How Pet Dogs Are Helping Out Their Endangered Kin in the Wild

Florida canines have successfully tested collars that may help African wild dogs avoid dying in snares.

It's a gruesome scenario that happens all too often: A pack of African wild dogs, led by its alpha pair, is on the hunt, bounding through the savanna after a prey animal. But the chase suddenly ends when a pack member is caught in an illegal trap set by bush-meat poachers.

As the dog struggles to escape, the circular wire clenches tighter around its neck. More often than not, this means certain death, either from strangulation or serious injury.

But that’s not all.

“Instead of all the pack running away, they all try to help it,” says conservation biologist Gregory Rasmussen, director of Painted Dog Research Trust, a Zimbabwe-based nonprofit. “And poachers don’t just set one snare—they set a row of 10 snares, 20 snares. You can actually have the whole pack snared at once.”

In Botswana's Chobe National Park, five predator clans struggle for power—including a scrappy pack of wild dogs. Tune in to the three-part miniseries Savage Kingdom, whose final episode airs December 9 at 9 p.m. ET on Nat Geo WILD.

African wild dogs—also known as African painted dogs—once roamed the open plains of 39 African countries. Due to widespread habitat loss and human development in the last century, their population has decreased by more than 90 percent. Now listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, fewer than 7,000 dogs now live in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana, and Tanzania.

Poachers who set illegal snare traps for species such as antelope are threatening the remaining wild dogs in much of their range, according to Rasmussen. And the families' "Three Musketeers approach"—all for one and one for all—makes the stakes that much higher, he says. (What wildlife shows don't tell you about African wild dogs.)

“Those of us who work with dog populations are sick and tired of snaring,” says Rasmussen. “It breaks our hearts.”

But now there may be a solution: A snare-proof collar, successfully tested in domestic dogs, may help keep their colorful, big-eared kin from disappearing in some countries.

Getting Out of a Trap

Several years ago, Rasmussen dreamed up a special collar that would help snared wild dogs safely free themselves. When a dog's head goes through a snare, the tightening grip of the round wire acts as a noose as the dog struggles to free itself.

To combat this, the leather-and-steel collar is studded with curved hooks that catch the wire, protecting the dog's neck. The more hooks that grab a snare, the more likely a wild dog can escape unharmed.

The Houston Zoo in Texas, which has a wild dog pack of its own, helped build early collar prototypes. But conservationists needed someone to test them.

Enter the U.S.-based Emerging Wildlife Conservation Leaders, a training program for young scientists that took on the project and created the Painted Dog Protection Initiative. In partnership with this initiative, conservationists Martha Davis and Brandon Davis, a couple based in Florida, commissioned four former shelter dogs in Florida to complete more than 600 trials in 2015.

The pet dogs, all comparable in size to African wild dogs at 50 to 70 pounds, walked through fake snares to test six designs.

A Wild Dog's Best Friend?

“When we heard about this, it was great, because it opened up a whole new door to what domestic dogs can do for their wild counterparts,” says Martha Davis, senior trainer for Joel Slaven’s Professional Animals of St. Cloud, Florida, which administered the trials.

Overall, the prototypes proved more than 80 percent effective at catching snare wires—enough to try them out in the wild, says Brandon Davis, who co-founded the painted dog initiative. (Also read why your dog knows exactly what you're saying.)

Conservationists hope to begin collaring 10 to 20 dogs within high-risk packs in Zimbabwe's Hwange and Victoria Falls National Parks in the next few weeks.

First they will tranquilize the dogs to fit them with the collars, which will also feature GPS units with solar-powered battery packs. The collars' batteries will likely last a few years.

If these seem to work, the scientists hope to collar another hundred dogs by spring 2017, which the painted dog initiative says will protect 20 percent of the area's wild dog population.

Eventually, the painted dog scientists hope to share the technology with other conservation organizations, according to Brandon Davis.

"This could even be useful to other species," he says. "We’re excited by the potential for them."

The Bigger Problem

Kim McCreery and Robert Robbins, founders of the U.S.-based African Wild Dog Conservancy, acknowledge that snaring is gruesome for dogs, and that anything that can be done to curb the problem is a positive step.

Still, they say, a larger issue plagues the species—a growing human population encroaching on their habitat.

“Research and education are important, but wild dogs and many other species are quite literally losing ground,” the conservationists said via email. “We need to step back and take a look at the larger picture.”

Weldon McNutt, founder and director of the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust, agrees, noting that competition with people for resources including prey and habitat remains a core challenge for wild dogs. He mentioned ongoing projects that focus on land-use ‎planning and wildlife education in rural areas.

Limited Scope

McNutt says the snare-proof collars could save entire packs from extinction, but cautions that they're of limited value in some places where the dogs live. (See 14 incredible pictures of African predators in action.)

“Illegal bush-meat hunting using wire snares is a serious problem in some parts of the remaining wild dog range, and especially in Zimbabwe, but not in others,” he says by email. “For example, in northern Botswana, where we have seen only three wire snares on wild dogs in 26 years of monitoring a population.”

Rasmussen admits that the collars, if effective in the field, are not a fix-all.

“It’s not an instant cure, but if it works it will certainly be something—in high-snare areas—that will make all the difference for the survival of the packs and dispersal of the dogs, and it will help fight the war against the poachers.”

Tina Deines is a freelance journalist based in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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