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Bushlife Safaris July 21, 2020

Nick Murray - Painted Wolf Numbers in Mana Pools

Are Wild Dog Numbers “Plummeting” in Mana Pools?

A response by Nick Murray

“Recent interviews and Facebook postings have raised alarms that the number of African wild dogs, also known as painted wolves, have dwindled to as few as 20, in Mana National Park. Were this the case, this would indeed be a crisis for this endangered species, and Mana Pools.

Many people have contacted me to ask my views about the numbers of wild dog in Mana Pools, so I hope the following information can shed some light on their status.

Wild Dog Numbers as of July 2020

I started following the wild dogs when I began guiding in Mana in 1997 and have been guiding full seasons every year since then in Mana Pools.  The numbers of wild dogs in Mana Pools National Park as of July 2020, based on reports that I have received from other guides and camps, is 90 wild dogs, based on these reports:

  • 35 wild dogs sighted in the South-eastern section of Mana-Nyamawani. The wild dogs certainly use Chewore; for many years there has been a big pack in central Chewore.
  • 16 sighted on the southern Boundary Road,
  • Pack of 6 or 7 reported by Kavinga Camp,
  • 13 were sighted by me, one month ago near Kanga camp. We are calling it the Dandawa pack.
  • 9 adults and 7pups in the Nyakasanga pack,
  • 3 adults in Ilala pack plus new pups.

Dr Norman Monks study (2008), Warden and Ecologist, shows that approximately 50% of Mana Pools’ lions and hyenas live along the flood plain. Bearing in mind that the flood plain is only about 10% of Mana Pools National Park and that the lion population in Mana is about 110 lions. The area in which the Nyamatusi pack of wild dogs lived – the floodplain area of the Nyamatusi Wilderness area, is known for its lions.  There is currently a mega pride of over 25 lions in the area today. We have frequently found the aftermath of lions killing wild dogs time and time again: a wild dog carcass full of bite marks and lion tracks around the carcass or seeing lions with little wild dog pups in their mouths.

Predator pressure is tremendous and unrelenting on wild dogs. The recent ZimParks Carnivore Research Project will collect data so that ZimParks ecologists can develop solutions for management that affect the carnivore population.

For the long-time-Mana-goers, you will remember the early 90s when wild dogs were a rare occurrence. The wild dogs made their appearance in the early 90s and did very well and built their numbers up to a pinnacle of 3 packs using the floodplain area and this lasted for about 15 years. It should also be noted that the lion numbers were low in the time that the wild dog numbers built up. Between Vundu and Nyampei we could go for a couple of weeks without seeing a lion. Prime habitat for wild dogs. This started changing when 2 lionesses were introduced from the Matusadona area after being caught in snares. One lioness, Catherine, changed the population status of the lions in central Mana for many years with her prolific production of cubs (Monks 2008). She lived to a ripe old age of 17 years.

Violet 2020 litter

In-breeding

There is a concern about inbreeding – why are the dogs from inland not dispersing into the area along the Zambezi as they have done in previous years?  This is another question ZimParks hope to answer through their Mana Pools Carnivore Research Project. In the Nyakasanga pack in 2019 Jiani bred with his daughter Violet as reported in our blog here. He was killed before the denning season took place – by lions. In 2020 Violet’s mate was Sarge, her brother, and they are the parents of the newest litter. The pups all look very healthy at this stage with no visible deformities. We have been monitoring this situation closely together with the ZimParks Carnivore Project.

Pack Movements

By way of sharing the history of the past 5 years of the dog movements of the floodplains of Mana Pools, please see the family tree. The latest addition being the Ilala Pack of 3 not pictured here who are direct descendants of Blacktip.

  • At the end of 2015 early 2016, Tait, the alpha female of Vundu pack died and the Vundu pack dispersed.
  • 2016 Chiwenga pack dispersed to Chewore Mouth and Janet the alpha female died (Tait’s 2008 daughter)
  • Early 2016 Nyamatusi Pack evolved from 7 males from the Nyakasanga Pack and 7 females from the Vundu pack.
  • 2019 – Blacktip, the alpha female of Nyakasanga pack dies, as does her mate Jiani leaving Violet as the alpha female. This is the evolutionary line of dogs whose dens I have been visiting for the past 17 years consecutively. The pack is now 9 adults strong and 7 pups at the den.
Family Tree Painted Wolves

“Disturbances”

The Nyamatusi pack I filmed at the den in 2016 and they were featured in the BBC Earth Dynasties Painted Wolf series. Tammy had 7 healthy pups and 7 healthy pups left the den. In 2017 she had 7 pups, and 7 pups again in 2018. In 2019 she had 10 pups. All 31 of these pups left the den in a healthy condition and were killed by predators as were all the adults bar one. The Nyamatusi pack lost 44 dogs in 4 years. The only people visiting the den in 2017, 2018 and 2019 were researchers. What logical conclusion should we draw here if we are to follow the protocol laid down in this article?

One of the speculations is that the filming of wildlife documentaries may be disturbing the packs. Many people will have seen the BBC Earth Dynasties series, which was filmed in Mana Pools. The series was narrated by Sir David Attenborough. As you would expect, the BBC Earth film crew and Sir David are very ethical professionals who put the well-being and longevity of animals first. Not only that, but all filming is done with a Zimbabwe National Parks ranger present at all times to ensure the production follows Zimparks regulations. We can confidently say that this series did not affect the population of these two wild dog packs.  The BBC Earth series and Sir David really raised the profile of wild dogs across the world. All other film crews we have guided since have followed the same protocols of ethics, all under ZimParks monitoring. Apologies to anyone who thought otherwise – we always strive to maintain the balance of professionalism and guide ethics, as well as capturing the scene at the same time to raise awareness for this endangered species.

As guides, we are working together to improve communications amongst ourselves and maintain a high level of ethics expected of a Zimbabwe Professional Guide.”

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