We are truly lucky to live and work in one of the few areas in South Africa where Lions still roam free outside of protected areas. They are, however, severely under threat from illegal, and irresponsible killing of them. We are joining forces with a number of other researchers and conservation groups working in the area to try to protect the last determined individuals in this precarious population.
Having been heavily persecuted in the past few decades, these Lions behave quite differently from "normal" Lions. They are very wary of people, are much less vocal than unpersecuted Lions, and also live in much smaller groups than they typical prides commonly seen in protected areas. It is not uncommon here for females to live alone, only meeting up with males to mate, and raising their cubs alone.
The picture to the left is of my daughter, aged 19 months, when we fitted a tracking collar to a male Lion on Mapungubwe National Park as part of an Endangered WIldlife Trust project. While normally we are not keen on the fitting of these collars, this is one of ths situations where we feel it is absolutely in the best interests of the animal. We have been able to see this Lion, nicknamed Fatboy due to his portly figure, move into Zimbabwe and back serveral times, as well as moving briefly onto South African farmland.
In this picture, we had just finished taking his measurements, and Leila wanted to have a go too. A large part of my motivation to save these Lions is that I do not want to have to look her in the eye one day and admit to having done nothing when she sees this picture and asks why there are no Lions here anymore. The Lions are part of our childrens Natural Heritage and they deserve to show them to their children.
This camera trap photo was taken by Bundox Wildlife Services
In order to best protect this population of Lions we need information. While studying I remember my favourite Professor telling me "In God we trust. All others must bring data" and he is absolutely right. If we do not have hard facts, we cannot make informed decisions. We need to know exactly how many Lions there are here, how far they are ranging and where they may be coming from. Fragmented populations are always at risk from inbreeding, but the light at the end of the tunnel with this population is that every now and then a new Lion pops up. They are not totally isolated from other Lions. A corridoor or corridoors exist somewhere. Using photographs from tourists where they are able to get them, and camera trap photographs such as this one taken by Bundox Wildlife Services - Wildside, we can keep a good record of all known lions and where they are moving. Collectively, we have good identification records of many of the Lions in the area and will keep this up to date on an ongoing basis.
The area where there may be Lions is enormous, and we know the densities are very low, so this is where the dogs really come into their own. To cover the entire area with camera traps would be very expensive and time consuming, but by taking in detection dogs trained onto Lion scat (droppings) we can quickly pick up where there are Lions, and in particular areas with high levels of activity so that we can target the camera trapping more efficiently. Lions are often typically surveyed with playing the calls of a distressed buffalo calf over a public address system, but where Lions are in areas of high densities of Spotted Hyeanas, and heavy persecution, this method may not be so effective.
Training dogs to find cat poo might not be the most glamourous job in the world, but the information we can get makes it more than worth it. By labelling exactly where each sample is collected, we can estimate numbers very effectively by creating DNA profiles from "owner" of the scat. This brings us to the next, and really exciting part of the project, where we are pioneering a technique to train our lab dogs to match samples to individual level. They will be able to sort the samples brought in by the field dogs into all the individuals. We can therefore see where each individual is moving as well as how many there are. This has been done successfully on Tigers, but is new to Africa. Our training samples are from known captive populations, and the samples from this study will be our trial on wild samples, and we will be testing the dogs against the DNA tests. Its a very exciting project, and it seems that Lion conservation in this little corner of Africa is going to the dogs. In Dog we trust, and THEY will bring the data.
While the big dogs look the part of a detection dog, people always look at us totally incredulously when we produce Minki to work. As a very small Miniature Dachshund, she certainly is not your typical detection dog. Its all about what is inside the dog rather than what they look like on the outside. She has the focus, and drive we look for in excess and can carry on for hours. While her short little legs are a bit of an impedement to working in rocky country, she manages remarkably well in the field. Her real strength though is in our "lab". She doesnt get bored at all with the repetitive nature of the work, and her enthusiasm is just as high at the end of every session as it was in the beginning.
Where Minki's size worked in her favour was working down in the Klein Karoo on a Riverine Rabbit project run by the Endangered Wildlife Trust. We had not counted on quite how hard and savage the Karoo bushes were, which made it quite hard for Gala and I to move through some of the dense patches. Minki, however, had no problem, and could duck and dive under the bushes, and is small enough to fit into any hole that a rabbit could fit through. Despite the fact that Dachshunds were developed as hunting dogs, Minki is so focussed on her work that she pays no attention to small animals in the bush. We saw her on one occasion on that trip actually sniff within a few centimetres of a mouse and keep going straight past it. If it wasnt going to earn her the ball, she simply was not interested. That is the focus we want for dogs working off leash in wildlife areas. Another advantage with Minkis diminuitive size and her elongated shape is that she dissipates heat much faster than a big dog can, so she can work later into the day, as the heat begins to build.
So, yes, seriously, she IS a sniffer dog and very good one at that!
A farmer called one morning a little while back to report 2 African Wild Dogs in his planted fields along the Limpopo River. He said one of them had a collar on, and wondered if I knew where it had come from. There are transient Wild Dogs moving through the area, and they have been recorded as travelling many hundreds of kilometres, so I was very keen to see if I could get photographs of the dogs to give to the researchers working this species. When we got there, it became very quickly apparant that the thing round the dogs neck was a snare, and not a radiocollar as he had thought.
