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Africa's Wandering Painted Dogs

My favourite African beast, the African Wild Dog (Lycaon pictus) is a large (20-28kg) highly social, pack-living carnivore. With its sophisticated pack hunting strategies, the wild dog is one of the most successful terrestrial carnivores, with a hunting success of around 44%. Wild dogs also have enormous home ranges, much larger than would be expected on the basis of their body size .For example in the Serengeti, home ranges are 1500-2000 km2.

African wild dogs are currently categorised as endangered on the IUCN Red List. Wild dogs were once distributed through much of sub-Saharan Africa apart from areas of rainforest and desert. However, wild dogs are now among the most endangered large mammals on the continent with a population estimated at just 5000 individuals. This is the same figure for Black Rhinos and less than the population of Cheetahs, yet wild dogs receive much less global conservation attention than these comparative species.

Habitat fragmentation and isolation, along with direct persecution by humans, have been recognised as the ultimate causes contributing to the overall decline of wild dog populations. Even when wild dogs live in protected habitats with abundant prey, their low population densities make them unusually susceptible to local extinction.

It is thought that wild dogs have evolved to have such large home ranges in order to spatially avoid interspecific competition with larger carnivores (mostly Lions and hyenas). However, due to the fact that there are not enough reserves in Africa of a suitable size these large carnivores interact much more than they would naturally, due to the wild dogs reduced ability of avoidance by finding refuge. This has led to wild dogs avoiding areas of high lion density and therefore of high prey densities, often pushing wild dogs to the boundaries of protected areas or to local extinction.

The issue is there is simply not enough space. It has been highlighted that in the long term, expanding the current protected area network to suitable habitat, currently unprotected, will be the most effective strategy to decrease extinction risk and stabilise numbers of all species. However, with the ever increasing human population, acquisition of new land will be highly contested and it is doubtful that conservation will be given any kind of priority.

Currently the population is been heavily followed and a breeding programme has been put into place so that certain individuals/groups can be selected and moved to safe areas in order to not only spread out the packs but also the genepool. A current shift in land use from cattle ranching to game ranching offers potential hope for wild dog conservation. Game ranching is defined as the managed extensive production of free-living animals on large tracts of land for purposes of live animal sales, hunting, venison production or tourism.

Additionally, landowners can further be encouraged to get involved in wild dog conservation if they can be persuaded that income obtained from wild dog-based eco-tourism can balance their losses and that they could actually make a profit.

Although it has been made clear that the expansion of protected areas could be unlikely due to conflicting socio-economic priorities. This has led to the creation of a meta-population scheme that could potentially be replicated using existing areas of protected land. Still, this method is costly and therefore the immediate goal for wild dog conservation should be educating landowners to increase tolerance of dispersing wild dogs and encouraging private land owners to become actively involved in wild dog conservation in order to benefit from eco-tourism income. Something must be done in order to not loose such a beautiful yet effective carnivore.

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