African Wild Dogs

Mkomazi National Park, Tanzania

Mkomazi National Park is in the north of Tanzania along the Kenyan border. It covers an area of nearly 3,300 square kilometers. Together with Tsavo National Park in Kenya to the north of the border, it forms one of the largest and most important protected ecosystems in Africa and is now a trans-frontier national park. In all, 78 species of mammals and over 400 species of birds have been recorded there.

By 1988, Mkomazi Game Reserve was in steep decline and on the verge of ecological disaster. It represented a classic example of degradation. Heavy poaching had wiped out its black rhino and elephant populations. Overgrazing, deliberate burning and indiscriminate hunting had all taken their toll. The Government of Tanzania decided to re-examine its status and stop the decline. They initiated a programme with a view to ensuring the complete rehabilitation of this vast area and the reintroduction of its endangered species. The Mkomazi Project became a National Priority Project. In 1989, the Government invited the Field Director of the George Adamson Wildlife Preservation Trust, Tony Fitzjohn, to join with them on the rehabilitation programme.

The George Adamson Wildlife Preservation Trust (GAWPT) and its sister Trusts has been the Tanzanian Government’s sole partner in the rehabilitation of Mkomazi over the past 25 years. This unique and important endeavour includes the development of infrastructure, management of the area, two endangered species programmes for the Black Rhino and African Wild Dog and an extensive outreach programme which focuses on school refurbishment, environmental education and recently the construction of a vocational training centre.

In 1989 The Mkomazi Project was born. GAWPT assisted the Tanzanian Wildlife Division from 1989-2007 with the rehabilitation of the reserve, which included the establishment of the African Wild Dogs captive breeding programme and the construction of the Rhino Sanctuary, both of which form part of the Tanzanian Government's policy on endangered species. The result has been a spectacular success with one of the most fragile, threatened and beautiful parts of Africa being reborn.

In 2008 the government upgraded Mkomazi Game Reserve to National Park status, protected in perpetuity for the nation, and GAWPT now works in close cooperation with the Tanzanian National Parks and continues to pursue the conservation objectives.

The African Wild Dog is an extremely endangered species. Diseases, large predators and man threaten their existence. At the beginning of the last century there were approximately 500,000 wild dogs across 39 countries and in the early 1990's this number reduced to only 3,000!

African Wild Dogs are the wolves of Africa, a vanishing species, mysterious, elusive and constantly moving packs, they possess no territories; only when the alpha female whelps does the pack settle down for a few months until the pups are old enough to travel.

For years they were despised as vermin, shot and poisoned by farmers, hunters and game wardens. Condemned as livestock killers, they became fugitives, their numbers gradually depleting. In areas where game has become scarce, wild dogs tend to get close to human settlements. As a consequence, they are poisoned and may come into close contact with domestic dogs. As the African Wild Dog is susceptible to diseases also found in domestic dogs, such as canine distemper and rabies, cross infection can occur, leading in some cases to high mortality.

In 1995 GAWPT began a captive breeding and translocation programme for the African Wild Dog, in order to restore their rapidly diminishing numbers and has now been breeding wild dogs successfully for the past 20 years in 6 breeding compounds at the base camp.

The veterinary programme and research has brought new insights into vaccination policy for captive wild dogs and the wild dogs are being reintroduced into the Tsavo/Mkomazi ecosystem via reintroduction compounds along the border. The reintroduced dogs are monitored on foot, in vehicle and by air using telemetry - one dog per reintroduced pack is fitted with a telemetry collar. Their reintroduction is a highly complex operation due to their unique and complicated social structure and their requirement of a large home range within which they can roam nomadically. However, given the time and experience of Tony Fitzjohn and his team with these animals, they are confident that their methods are leading to long-term success.

It's only in recent years that more enlightened attitudes have begun to appear, with the African Wild Dog being seen, not as an indiscriminate butcher, but as a highly intelligent social animal, whose hunting efficiency actually improves the quality of game animals by removing sick individuals and scattering herds to prevent inbreeding.

Sadly this change came too late to save many packs and despite the protection of parks and reserves, their numbers continued to decline. When this reintroduction programme first began there were fewer than 3,000 wild dogs in the whole of Africa, today there are estimated to be over 6,000, with numbers increasing in certain areas where programmes have been put in place. Sightings of wild dogs in the Tsavo National Park / Mkomazi National Park ecosystem have increased over the past 10 years.

An endangered species programme can only be successful if there is continuity and perseverance over many years. Tony is sometimes asked how long he plans to continue this project and his answer is that if they are to ultimately make any difference to a species like this, these programmes have to last forever. For endangered species there are no new beginnings, only an empty end.