This week was one of the busiest weeks since I arrived at Ruaha Carnivore Project (RCP) to conduct my Masters of Science research on giraffe skin disease. There were a couple of additions to the basecamp that had everyone excited. First, Msago, RCP’s community liaison officer, brought the car that Tom and Kathy Leiden donated through the Leiden Conservation Foundation. Tom and Kathy Leiden are deeply committed to conservation efforts that contribute to the better understanding and protection of giraffe populations and African wild dogs. Several months ago, in preparation for my field season, Bob, Amy, Leandro and I had several meetings with Tom at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo in Cleveland, Ohio, USA to talk about avenues of collaboration. Tom was very enthusiastic and encouraging about the research that both Leandro and I proposed as part of our graduate studies. By donating a field vehicle Tom made a significant contribution to RCP that ensured that both Leandro and I have the resources necessary to meet our research objectives. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of having a field vehicle in great working condition, especially in this landscape that has large areas that are still pristine (i.e., challenging for vehicle travel) and a road system that is largely impassable during and shortly after the wet season. The “Leiden Mobile,” as it is known in camp, enables Leandro and I to move between our study areas with ease.
The other new arrival at RCP was under less fortunate circumstances but elicited reactions from everyone in the area nonetheless. One African wild dog was found injured in the Wildlife Management Area (WMA). The people who found the wild dog immediately notified park officials and RCP staff. Since the park officials did not have a place to put the dog for the night, they decided to let the dog be nursed by RCP for a few days. The male wild dog seemed reluctant to move and when he did, he moved with difficulty. At first, everyone thought that he had been hit by a speeding car. The wild dog was taken to RCP’s base camp and housed temporarily in Busara’s (RCP’s Anatolian Shepherd dog) enclosure. Everyone, myself included, was excited to finally see a wild dog – and rightly so: the African wild dog is a highly endangered species, and the second rarest carnivore in Africa (after the Ethiopian wolf). In fact, since RCP began collecting data, there have only been about 86 sightings of African wild dogs over a 6-year period. This low detection rate is almost shocking given that Ruaha National Park remains one of the priority areas for the conservation of African wild dogs because it supports the 3rd biggest population of these beautiful animals. Are wild dogs in Ruaha simply more reclusive than in other areas? Or do they tend to exist in a different, and yet understudied, part of the National Park? These are fundamental and interesting questions that Leandro is exploring.
The next day, Ruaha National Park’s vets attended to the wild dog and they also called in a specialist from Iringa (the closest major town, which is about 130km away) to take x-ray photos. On the same day that the vet from Iringa informed park officials of his findings, some tour guides and their tourists also called the park officials to confirm what had happened. It turns out the injured dog was part of a pack that was attempting to take down an adult greater kudu, a large antelope that can weigh up to 270kg. The kudu fought back and kicked the wild dog right in the jaw, shattering it. The x-rays showed that the wild dog did not have any fractures in the legs but the jaw had been shattered and thus the animal could not feed on its own. According to the tour guides, the other wild dogs eventually took down the kudu but the injured wild dog could not keep up with the pack. Unable to move far, the wild dog just lay on the ground and was later taken to the main gate of the park.
As of now, the wild dog is still receiving treatment at RCP and we remain hopeful that he will make a miraculous recovery. The odds of this recovery are unfortunately very low. This incident highlights just how difficult it is for wild dogs to make a living. Carnivores risk life and limb every single time that they initiate a hunt. African wild dogs heavily rely on their jaws to take down prey when hunting. Park officials and RCP staff are currently trying their best to get the wild dog back to its feet and ensure its survival. It remains to be seen whether he will make a full recovery. In any case, with RCP, backed by the Leiden Conservation Foundation, and Ruaha National Park officials, it is certain that there’s an ongoing mechanism to protect and conserve African wild dogs and other carnivores in this incredible system. We care not only about carnivore populations, but we also care deeply for the individual animals that comprise the population. We hold out hope that this male wild dog will make a complete recovery.