Since 2012 The Global Classroom has been involved in a unique research opportunity in eastern central Namibia studying African wild dogs (lycoan pictus).
In August of 2011, four dogs were released into a fenced-in wild area where they would live self-sufficiently without human assistance. This reserve is approximately 80 square kilometers and supports a number of prey species such as wildebeest, kudu, eland, impala etc, but does not contain lions and spotted hyena, both of which are major competitors and a serious threat to African wild dogs. Prior to their release, the four dogs were housed together in an enclosure so that they could form pack bonds and establish a dominance hierarchy. After their release, it was clear they had indeed begun hunting successfully; however comprehensive long-term data was needed to better understand and document their transition from living in an enclosure to living in a semi-wild environment.
The main focus during our early research efforts with the wild dogs was to monitor their everyday activities including hunting behaviors, reproductive behaviors, and social structures. There is so much to learn about this endangered species and we are thrilled to have the opportunity to assist in their effort to save this unique and fascinating predator from extinction.
Why Study African Wild Dogs?
The African wild dog is categorized as “endangered with a decreasing population trend” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). African wild dogs are threatened for many different reasons, the main one being a rise in interaction with humans over the past years. Increased urbanization of the African wild dogs’ habitat has led to increased isolation of viable habitats and a decrease in available space. The African wild dog requires large tracts of land for both hunting and pack formation. As habitat disappears and becomes more dispersed, the species struggles to live a life free from harm. In addition, increased contact with humans means increased contact with roads and domesticated animals. African wild dogs often get hit and killed by cars while trying to cross roads and are exposed to diseases such as rabies and canine distemper through domesticated animals. Both of these diseases can be fatal to the dogs. Lastly, a huge threat to the species is the wide-spread belief that they are cold-blooded killers and because of this, they will often be shot on site or poisoned when they are seen.
The African wild dog is just one of many species facing the threats of extinction. In fact, biodiversity – an overall measure of species richness and variety – is in decline. Biodiversity is an essential support system for providing us with healthy working ecosystems. Although we may not realize it, ecosystems provide us with many commodities and services that we use every day, giving us air to breathe and water to drink.
As an apex predator, the African wild dog plays a huge role in controlling the balance of an ecosystem and hence maintaining biodiversity and the services and commodities we gain from a healthy ecosystem. Without this incredible predator around to maintain this balance, humans and other organisms alike will ultimately suffer the losses.
Current Research Efforts
Our current research efforts with the rescued wild dogs involve a series of observational research methods with three different packs living in separate enclosures. As wild dogs are crepuscular, we conduct all of our research in the early morning and evening hours. Our student researchers have created a photo identification catalog of each individual along with a behavior profile, describing where they stand within the pack hierarchy, etc. Our students dedicate their time with the dogs to monitoring and recording their actions as individuals and the movement of the pack as a whole, paying close attention to behaviors such as scent marking and social interaction.
Our long term goal is to use the information we gather to select genetically diverse dogs for the formation of a new pack, to one day be released in a protected wild area, such as Etosha National Park.
The current political climate in Botswana and Namibia is such that the breeding and release of any apex predator is highly restricted, creating yet another layer of threat to the survival of this species.
The Global Classroom has spent years creating a database of information that we can share with other organizations worldwide. The data we gather is a valuable resource for other researchers as well as students with a focus on genetics, animal behavior, conservation, biology, ecology, etc. We are invested in forging international connections and in being advocates and allies of these amazing apex predators.