On the trail of the dogs

Trip Start Jun 14, 2010
Trip End Aug 15, 2010

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Flag of Zimbabwe  ,
Sunday, June 20, 2010

I'm in the PDC truck, listening to the slow beep of a radio collar transmitting to our headphones. The dogs are resting out of sight in the bush.  My tracking companions, having gotten up before the sun, are taking the opportunity to rest as well.  When the dogs move, the steady beep will speed up and everyone will look alert, training their eyes on the bush for signs of movement. The dogs will smell us if we walk in on them, so we track them by vehicle, stopping when the signal is strong and waiting for them to appear on the road.  Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t – but at least we can track their movements through the park.  When they do walk out, it’s brief.  They pad quietly down the road, pausing to take stock of our truck, and then disappear one by one back into the bush.

The dogs are stunning to see.  They’re leggy creatures, with intense amber eyes and satellite-dish ears.  Their coats are a patchwork quilt of black, white, and shades of gold.  They’re not closely related to domestic dogs or any other canids.  Their evolutionary branch split off about 5 million years ago, and they’re now the only representative of their genus.  One of their most remarkable characteristics is their vocalizations.  On a scale that ranks complexity of vocalizations, they rank as high as dolphins.  When the dogs at the rehab center know they’re about to be fed, they twitter and whine like you wouldn’t believe.  Also like dolphins, they have names for each other, short series of vocalizations that they use to identify each individual in the pack.  Interestingly, they are (as far as human hearing can tell) completely silent when they hunt. 

Today we’re tracking one of the packs in Hwange national park.  The Kutanga pack is made up of six dogs, the minimum viable pack size.  The staff of PDC knows every individual in every pack, and they track them with radio collars and some GPS collars (the price difference between the two is about $1700).  Because of their long-term data collection, they know that the packs are ranging farther and farther out of the park - a bad sign, since that leaves them more vulnerable to poaching and road accidents.  Painted Dog numbers are precipitously low, so every individual is important.  Esther’s PhD project is looking at why the dogs are leaving the park, and while the answer is complicated, habitat degradation seems to be a big part of it.  Hwange is one of the best places in Africa to see huge herds of elephants, but the elephants are also destroying the habitat.  Historically, Hwange held about 2000 elephants, but artificial water holes created for tourism have allowed numbers to shoot up to 36,000.  As a result, the park is losing the dense brush that the Painted Dogs favor for hunting.  Greg’s research also shows that the vegetation is becoming more toxic as plants adapt to increased levels of herbivory.  Unpalatable plant species survive and reproduce, tasty species are eaten, and over time the ecosystem changes to become more unpalatable.  This, of course, affects the herbivores – which affects the dogs.

One of the things I love about PDC is that they have no hesitation to get involved politically and socially when wildlife is threatened.  So many scientists are wary of taking on fights – wary of losing funding, of damaging their reputation, of appearing to lose objectivity.  Greg just puts up his fists and comes out swinging.  He makes no secret of his contempt for a tourism industry that puts short-term profits above long-term ecosystem health.  Or the organizations that overstate dog numbers to generate more funding.  Or the "Walk with Lions" programs that send their old lions off to canned hunts.  PDC will also intervene when a dog is in trouble – none of this, “let nature take its course” crap.  If nature were taking its course, there would be hundreds of thousands of dogs ranging all the way up to Algeria, rather than mere hundreds in four countries.  So when a dog’s survival is threatened, they trap it, bring it to the rehab center, get it healthy, and return it to its pack.  They don’t gratuitously hold animals captive, but when they can do something positive, they step in.

So here we are, keeping track of a pack that is one snare away from collapse.  With fewer than six animals, they will not be able to hunt enough to feed the pups.  Or they will have to use all six animals to hunt, leaving the pups unguarded and vulnerable to predation.  The ideal pack size is around 15, and below six, there is no pack.  This is why PDC must monitor every individual and attack the reasons for decline from every possible angle. 
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Lacy on

Wow! what an amazing adventure Jessica! Can't wait for the next post!

Mom on

Do I need to even say that this made me cry because I'm so proud of you?
Are you able to get any recordings of the dog sounds? I would love to use them in a music piece.
Wish fed-ex went to PDC, I'd send you a jacket.

Uncle Chuck (preacher man) on

Hey my darling Jess. Wow, I love reading your blog. Be careful, there is danger out there! I know Shen must be pouting like never before, and for good reason. Hang in there Shen! See you both soon...Love you both.

Amy on

Wow, this sounds like an amazing experience. I'm glad you're doing well and that you admire the organization you're working with - that makes a big difference. Keep the stories coming! And I too would love to hear the dog sounds. :)

kathleen sullivan on

HI Jessica, so glad you are loving it...I love reading your blog...walk across the street (i mean dirt track) to the ganda lodge..... are the remants of it still there? there is a great waterhole, and at sunset I have often seen big herds of sable antelope, and elephants galore ( i know there are too many of them, but I love them anyway)...anyway say hello to all for me and hide the bunny!

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