The African wild dog Lycaon pictis is one of the rarest and most endangered carnivores in the world. The current population estimates show their numbers to be between 3 000 and 5 5000.
The last protected pack of free roaming wild dogs in Namibia was seen in Etosha National Park in 1970 although the Botswana population overlaps into the north eastern part of the country (Skinner & Chimimba, 2005). There are still natural wild dog populations in Namibia that are isolated on farms, but sadly, as the species have very little protection these packs are very often removed legally.
Various conservation and reintroduction efforts have been made by reserves like Etosha National Park. In 1978, 1989 and 1990 great efforts were made to release a population with protection status, unfortunately none of which were successful.
In mid 2007, Erindi Private Game Reserve embarked on a journey dedicated to ecotourism and conservation. One of the conservation ventures and dreams of owner Mr Gert Joubert was to create a safe haven for a natural wild dog population.
The first 2 groups of wild dogs were introduced in late 2007. Unfortunately due to natural causes all the male dogs were lost in early 2008. Only 3 females remained from this first pack.
2 Groups were then brought into the reserve in early 2008. Males were to be released with the existing female pack and a captive bred breeding pack of 3 individuals was to be kept to ensure a growing population.
The 3 females and the males were finally released back into the wild in mid 2008 at the same time that the breeding pack gave birth to the first 8 pups on Erindi.
The future of the wild dogs in the Erindi Conservation Programme was looking very bright. 2 months later the first disaster struck. The breeding pack pups entered the protected area of the wild pack and all the pups were killed in the confrontation.
Again the tables turned when 2 females in the wild pack were noted to be heavily pregnant. By July 2008 there were 11 new additions to the Erindi wild dog family!
The original females passed on their specialized hunting tactics to the males making the pack a highly successful hunting machine which was killing up to twice daily. The pups always had full bellies and the entire pack grew stronger by the day.
This phenomenal successful story has yet another twist but definitely not the last…
After yet another fruitful hunt on the morning of the 25th of November 2008 the entire group lay beneath a tree to rest.
The remarkable success of the Erindi Wild Dog Conservation Programme was brought to a sudden stop when 13 of the pack were struck by lightning and killed. This unbelievable natural disaster left only 2 female puppies from the wild pack alive and the Erindi ecology team worked swiftly and skilfully to place the remaining 2 females into a protective boma to start the project again.
From careful studies of numerous wild dog relocation plans and attempts, it was realised that the only chance of success for the wild dogs at Erindi was to ensure a large pack number before release back onto the reserve. By keeping related females apart, each with a male, the numbers were slowly increased working towards a new release plan. Each of the 2 original surviving females from the lightning strike grew strong and eventually gave birth to their own litters of puppies totalling 10. The captive bred female leading the pack known as “LUCKY PACK” gave birth to a litter of 3 puppies bringing the population up in numbers to 24 by late 2010. This success was short lived and by 2011 the total numbers from natural mortality dropped again to 13 individuals in 3 packs.
Guidance from Namibia’s Ministry of Environment and Tourism enforced the remaining Erindi wild dog packs were to be released onto the main reserve immediately and Ruan Cloete, the Ecologist worked day & night to prepare for the final pack merger and release.
In late August 2011, all the Erindi wild dogs were together & the final release occurred. Due to the fact that there were 3 separate packs released together, huge fights broke out and 1 wild dog again lost its life.
Slowly, the groups accepted each other and began working as a unit. A short few weeks after release late one night, the wild dogs encountered a clan of spotted hyena at the waterhole in front of Old Traders Camp Restaurant. The interaction woke all the sleeping guests up who witnessed an incredible spectacle between the rival species. One wild dog was injured during the confrontation but the 11 strong members of the pack celebrated by harassing an elephant bull who had arrived at the dam for a quiet drink!
Shortly after the incident, the pack began homing in on their natural hunting skills and they managed to make their first successful kill, an eland calf.
The released “LUCKY PACK” wild dogs of Erindi will be carefully monitored to note their progress & all of the Erindi team hope that the release will finally be a true success story of an endangered species in need of true conservation.
TEXT: Natasha Britz
PHOTOGRAPHS: GP Britz