Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Every Dog Should Get Its Day

San Diego, California is hardly a place you would associate with Africa. Yet it is here that important work is done to conserve one of Africa’s most threatened species, the Cape Hunting dog (Lycoan pictus). In Africa, it is better known as the wild dog.

One of Natures contradictions, the wild dog is a savage killer. It has a ninety-seven percent success rate in hunting gazelle, which is more effective than lions. Usually the prey would be immobilized by being grasped by the muzzle, while another pack member would rapidly disembowel the hapless victim. Unlike lions, the animal is usually eaten while it is still alive. It was savagery like this that prompted pioneering conservationists to cull predators in a misguided attempt to protect prey.

On the other hand Wild dog families display a level of sophistication unseen in other African animals, with the possible exception of the African Elephant (Loxodanta africana). Their social interactions are markedly complex and varied a strictly regulated hierarchy. The dominant or Alpha female leads the pack. She makes all the important decisions. When to hunt and where and when to set up a den. She is the only one breed.

Communication is a central to the hunt. On the hunt the dogs work as a cohesive team, and just as they would be at rest they are led by the dominant female. She encourages the other dogs to hunt by whipping them up into a frenzy with her high pitched whine. On a sea of adrenaline the dogs go off hunting. As a rule they do not hunt by stealth, but literally run the prey into the ground from sheer exhaustion.

Captive breeding is one option open to conservationists to bring endangered species back from the abyss. An International Organization, the IUCN has drawn up a species survival program (or SSP) for every species of animal on planet earth. Eminent scientists in different locations keep two studbooks across the world. Researches can therefore have accurate histories on bloodlines and ensure that inbreeding does not take place. Part of the downside of captive breeding is that animals taken out of the wild are then lost to the wild.

The only long-term solution is to reintroduce captive born dogs to the wild. While this may sound simple it is infinitely complex. Dogs must be handled in such a way that they are isolated from their handlers. At the same time, the dogs should not be allowed to lose their natural fear of man to come to associate the handlers with food. Upon release such animals would be very soon shot.

Many people, Australians in particular may find it strange to conserve a "wild dog". Feral dogs have plagued Australia causing stock losses, particularly in rural New South Wales. These canines are part of the balance of life and death in the African bush, an integral part of their environment.

Captive breeding programs like the one at San Diego California form an important link in the chain of conserving the wild dog. Whatever the cost they cannot be allowed to disappear forever.

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