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African Wild Dogs
On the Front Line
By Brendan Whittington-Jones
Jacana Media (Pty) LtdCopyright © 2015 Brendan Whittington-Jones
All rights reserved.
Small fish, big pond, pointy thorns
* * *
Through a series of unanticipated events, conflicting desires and awkward decisions, in 2007 I found myself thumping along a dirt road in the iMfolozi Game Reserve (Hluhluwe–iMfolozi Park (HiP) comprises iMfolozi Game Reserve in the south and Hluhluwe Game Reserve in the north). I was chasing after the Section Ranger Emile Smidt, who clearly over-estimated my driving capabilities. It was a far cry from the dodging of mini-bus taxis and upwelling of road rage I'd had to negotiate on Cape Town mornings for the previous six months. This was more about hanging onto the steering wheel and hoping I could make the gravelled corners without crushing a startled impala and incurring the wrath of my new bosses for wrecking a car in the first week. It was also a far cry from the comfort of living with my parents and Farah, my girlfriend – an experience I unashamedly couldn't have enjoyed more. Little did I know how different life was to be for the foreseeable future.
"You see that little square on the hill over there?" Emile said as we stopped for a quick orientation.
"Yes," I lied.
I had no idea what he was talking about, but the hill seemed far enough away from any other discernible infrastructure. That I saw.
"That's your new home – Mhlolokazane."
Ten minutes later reality kicked in. The little square on the hill was still a little square on the hill. It was just that the hill was a lot closer. The White Umfolozi River bent below a set of 40-metre-high cliffs, and perched about 200 metres beyond the cliffs in some Zululand thornveld was a square hut with a solar panel on the roof and a rainwater tank peering out above the roof. The management track wound across the Madlozi Stream and up through a small cut in the hill. With a few twists and turns, it emerged from the grass where my new military-green dwelling stood – in among the waist-high grass with Combretums, Acacias and marula trees. A rusty wheelbarrow lay in the grass next to a fire pit and a tripod braai grid.
We pushed through the grass and onto the veranda where the eccentric side of my predecessor Thadaigh Baggallay became apparent. The green-and-white chequered veranda led into a one-room house divided into two sections by positively Swedish wall colours – baby-blue and canary-yellow. It was startling at first. I swore I would change it, but although many years passed I never did. The novelty grew on me. The house was neatly divided into a kitchen area, a bedroom area and a bathroom, that was fed by rainwater and powered by a solar panel. Emile told me how fond the reserve's management staff was of the old house and how much effort had gone into fixing it up in anticipation of the wild dog project. It was clear that many felt it was a privilege to have been allocated this site.
Although I had grown very fond of Zululand over previous years working at a private game reserve in the area, I'd also adapted back to urban life. I was thinking more along the lines of "What the ...?! I'm going to be living here for the next two years?"
Then I remembered Farah, my suburbia-loving girlfriend, was going to be visiting one week later. I knew that at very best, she would not be amused. Emile left with a casual, cheery goodbye and I wondered, not for the first time in the previous few years, what on earth I had got myself into.
Until then I'd only ever seen wild dogs once ... sleeping on a fence line at a private Eastern Cape reserve when my brother had taken me to visit a field study site of his. People asked me if I'd always aspired to conserve wild dogs. Had I finally reached my childhood dream? I could say yes and it would sound romantic and maybe even inspirational. But it would be a total lie. I knew little about wild dogs except that they lived in packs dominated by an alpha male and female, were damn hard to find, and that now I was employed to carry out a research degree on them for my Masters. My mother told me she had seen them on a school excursion into the Kruger National Park (Kruger) in the 1960s. Those were my wild dog-specific credentials. I was actually just thrilled at the prospect of being able to live in iMfolozi Game Reserve. That had been the dream since I had completed a high school wilderness trail in the reserve many years earlier.
