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The 'twitters' you can hear above are social greeting calls used by the African wild dog (sometimes called the Painted wolf), usually used to express happiness or greetings when gathering. Boasting a vast and complex vocal repertoire of more than thirty types of vocalizations, wild dogs are known to live in democratic social structures - using gestures and sounds to express their 'votes' on a direction to move in to pursue prey. These 'votes' often come in the form of a sneeze - no, really! Although packs of wild dogs contain multi-level social hierarchies, it is commonly observed that the higher ranking dogs make most decisions for the group.
What type of sound did you expect to hear from the African wild dog? Most expect a howl, or perhaps the sinister laughs that hyenas tend to make - dog owners will be all too familiar, however, with the hundreds of subtly different vocalizations dogs are able to make. Though, much like primates, canids are heavily dependent on facial expression and body language, vocal communication plays a primary role in many wild canine species, from foxes and wolves to wild dogs and coyotes.
Less than a meter in length, wild dogs are diminutive in size compared to their fellow big cat predators of the African savannah. In place of power and strength, evolution has granted them unparalleled intelligence and organizational skills. Wild dogs are opportunistic hunters and will roam vast distances in a single day to avoid competition with larger predators. It is this dependence of the wild dogs upon large stretches of undisturbed habitat that renders them particularly vulnerable to extinction compared to lions and leopards. The past half-century has seen African nations collaborate across borders to ensure the maintenance of 'corridors' for African wildlife. You could say that no species is more reliant on us for survival than the unsung yet extraordinary African wild dog.
Considered 'vermin' by land managers until the mid-1980's, the African wild dog was hunted to near-extinction, but has since made promising progress in its return. Their nomadic behavior, patrolling large-spanning territories each day, makes conserving their species a challenge as increasing proximity between human developments and protected areas increases the frequency of human-wildlife conflict.
Competition from larger predators on the African savannah, combined with the spread of human agriculture means that wild dogs are often forced to seek prey in livestock, which inevitably does not go over well with local farmers. Sadly, the lesser-known fascinating characteristics of their species prevents them from gaining as much conservation attention as lions, cheetahs, and other large carnivores. Wild dogs are some of the most intelligent animals on our planet, capable of many of the emotions we often attribute only to ourselves and other primates. Their social cohesion and ability to cooperate is their primary tool for survival in a fiercely competitive landscape, and maintaining a large pack size has been found by biologists to be a crucial component for preserving such group dynamics. Habitat loss and fragmentation continues to pressure many large African carnivores toward extinction - smaller territories force African wild dogs to exist in smaller packs, which are in turn more vulnerable to disease outbreaks and genetic decline, and less likely to hunt sufficient prey.
Thriving in more than thirty African countries in 1900, the African wild dog today only remains in viable populations in seven. This decline, however, has been slowed significantly over the past thirty years by international conservation efforts focused on preserving connectivity between wild dog populations. Education throughout Africa, spearheaded by both international and grassroots institutions, has helped transform the wild dog's reputation from vermin to valued.
The African wild dog is a special, intelligent, and unique animal with a conservation story that has long remained uphill and challenging. This century, their story may be changing. Two sub-populations of African wild dog, one in South Africa and the other in Botswana, have found remarkable success and are currently sustaining large, healthy packs roaming wide-spanning territories in government-protected areas. With other sub-populations being supported and encouraged by conservation initiatives across more than five other countries, there is significant hope that African wild dogs can return to prominence on the African savannah.
One of the organizations supporting the recovery of the African wild dog through grass roots education and community outreach is our partnering institution, the African Conservation Foundation. You can read more about how they are inspiring environmental change in young minds across Africa here.
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