Thursday, 20 February 2014

Wild dogs and wildebeest

It had been a while since I last stood around a camp fire early in the morning in the Kalahari, nursing a coffee as I slowly woke up. The grasses were wet from the previous day’s rain and the early morning dew and clouds dotted the sky as the sun broke the horizon. We were looking for wild dogs and so we had camped 15km from the nearest road waiting for the location of a collared dog to be sent to us by a colleague remaining in Maun. As we waited Mmoloki saw some movement a few hundred metres away and calmly stated “wild dog”, as if they are a regular sighting and not what we had driven 8 hours to try and find. Sure enough the dogs had come to us but it was still early and the temperature was still cool so they weren’t going to hang around. Thoughts of breakfast were forgotten, tents were quickly collapsed and vehicles packed – the chase was on.

For nearly 5 years the wild dogs of the CKGR have been studied but locating packs of dogs has always been a challenge due to the sheer size of their home ranges. They think nothing of travelling 30-50km in a day across thick bush with a very limited road network, all in the search of sufficient prey. We had come to try and replace a couple of collars on one of the two current study packs, the Molapo pack. One collar was still sending a daily update of its location but we knew the batteries didn’t have too much life left in them and it was now or never. We would have to fly for the second pack, the Letiahau pack, to pick up a VHF signal in order to lead in a ground team.

I began to track for the dogs by VHF but was surprised to find that I was tracking the Letiahau pack. Could we have mixed up the frequencies at some point? I double checked our records and there was no mistake, we were on the trail of the Letiahau pack. Our original targets would have to wait as we also had collars to change in this pack!

Within 30 minutes we had caught up with the dogs but they were still on the move and not yet ready to settle down for the day. A duiker was flushed from one bush and sped off as fast as it could, there was only a half hearted chase from 2 or 3 dogs and it got away easily. We could see the dogs heading for a small clump of trees a kilometre or so away which would provide shade as the temperatures rose. Rob, our vet from Maun, started to prepare a dart and we moved our equipment around so that we were in a position to dart a dog if we could get close enough.

Wild dogs in the CKGR taking advantage of the available shade

As predicted, the dogs settled down to rest in the shade and we were able to approach slowly. Everything went like clockwork as our experience with darting animals allowed us to quickly get into position. The dart went exactly where it was supposed to and within 5 minutes the dog was sedated. The remaining pack members maintained a safe but curious distance as we first removed one collar and replaced it with a new satellite collar. This male dog was soon on his feet and with the pack, probably feeling a little confused but otherwise fine.

After allowing the dogs to relax and find some shade to rest under, we prepared to dart a second dog. We wanted to fit a second satellite collar so that if anything were to happen to the pack we would still be in a position to track them. This time the dogs picked a larger tree to rest under with no easy approach. So, without disturbing the dogs, we approached slowly from behind the tree and realised that the trunk split in two and we could see the dog we wanted to collar through the gap. The shot didn’t look like it was on but Rob trusted his aim and pulled off a remarkable shot to hit the dogs shoulder, missing the tree by millimetres. This female was soon sedated, allowing us to fit the collar quickly and get her back to the pack.
All this was completed before lunch. Not a bad morning’s work.

Fitting a collar to a wild dog female while the pack observe us from close quarters

So what did we have lined up for the afternoon? Well rather than rest on our laurels we still wanted to find the dog we originally went down to the CKGR for. All we had to go on was a 9am fix which was luckily only 5km away. However, we were 4 hours behind the dog and we still didn’t know if the VHF was working. When we reached the last location things initially didn’t look promising with no VHF signal so we feared the dogs were long gone. We had a look around the area on foot and just as we were thinking the dogs had not actually been here we found a track. The recent rains meant that animals were leaving quite distinctive tracks and this first sign was all we needed. Dabe began the hunt, much like a bloodhound, head down and focused. He moved quickly despite the thick bush, occasionally doubling back when the tracks faded or if the dogs had rested, going round some trees 2 or 3 times to make sure he was on the freshest track. When tracking in the bush you never know what is behind the next bush so you always try to have a vehicle close by. Dabe was so focused on the tracks and determined to catch up with the dogs that he practically walked right into them fast asleep. I’m not sure who was more shocked, Dabe or the dogs!

We were only mid way through the afternoon and we knew we had another 3 hours of daylight left to catch this dog and change the collar. There were only two dogs though and they didn’t really want us getting too close. With slightly thicker bush it meant it was difficult to get an angle for a shot and when we were lucky enough to get an angle the dogs swiftly moved. This went on for some time and resulted in couple of shots which just missed as the dog moved. Just as we were starting to lose hope the dogs moved into a slightly more open area and stayed still for just long enough. The dart only just hit the back leg but it was enough. The dog was sedated.

We waited 10 minutes before we approached to ensure that the dog wasn’t getting up. We stopped nearby and I grabbed a sheet to cover the dog’s eyes. As I placed the sheet down over the dog’s head he tried to get up. Clearly he hadn’t received a full dose and wasn’t completely sedated. So with me holding the dog down, making sure my hands were clear of sharp teeth and claws, Rob gave a small additional dose of tranquiliser to ensure he would stay asleep while we changed the collar. As the sun began to set we left the dogs to reflect on a good days work. We realised that this was a young male, approximately 3 years old, who had dispersed from his pack and was looking for a female to start a new pack. So what had happened to the original molapo pack? At this stage we don’t know but it is one of our main aims early in 2014 to locate this pack and replace the collars. We will keep you updated.

The wild dogs showed no ill effects from the darting as we caught up with them the following day

Despite achieving more in one day than we could ever have hoped for we were not finished. There was still one wildebeest collar to deploy but we would have to travel to the northern reaches of CKGR to meet Moses, the wildebeest researcher and find the right herd. Just getting there would take nearly a full day so we set up camp near the largest trees around and we were all asleep by 8pm!

A long but beautiful drive took us to Leopard Pan in the north of the CKGR where Moses was hoping to fit a new collar to the resident wildebeest herd. It never ceases to amaze me how a small amount of rain can radically change the complexion of the Kalahari. With the rains come new life but we were still a little early for the first springbok fawns. It was, however, fantastic to see the herbivores moving back to the pans to graze on the lush fresh grass.

After a night camping at Leopard Pan Moses joined Rob to hopefully identify and dart an adult female while we waited to assist by the edge of the pan. However, the females were just a little too shy and the big herd male was very protective of them so Rob was only able to dart the male. This was no problem as collaring the male would still allow for herd movement to be recorded and for the herd to be tracked to identify grazing resources. The collar was quickly fitted, additional measurements recorded and this impressive male was soon back protecting his herd.
This completed an incredibly successful trip and one where I remembered why I love being in the bush. The advancement in collar technology has meant it is possible for the location of collared animals to be transmitted via satellite and email so we are able to monitor animal movement remotely. This is a fantastic tool for a wildlife researcher but it is still very important to physically locate the animal in the field to monitor behaviour and resource use. This will continue throughout 2014 and we look forward to learning more about all of the species which KRC students and staff are working with.


The KRC team with Rob at the end of a successful trip