Through the following week I hacked at the defiant grass with a hand-slasher, washed the house into a state I figured was clean and gecko-crap-free enough, and learnt to navigate the perils posed to an ignorant rookie trying to operate a paraffin-rocket shower. It was mostly a fickle friend to my engineering-impaired brain, and it became a skill to work out how much fire in the hole would be the difference between a steam-scalded back and a breath-sucking cold shower. Running outside naked in mid-winter, to extinguish the fire before too much pressure built up on the closed tap, also became a routine that made me appreciate rather bathing out of a bucket of kettle-boiled water. The gas fridge on the veranda, which would have taken up valuable space inside the house, was both a luxury and a curse. It felt like I was luxuriously defying the odds by having a fridge out there, but the frustration of the pilot light's feeble capitulation every time a gust blew past the protective barriers I piled up, led to many rotten groceries over time. The next best coping strategy I found was simply to eat everything in the fridge before I went away for more than a few days. An expensive habit at times since trips away were often spontaneous based on the nature of the job, but one that over the years led to an appreciation of banquets-for-one.
A week later Farah, pushed through the grass to the open patch around the braai area; my limited hacking stamina had been tested to the maximum. She looked at the house. I thought how hot she looked. I thought about the animals we'd seen on the drive and loved the idea that the place felt alive with birds and insects. I thought about how manly and industrious I had been to get Mhlolokazane into shape for her visit. She cried. The tears kept flowing. "How do they expect you to live here?" she sobbed.
I tried to console her by taking her on a grand tour of my new castle, but 40 seconds later she still didn't look particularly pleased. She commented on my presumed industriousness, which made me feel like doing something useful with my Leatherman, or making a fire and cooking meat. I was adapting more quickly than I had anticipated. As the evening wore on, the fire flickered away and the hyenas called, and I could see that with enough wine in the system she was at least putting on a brave face with a hint of appreciation (somewhat short of exuberance, but I would settle for the small evolution). The novelty of it all was beginning to grow on her even though she was only visiting for a week. The whole shocking lifestyle change and the rather intimidating, but potentially exhilarating, challenge seemed like it would be do-able.
* * *
My manager at the Endangered Wildlife Trust, Harriet Davies- Mostert had been generous enough to allow me a teething period to try to figure out the context of the work, to connect with the personnel and politics of the area and to familiarise myself with the logistical requirements to operate within the surrounds. Essentially it was a period to harden up again. The first and most obvious target in my mind was to actually see wild dogs. That finally took two weeks and gave me some insight into the utter frustration of repetitive near misses, and days when it seemed like wild dogs may actually just be mythical fabrications. I was forced to suffer the smug look of tourists saying, "But they were just here on the road, how could you NOT have seen them?"
Or the bewilderment of some foreign tourists saying, "Yes, zeh ver on ze road; but zeh aar zo ugly und silly ... zeh look jus like dogs ... ver aar ze lions?"
Zama Zwane, my EWT community liaison colleague, tried on several occasions to show me wild dogs. Any wild dogs. Even a glimpse of a tail, something, just a brief sighting to stop my harassment. We had driven to all the 'sure' spots for signs, walked to track down packs that he had received reports of or radio-collar signals for. Zama was my crutch to start with. He knew his job well, loved to fizz with ideas on how to engage the communities, showed me the roads and refreshed my memory of using radio telemetry to track radio-collared animals.
Zama is also an anomaly. A young man of small stature with an unexpectedly booming voice, his almost brash confidence reveals only glimpses of the hardship he has endured outside of his wild dog world. Through his early years assisting the Smithsonian researchers in Zululand, his dedication to the wild dogs grew, and by the time I first met him his sensitivity for their plight permeated his persona. Wild dogs are still his solace, a source of pride and his ego boost in communities where the species is frequently misunderstood or maligned but where his social skills enable him to engage almost anyone on the topic. He is recognised as the 'wild dog man' in many communities bordering Zululand reserves. He is never one to suffer the finer elements of administration and timing, an aspect that at times left me exasperated. But his stubborn persistence and absolute commitment to the preservation of the species, particularly when dealing with community members, earned him a reputation of that he can be justifiably proud. The mention of it brings a sly grin to his face.
