Over the past few years, we have equipped dispersing African wild dogs with GPS/Satellite radio collars as part of a collaborative effort between the University of Zurich (Switzerland) and Botswana Predator Conservation (BPC) and supported by the Botswana Department of Wildlife and National parks. The aim of the project is (i) to follow dispersers after emigration from their natal group and to investigate the effect of landscape characteristics on their dispersal distance, time and movements, and (ii) to gather crucial demographic data such as frequency of mortality and reproductive success after they have settled in a new territory.
Recently, an unusually large coalition of eight brothers from a single litter born in 2018 emigrated from their natal pack in the Third Bridge – Budumatau – Xini area of Moremi Game Reserve. Thanks to the GPS data regularly sent to a base station (via the Iridium satellite system), we have been able to follow their movements. After emigration, they covered over 175 km in just five days before hitting the permanent swamp surrounding the Kwedi Concession in the northern side of the Okavango Delta. During the past month they have been stationary in an area of about 180 km2 between Vumbura Plains Lodge and Mapula Lodge. But dots on a map represent only a small part of the story… Are the eight brothers still together or have they split? What have they been doing? Have they managed to connect with females and formed a new pack?
Although the collar sends us regular location information, keeping up with the group of dogs over such large areas is almost impossible unless we get help from “the many eyes out there”. Tourists, guides, camp managers, all can help keep track of these wanderers by reporting their sightings to our research team.
No sooner said than done. No sooner had we informed the people at the lodges where they might be seen, we received the first report back: a group of 9 dogs, including a collared dog, had been seen a few kilometres north of Vumbura Plains by the lodge staff. The pictures allowed us to identify five of the original eight males and four females (previously unknown to us in our database). Between the confirmed sighting of only 9 and the dogs identified in the photos, the dispersing 8 brothers appeared to have split into at least two groups with three presumed to have died or gone a separate way. While it is not unusual for dogs to die during dispersal, we could only know if they were still alive if we received more photos with them in them? An answer to that important question arrived just a week later when a second sighting of now 12 dogs was reported to us near Bushman Plains camp. Again, thanks to photos sent to us, we confirmed the three missing brothers were still alive and back with their litter-mates – all identified in the photos among the now 12 dogs. Future sightings will tell if this unusually large new pack of 12 will remain together or if some will split off in the future to start another separate pack.
Why would some undergo the risks of dispersing again? Because typically, only one of each sex among the 8 males and 4 females will be dominant as a pair and produce pups. The others who remain will help raise their pups but won’t typically mate and produce their own. As an alternative life history decision, some dogs may take on the extra risk and disperse again. Bets are open, but we are betting those three brothers will depart again. Time, and your sightings (!), will tell.
We researchers can and do benefit enormously from reports and sightings, as has been the case with these dogs setting up a new territory in NG12/22/23. In return for those reports and useful photos we will be able to centralize all our population information and piece together the characteristics of Botswana’s endangered African wild dog population and share our knowledge with policy makers, stakeholders, and the tourism industry.
Please, keep sharing your sightings with us, of both collared and non-collared individuals, to help us protect these iconic and endangered African predators.