Commonly known as painted wolves due to their patterned pelts, the big-eared, bushy-tailed African wild dog is South Africa’s most endangered carnivore. Of the estimated 650 remaining dogs in South Africa, most stay in protected parks and reserves. The Waterberg population, however, contains some of the country’s last free-roaming wild dogs, found on public and private game farms, nature reserves, and agricultural lands within the Waterberg.
Wild dogs are endangered for a number of reasons. Challenges include habitat loss and fragmentation, disease, and conflict with humans. They are also largely misunderstood, and their pack-hunting habits sometimes feared. But, as nature shows us repeatedly, they benefit the ecosystem by keeping prey herds strong by thinning out the weak and sick animals.
A highly social species they demonstrate an amazing pack hierarchy. The leader is the alpha female, supported by an alpha male – and these are the only ones who breed. The rest of the pack, however, all do their bit in rearing the pups — protecting, feeding, and teaching them.
“As dedicated conservationists and the custodians of the Earth, we must ensure that we all fight for the ones that cannot fight for themselves — every species we know of and will yet discover.”
Michael Embleton, WWDI Chairman
“The Waterberg population is an extremely important one as it is one of the country’s last remaining packs of free-roaming dogs, which means they enter and leave the area naturally,” says Reilly Mooney, the extremely passionate Project Coordinator of the Waterberg Wild Dog Initiative (WWDI). “But being a free-roaming population presents unique challenges to their conservation.”
It was for this reason that the programme was established. “The WWDI is a community-based, non-profit initiative seeking to conserve the wild dogs that occur naturally in the Waterberg biosphere,” explains Mooney. “The WWDI team collaborates with community members and supports local landowners to promote coexistence between the farmers and the wild dogs that traverse their properties — raising awareness, providing education and gaining accurate information in order to better understand the human-wildlife conflict that occurs.”
In the two short years since WWDI was introduced, there has already been positive change. Forming new breeding packs is an important part of the conservation efforts and a newly formed pack of four African wild dogs was recently released into Mabula Private Game Reserve in the southern part of the Waterberg. Meanwhile, the free-roaming pack residing between Vaalwater and Lephalale, which have been tracked since the inception of the project, is the only free-roaming pack in the world to have recorded a 100% survival rate, with all seven of the pups born in 2021 still thriving.
Tracking collars provide valuable information about the dogs’ movements and behaviour and provide protection in the sense that by monitoring their movements, the WWDI team can relay information to community members in the area and provide an early-warning system for landowners as the pack moves through private lands.
The pack in Mabula is now the second known breeding pack in the Waterberg. The males naturally dispersed from their resident pack in northern Limpopo in early 2021 and travelled to Mabula. As there were no females there, two carefully selected females were translocated to join the males, thanks to a collaboration between Mabula Private Game Reserve, WWDI, the Endangered Wildlife Trust, and Rooiberg Veterinary Services.
Eco-tourism project offers unique sightings
WWDI introduced an eco-tourism project in 2021 that raised over R137,000 over a six-week period. The same project is taking place this year. It’s an incredible and rare guest experience, as well as an opportunity for Mooney and Project Assistant Tumi Mbuyane, to gather information to share with the community and other researchers.
The eco-tourism project is designed to leverage the opportunity to view one of the Waterberg packs during denning season. “They stay in one area to birth and raise their young, which gives us an opportunity to take guests to see them,” says Mooney. “It also enables us to generate funds from the paying guests, which go to the farmers who are supporting them during this time. This year there are three private properties that are hosting the dogs while they are denning. The dogs hunt on the property once or twice a day, and this project aims to mitigate that impact on the property.”
Outside of the denning season, the pack can use over 65,000 hectares and 55 private properties, so it’s extremely difficult to see them, explains Mooney, hence their other name of ‘ghost dogs’. They were only seen once or twice a year in this area prior to the introduction of tracking collars.
TSAM lends support
Toyota South Africa Motors (TSAM) is supporting the conservation of the painted dogs in Limpopo by providing a Toyota Hilux DC 4×4 and operational funding to WWDI for the next year.
As the Waterberg area consists mostly of agricultural land and game reserves, it’s no wonder that Toyota Land Cruisers and Hilux bakkies dominate the roads. “This area is key to us from a product, brand and utilisation point of view,” says John Thomson, Vice President Future Toyota. “The important thing we can do is provide mobility, that’s our speciality. It’s a fit for us to be involved and look after South Africa’s heritage.”
“We recognise that the support for WWDI is a practical way we could help in the relentless task of protecting these national treasures,” adds TSAM’s Manager of Internal Communications, Karen Strever. “We’re so privileged to be involved in this project, and we truly hope that we can make a difference — no matter how small — in the preservation of our wildlife.”
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