Oddly enough, despite the reserve being approximately 900 km2, and having spent several tanks of fuel driving and trying to track these animals, my first sighting wasn't more than a golf-ball-hit away from my house; taking into account exaggeration and some bouncing down the dirt road. Penny Spiering, an American researcher from the Smithsonian Institution who was based in the park, had been conducting a study on the genetics of the province's population and needed to fit tracking collars to several of the reserve's packs. On a clear morning in May 2007, it turned out the Ume Pack was on the road below my house. Before long, the excitable pack had been lured out from the thicket through a combination of recorded calls playing on the vehicle stereo and an inviting impala carcass tied to the vehicle tow bar. The carcass was clearly tempting, but for a brief moment the pack hopped and weaved like featherweights as they tried to build up the courage to launch into the easy meal. As the pickup moved slightly forward, the carcass lurched with the rope, and two dogs lunged forward and nipped at the belly. In an instant the pack gathered its collective nerve, ignored the vehicles and sprang forward, tearing at the soft flesh of the abdomen.
Focused solely on feeding at the frenzied pace typical of wild dogs, they had no concern for the dart gun aimed in their direction. Dr Dave Cooper, the Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife (Ezemvelo) veterinarian sitting in the load bin of Penny's nearby pickup, pulled the trigger and the compressed air made a hollow 'pluk' sound as it discharged the tranquiliser dart towards Furaha. As the barbed dart penetrated her rump, she leapt back in surprise. The pack continued its enthusiastic swirl of tugging and tearing, and seconds later Furaha, the alpha female of the pack, was back in the fray oblivious to the dangling dart. Over a few minutes she started to drunkenly stumble and her head swayed as she tried to fight the drugs, but eventually she drifted away from the pack and crumpled in a heap on the side of the road.
As I drove the carcass-dragging vehicle off the road to allow the pack to continue feeding away from their immobilised pack mate, Penny and Dave began to quickly and quietly process Furaha. A new VHF tracking collar was fitted and the appropriate blood and tissue samples were taken for genetic banking and disease screening. It was my first insight into the sampling techniques and procedures required at each 'knock down'. It was also the perfect initiation into how quiet, slick professionalism meant that the pack remained largely oblivious to the interference, stress on the target animal was minimised, and the end result was a newly collared wild dog. It never ceased to impress me over the years how professional our colleagues from different organisations and in the many different reserves would be when it came to ensuring the well-being of the targeted wild dogs during these procedures. It was, and is, an ethos that rarely seems to come across when watching modern-day wildlife documentaries where a wild brute needs to be subdued and restrained in an all-action portrayal of man versus savage beast with pointy teeth or frothing, venomous spines.
Watching these animals wake up from the drugs administered (particularly those drug combinations that can't be reversed but need to metabolise their way through the system to enable the subject to wake up) is rarely a pretty sight as they stumble and stagger around, flopping back to the ground before trying to find their legs again. The rest of the pack almost always waits passively nearby for their pack mate, even with the flutter of humans working to process the drugged animal. As the animal wakes, occasionally the rest of the pack just gives a curious glance. Sometimes they attempt to nudge and harass the stumbling patient into action. At other times caution needs to be observed to make sure that the drugged animal is not aggressively bitten by pack mates, sensing a weakness and attempting to shake up the balance of the pack dynamics. For this reason, and to make sure the drugged animal is sufficiently coherent to avoid a potential attack from another predator, the animal is always observed until a point where it appears to move off with its pack mates.