Snaring is an enormous problem along the Limpopo and Shashe rivers, where they are usually set for antelope for meat, but so many animals get caught up in them. Often predators get caught up in them quite by accident, but can be attracted closer by prey species already caught. They tend to be set in groups or lines, often along game paths and close to waterholes.
Horrific injuries can be caused if animals do manage to break loose from snares, as they will often have cut deeply into their flesh. Rusty wires and deep flesh wounds lead to terrible infections, and slow, painful deaths for the victims. They are a particular problem to the African Wild Dog, where numbers are low and snaring can account for a large percentage of deaths in the population.
Locating the snares is very difficult and time consuming and we are working on developing a technique for using dogs to locate snares, as an extra weapon in the armoury in the war against poaching. The dogs can cover ground faster than people and can locate by scent from much greater distances than people can by sight. Its a very exciting project, and one we have been mulling over for some time. Watch this space to see how it develops!
Barclay is starting out work with Wendy Collinson from The Endangered Wildlife Trust who is studying the effects of roadkill on the wildlife in the Greater Mapungubwe Transfrontier Conservation Area. While wildlife killed directly on the roads is easy to spot from a vehicle on the transects that Wendy drives, wildlife hit and thrown into the verges, or that crawls a small distance before dying will not be easy to spot. By teaching Barclay to scour the verges for roadkill or remains of it, Wendy will be able to work out how much of what is killed she is actually seeing and how much is missed. So simple but so effective!
Do you want the ball?
Astro had his first training session today out in the cattle kraal and he did very well! It was the first time he had worn his harness but he really didnt seem to notice it at all, and he was much better at using his nose to search for his ball than we had expected him to be at this stage. It was a great first session, and we are confident that he is going to progress very fast from here.
We hope to have Astro back with his handler from Cheetah Outreach and a functional member of their team by the end of August. We cant wait to hear about how he gets on once he is out at work!
Astro arrived last week from Cheetah Outreach and is here for a few months to learn to locate Cheetah scat. We have spent a little time getting to know him and have our plan in place. He is going to start off by spending time in the bush, building his confidence and fitness and start off learning to search for his beloved tennis ball. Some of the shepherd breeds can be quite visual, and at the moment Astro uses his eyes more than his nose, but this is not a problem and we are sure he will learn to search by scent very quickly. Out on walks in the bush, we see that his nose definitely works, as he explores all the different smells in the bushveld.
Thandi with last years litter of newborn puppies
We are very excited at the moment as we listened for heartbeats in Thandis abdomen yesterday and we are sure there are puppies! It is very hard to estimate numbers as they are going so fast, but it seems that we are indeed expecting puppies. Thandi has whelped earlier than expected in the past, but we are working on the middle of July.
Livestock Guardian puppies are an exercise in self-control as they need to bond with livestock rather than with people, so we keep our handling of them to a minimum. They are handled to check their health and development, but we do not engage them in play. Puppies that have been excessively handled before being placed struggle more to adapt to life in the kraal, and are more likely to develop behaviours not conducive to successful work as Livestock Guardians. In South Africa, the farming systems are usually very extensive, and we rely on dogs that can often work independently of people, and this is an important selection criteria in our breeding.
Barclay is currently on secondment to Wendy Collinson from the Endangered Wildlife Trust who is working on a project on Roadkill and the effects of this danger on the wildlife in this area. You can read more about Wendys project at http://endangeredwildlifetrust.wordpress.com/author/wendycollinson/ . It is so dry here at the moment after a very poor rainy season that there is a large amount of wildlife feeding alongside the roads at the moment, and so in danger of being hit by cars and trucks. We saw the damage done to a car that hit a kudu one evening last week. There is serious danger posed to people and the wildlife when they come so close together on the roads. We also came across a Steenbok that had been hit and injured and someone has cut its throat, presumably to end its suffering. While it was dragged off the road, it was still so close to the tarmac that a Tawny Eagle feeding on the carcass was in danger of becoming even more roadkill. If we are not on one of the roads Wendy is studying, we try to drag roadkill well off the road to avoid this problem.
In a normal year this would be a dam full of water.
As well as affecting the roadkill, the drought is causing problems for everyone. At this time of year we should be at the end of our rainy season, but it seems our rain just didnt come this year. Instead of 350mm that is our average annual rainfall, we had less than 100mm. This leaves us with very little feed for the livestock and game going into Winter. The livestock auctions in the area are very bleak, with thins cows filling the pens as people try to reduce their stock. Drought means that the herbivores, wild and domestic, come under a lot of pressure and stress. A bad year for them is usually a good year for the carnivores, and the jackals on the farm are having a field day. They are fat and shiny, with glossy coats and we hear them calling vibrantly into the cold night sky every night. We have camera traps out and we are getting plenty of pictures of Leopards as well at the moment, and even had Lions strolling our fenceline last week. Despite this pressure, we still have not lost a goat or a cow in several years. Touch wood!