and Blacksaddle in the pack, which would leave only two adults to hunt to feed the mother and pups.
AWDC has a new field assistant for the season, Trish Pontynen from Australia. Kellie met Trish at a conference in South Africa last year, when she was working with a project studying leopards in the Kalahari. She has offered to help out until November this year, and there is certainly enough work for two. Kellie says “I think its also probably good for my sanity not to spend more than three years driving around in the bush by myself and talking to the animals”.
Now the permits are through the list of activities for this season includes: two spotted hyaena surveys, a lion census of the park, a seasonal vegetation survey, tracking two packs of wild dogs at opposite ends of the park, educational work with the local villages, plus fundraising and report writing and all the less fun activities. In addition Kellie needs to find enough time to work on her PhD, but hopefully with Trish’s assistance she will be able to do this.
The first four months of 2002 were spent back in the lab at Sydney University extracting DNA from dog faeces again, and the results were encouraging. This means that she may not have to attempt to take blood samples from all the wild dogs in the area, or the other more remote parks in Zambia, but can instead collect wild dog droppings from each area to obtain DNA information. Logistically this simplifies things a lot.
The project takes another step forward this year, and expands (hopefully) to South Luangwa and Kafue National Parks where local guides will assist by collecting data on movements of the dogs in both parks. Kapani Lodge will be the collection point for sightings, photographs and dog faeces samples for the South Luangwa region and in 2003 will become an important venue for our Wild Dog Safaris that will combine both South Luangwa and Lower Zambezi National Parks. Participants on these safaris will be able to go into the field with Australian wild dog researcher, Kellie Leigh. They will take an active part in the fieldwork, recording localities, pack sexes and ages, unique identification markings and hopefully taking photographs of the dogs that can be used at a later stage to identify individuals.
The Wild Dog Safaris take you to various prime wildlife and birdwatching destinations, all with wonderful photographic opportunities. Wildlife expert Derek Solomon of On Safari International, Africa, leads the trips. He has been leading special interest safaris in southern Africa for over 12 years, and has been actively involved in wild dog projects in Zimbabwe and South Africa. He has an avid interest in animal behaviour and together with Kellie, will bring the safari to life. Dates for these trips are due to be released soon.