* * *
I quickly became adept at enjoying 'sundowners' on the cliff ledges overlooking the renowned White Umfolozi River and its stunning accompanying landscape. It felt privileged. Like an imposter at the looking glass, in a world that once seemed entirely unlikely. I looked forward to the daily routines of the troops of baboons as they ambled back to the cliffs, grunting, foraging, chasing and shagging in the late afternoon. I loved the fact that I could braai a roll of boerewors, and then just sit and eat it all on my own while listening to the lions, hyenas and nightjars calling through the night. There was nobody to say I couldn't, and if I wanted to sit there stark naked (a traumatising image, I know) while doing it, well, there were only mosquitoes and warped thoughts of solifugids with hyperactive mandibles to realistically stop me. I could sleep at night with the windows and doors open and enjoy the fresh breeze and smells of the surrounding bush. On a cloudless night the stars were superb. On stormy nights the lightning was simply spectacular. Hand washing my laundry and rationing rainwater so it would last through the dry winter wasn't exactly thrill-a-minute stuff, but there was no denying that I was beginning to love the novelty of being an upgraded, modern-day cave man.
Before I glamorise this life too much as a carefree Bohemian wonderland and I am subjected to the usual "Oh my god you have the best job in the world" refrain, that people from the city often direct at people who live in the bush, we still have to face some of those tedious urban realities. There are still bills to be paid, and there are the standard bush realities of relative isolation, long distances to shop for groceries (at least nowadays not on horseback), enduring long-distance relationships and tick bites. The obnoxious tentacles of bureaucracy are active and pervasive in the bush too. It can be a brilliant cubicle-free, life-defining lifestyle, but it is undoubtedly challenging and is rarely the glossy holiday it is perceived to be.
There was, however, a job to be done and a broader conservation context to be understood. Wild dog range expansion and introductions were of particular interest; this was actually implementing conservation. I had no experience with this, but recognised I could not be better placed to learn. In Harriet I had a manager with extensive experience, an ability to project her conceptual ideas with clarity, and analytical insight into the effectiveness of wild dog populations. I initially found this rather intimidating despite her incredibly welcoming approach and willingness for open discussion. Previous researchers, reserve managers and conservation officials had been rolling with these conservation models long before I knew anything about wild dogs. Along with conservationists like Gus Mills, Harriet, Markus Hofmeyr, Gus van Dyk, Markus Gusset, Pat Fletcher, Declan Hofmeyer, Steve Dell, and others elsewhere in South Africa, the template for re-introductions of wild dogs had largely been developed. The 620 km2 Madikwe Game Reserve in the North West province was of special interest because of the complexity of challenges they had navigated during their initial re-introduction years. They were also the only reserve in South Africa to have lodges specifically promoting wild dog tourism. Was there applicability to KwaZulu-Natal in the lessons they had learnt? The first pack to be formally re-introduced was released into Madikwe in 1995 and comprised three wild-caught males from the Kruger and three captive-reared females from the De Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Centre (De Wildt). Despite major setbacks with two rabies outbreaks, at one point reducing a pack of 23 to three remaining animals, further augmentation of the population with individuals from both nearby Pilanesberg National Park and De Wildt bolstered re-introduction efforts. Despite fluctuating fortunes and encounters with lions, the reserve's wild dogs persisted.
Excerpted from African Wild Dogs by Brendan Whittington-Jones. Copyright © 2015 Brendan Whittington-Jones. Excerpted by permission of Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsWild dogs' metapopulation distribution,
Foreword by Harriet Davies-Mostert,
1. Small fish, big pond, pointy thorns,
2. Sowing seeds,
3. The squeaky wheel gets the grease,
4. Dear Santa ...,
5. The bureaucrat's nemesis,
6. Suburbia, phantoms and calibrating empathy,
7. Boundaries are for humans,
8. Trajectories, lost quarry and earning a snoek,
9. Great expectations,
10. Navigating storms,
11. Fortresses and rainbow antelope,
12. Santa delivers,
13. "Victory, however long and hard the road may be",
14. The small matter of Kruger,
15. Context and release of the not-so-scary kraken,
16. When data, reality and candyland collide,
17. The calm before the next storm,
18. Consolidation and emergency response,
19. Pushing boundaries,
20. Free love, thresholds and the silver bird to Kalahari sunsets,
21. Behind the curtains,
22. The saturation-fragility conundrum,
23. "We're still pioneers",
Captions for photos,
Acronyms and abbreviations,
About the author,