It Is touted as perhaps “Africa’s greatest wildlife restoration story” and now, some of its central characters are making a remarkable comeback. After being wiped out by years of civil war, and after decades of absence, the chatter of wild dogs is again being heard in Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park, which has been described by National Geographic as one of the “last wild places left on Earth”.
On Monday, in a “historic transboundary event”, a pack of 14 muzzled, sedated wild dogs took to the skies from South Africa, diligently monitored by a team of conservationists as they were flown to the park in the heart of central Mozambique in the Great African Rift Valley.
For Paola Bouley, the associate director of carnivore conservation at Gorongosa, this reintroduction of the park’s first pack of rare wild dogs symbolises hope.
“Gorongosa National Park is experiencing a remarkable post-war re-wilding; herbivore numbers, in particular, just keep skyrocketing,” says Bouley.
“The indigenous lion population is also on the path to recovery, but species such as leopard and wild dog that were completely wiped out after the civil war lag aren’t coming back as strong and need more help.
“This is where the re-introductions come in, and we are striving to restore the more complete family of large carnivores that are so crucial to this ecosystem’s ecology.
“The fact that Gorongosa can also be part of a concerted, continent-wide effort to protect and recover such an endangered species is a privilege. Here we have the prey and habitat and large spaces for wild dogs to roam wild and free.”
In Mozambique, wild dogs have vanished from much of their former range while Gorongosa’s were all decimated in the 1977-1992 civil war.
But today, with its thriving collection of wildlife, Gorongosa is Mozambique’s flagship natural area, lying at the heart of work being undertaken by its government and the Carr Foundation, a US non-profit, in a public-private partnership to resurrect a vast and diverse natural ecosystem over a 25-year period.
Until this week, wild dogs have never been reintroduced to any park, protected area, game reserve or other space in Mozambique, says the EWT.
David Marneweck, the manager of the EWT’s carnivore conservation programme, says by returning wild dogs to Gorongosa, one of the most threatened mammals in southern Africa is taking “a bold step towards restoring their native range in the region.
“As wild dogs are the most endangered carnivore in southern Africa, the restoration of the species is a major landmark, especially considering their declining status throughout most of Africa.”
There are only around 6600 remaining in the wild. They are considered one of the continent’s most at-risk carnivores and are listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Their numbers have been hammered in the past 50 years, largely from disease, farmer persecution and habitat destruction. “Urgent action is required to save them, and a key conservation strategy is the reintroduction of packs into viable habitats where they once occurred,” Marnewick points out.
Carnivores are vital to healthy ecosystem functioning, he says. “Without carnivores, lower levels in the food chain can become compromised which can effect the integrity of an ecosystem.
“Moreover, wild dogs are cursorial (chase) predators and regulate herbivore populations by targeting the old, sick and weak, thereby ensuring healthy populations of herbivores.”
Marnewick says in recent years, wild dogs have been reintroduced to the northern reaches of the Kruger National Park, Northern Tuli Game Reserve, Blue Canyon Conservancy, Balule Game Reserve, Somkhanda Game Reserve and Manyoni Game Reserve (northern Tuli in Botswana).
Wild dogs from South Africa’s EWT-managed metapopulation formed the founder pack for the Mozambique recovery project. The metapopulation, comprising the various individual populations of wild dogs within a selection of managed national parks and reserves, numbers 250 individuals in 28 packs.
This population has risen over the past 20 years and has ensured the increase in wild dog range in South Africa by 25% and numbers by 100%, thus allowing the translocation of a founder pack into neighbouring Mozambique.
For this week’s relocation, the EWT, along with local partners Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, the KZN state veterinary department, WildlifeACT, Maremani Game Reserve, Limpopo Department of Economic Development, Environment and Tourism, caught the two unrelated groups - eight males and six females - and brought them together to bond in a boma at Phongola Nature Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal.
The non-profit volunteer Bateleurs: Flying for the Environment, transported the valuable wildlife cargo.
“The process involved the final construction of the holding boma in GorongosaThe dogs were then driven to the Mkhuze airstrip and flown to Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport (to clear customs and immigration),” says Marneweck,
“The dogs were then flown to Beira in Mozambique (again to clear customs and immigration) and from there to Chitengo airstrip in Gorongosa.
“They were then driven 30 minutes to the boma where we vaccinated, collared and bonded them before waking them up. This took 13 hours.
“We then waited throughout the night to monitor their interactions through their first night together until daylight (24 hours of solid work).
“All the dogs are doing well and seem to be nicely bonded so far, with the males showing good positive behaviour towards the females and vice versa.”
The pack was fitted with GPS and VHF collars to allow for close monitoring once released.
The EWT will work closely with the Gorongosa team to train a new generation of Mozambican vets and ecologists in wild dog recovery and management.
Gorongosa has been described as one of the most diverse parks on Earth, covering a vast expanse of 400000 hectares.
It describes itself as a “priceless world treasure”, which scientists recently declared one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet.
“By adopting a 21st century conservation model of balancing the needs of wildlife and people, we are protecting and saving this beautiful wilderness, returning it to its rightful place as one of Africa’s greatest parks,” it says.
The Saturday Star