Intelligent, elusive, embattled

2009-10-19 00:00

HOWICK-BASED couple Roger and Pat de la Harpe willingly acknowledge that their latest book In Search of the African Wild Dog is a labour of love. “It’s also been one of our hardest projects,” says Roger. “We had to cover an enormous amount of mileage and the dogs are so elusive.”

The remaining populations of African wild dog are scattered in reserves around South Africa and when you get to the reserves there’s no guarantee the dogs will be ready and waiting. Considering there are only between 180 and 450 dogs in the Kruger Park (numbers fluctuate hugely) finding them in an area covering 20 000 square kilometres is not easy. On one occasion, reliably informed of an active den, the De la Harpes arrived to find it had just been vacated. “It took three days to find them again at the new den,” says Roger.

In common with their other books such as Zulu, Top Touring Spots of South Africa and Tuli - Land of Giants, this book is a skilful blend of informative text and stunning photographs.

Who does what? “Pat’s the author, I’m the photographer,” says Roger. Howick artist Andre de la Rosa also contributed some illustrations.

The book is divided into five sections. The first tells you everything you need to know about the species and its history in southern Africa while the other four are devoted to wild dog populations found in the North West bushveld, Zululand, the Limpopo Valley and the Greater Kruger National Park. Together with scientific information on the wild dogs and the conservation measures aimed at preserving them there is also material garnered from folklore and traditional knowledge systems, as well as plenty of anecdotal stories about these intriguing and intelligent animals.

Not least the story by James Stevenson-Hamilton, the Kruger Park’s first warden, who noted the dogs’ strategy for avoiding crocodiles when crossing a stream or river. When faced with such an obstacle they would gather on the bank and begin barking. “The great reptiles look upon the barking as a dinner bell, and hasten in the direction from which it comes. The dogs, having drawn all the crocodiles within hearing of them to one spot, career as fast as they can along the bank for a couple of 100 yards. Then they plunge into the stream, and cross it, before the crocs can checkmate their strategy.”

Despite the fact that the African wild dog is one of Africa’s most successful hunters, it is on the verge of extinction. It is estimated there are only between 3 000 and 5 500 wild dogs left on the continent. Depressingly, as the text points out, “South Africa is one of a few African countries with a viable dog population and can boast a mere 500 of these animals!”

“The numbers seemed to shrink in the year we were doing the book,” says Pat.

Wild dogs live in packs —10 being being the average — headed by a dominant male and female. Co-operation among pack members is what makes the dogs such efficient hunters. “The kill success of lions is around 30%,” says Roger. “Dogs are well into 80%.”

Their prey of choice in southern Africa, thanks to their abundance, is impala. Further north the dogs tackle wildebeest and zebra.

The seeds for In Search of the African Wild Dog were sown back in 2000 when the De la Harpes were working on Big Game Cats of Mala Mala and an executive director of Sasol suggested they do something on “their dogs” — two wild dog packs released into the Madikwe Game Reserve in the nineties and sponsored by Sasol. The packs combined captive-bred animals from the De Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Care Centre in the Magaliesberg together with wild- caught animals. It was an experiment that proved a great success.

After a little research the De la Harpes realised there was a bigger story to be told, one involving all the conservation areas “that subscribe to the concept of wild dog ‘metapopulation’. This involves the translocation of dogs between different reserves to simulate their natural dispersal and prevent inbreeding.

“Kruger has the only naturally viable population,” says Pat. “You need 75 000 acres to support a really viable pack. Today the odds are really stacked against them.”

Dramatically diminishing range due to human encroachment has denied them the large areas they need in which to roam and hunt and form new packs. “The human footprint inevitably brings roads,” says Pat, “and they are incredibly stupid about roads, oblivious to speeding vehicles.”

People also bring domestic animals and their diseases. “Wild dogs are very susceptible to diseases such as rabies, anthrax and canine distemper,” says Roger. “If one of them gets rabies it can take out the whole pack.”

Thanks to an under served reputation as being wanton killers, wild dogs are frequently poisoned or shot and, being pack animals, if one animal goes down the others come and investigate and consequently whole packs are eliminated.

More recently, wild dogs have been subject to unregulated trade with the East. Some 100 dogs annually are ending up in “awful conditions to be gawked at by tourists”.

One of the most striking photographs in the book is of a bull elephant heading aggressively towards a den in the Manyeleti Game Reserve. The dogs called his bluff and he stopped and sauntered off. “They stood their ground, it was quite phenomenal,” says Roger. “We were also told of incidents of them standing their ground against elephants in Tuli.”

Although this was a particularly difficult image to capture, wild dogs were less difficult to photograph than they were to find. “The dogs are very inquisitive, they tend to approach you,” says Roger.

Roger produced 8 000 images for the book. “These were edited down to 1 200 pics that were sent to the publisher and 200 of those are in the book.”

 

• Check the website: www.africanwilddogs.co.za

 

• The Johannesburg launch of In Search of the African Wild Dog will take place at the Sasol Head Office, 1 Sturdee Avenue in Rosebank, where a painting by Andre de la Rosa, an Ardmore ceramic and Painted Wolf wine plus a leather- bound collector’s edition of the book will be auctioned. All proceeds will go to the Endangered Wildlife Trust to fund wild dog projects.

 

• In Search of the African Wild Dog by Roger and Pat de la Harpe is published by Sunbird Publishers.

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