Written by: Anja Riise
The African wild dog is a highly Endangered predator and the icon of Madikwe Game Reserve. They need a lot of space, as they traverse and hunt over vast areas. They are therefore only found in larger parks and reserves and have been doing very well in Madikwe, since there’s plenty of land for them to roam.
It is normally only the Alpha pair that breeds while the other pack members help bring up the pups and provide food. Dispersal takes place when a few individuals, of the same sex, break away to find another breakaway group, of the opposite sex, from another pack to join up with, thus establishing a new pack.
Since they aren’t territorial, dogs from the north-west could potentially make it all the way to Kruger, KwaZulu Natal or even East Africa with ease, if there were no fences. Most wild dogs live in the larger reserves and parks, which are fenced in and therefore don’t have the opportunity of naturally dispersing. Hence they need some help in doing so and keeping the gene pool of the population healthy.
Madikwe saw a handful of males breaking away from the main pack about two years ago and it was an excellent opportunity to catch them for relocation to another reserve, in the Northern Cape. They were temporarily put in an enclosure for monitoring, while waiting for the transfer go ahead.
It seemed like a rather straight forward procedure, but unfortunately the initial plans didn’t work out and the brothers were kept under surveillance, awaiting another opportunity. Later another possible home was negotiated, in Kruger National Park.
However, around this time the researchers and ecologists in Kruger were investigating why their own wild dogs were disappearing from the northern part of the reserve, where the Madikwe males were to be released. The plans of moving them were yet again halted, as it wouldn’t be good to bring in new blood if there was a risk that they would vanish shortly after their release.
Many of the guides in Madikwe have been following these dogs over the last few years and often the remaining free roaming wild dogs have been seen close to the boma where the brothers have been kept, greeting each other through the fence. It seemed a shame that they had to stay there, away from their relatives, but it’s been for the greater good of the population, since there would otherwise be a risk of inbreeding. We have therefore kept our fingers crossed, hoping for them to soon find a permanent home.
When this finally happened it was all very sudden. A request for guests wanting to assist with the capture was made from the park’s board, guests who would be interested were then identified at Jaci’s Lodges and a sponsor quickly stepped in to help with the financial side of things.
Only a few days later the plan was ready and it was all actually happening! At 7am on a chilly and overcast morning in mid-June, two of the guides and our five guests met with the head ecologist in Madikwe, a veterinarian and a few field rangers, just outside the enclosure that had been the dogs’ home for the better part of two years.
We were told that a dead impala was going to be tied to a tree and used as bait, as this is normally the easiest way to get the dogs to stay in one place to be darted.
But, even the best laid plans are sometimes outsmarted, especially by these clever and agile canines. After a few bites of meat, they had already figured out that this event wasn’t about a free meal and ran around, crisscrossing each other’s paths, making it difficult for the vet to get a clear shot.
As they are very slender animals, the darts need to be perfectly placed, to not injure them. The veterinarian explained that he’d rather let this operation take all day than risking harming them in any way.
After some strategising, a plan was made and soon the three males were staggering around as if drunk, and then finally slumped down on the ground.
The mixture of drugs that they were darted with apparently makes them lose memory of the last half hour or so before they’re actually darted, preventing them from being traumatised from the stress that obviously is associated with being handled by humans.
The guests were all happy to learn about this fact, even though the veterinarian and rangers did work efficiently to minimise the impact on them from this event and the guests all joined in to help carry them to the awaiting crates.
As the brothers were loaded onto the vehicle that was going to take them outside the boma for the first time in a long while, it was with a tear in my eye, and a huge smile on my face, as it was a bit sad to finally see them go, but I was also very happy for their sake. The guests were all very grateful to have been part of this experience and to learn that the three brothers would be on their way to a life in freedom.
They have now be taken to Mkuze Game Reserve in KwaZulu Natal to join up with a female. Once they’re successfully acquainted and settled, in a few weeks’ time, they will once again be roaming free, hunting and investigating their new surroundings.