December 23, 2009

Found at last: AWDMG update

It's with great relief that after thousands of driven kilometers, far too many early mornings, some good fortune and some jaw-clenching frustrations I can finally say "we got them" (well that's a bit more polite than our initial thoughts). The six remaining Wild Dogs (from the 8 which initially left Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park in early September and ran to Mtonjaneni, Babanango, Vryheid and then headed east and south towards Zululand Rhino Reserve, Thanda Private Game Reserve and several smaller neighbouring private reserves and farms) have been captured and relocated to a holding boma in Tembe Elephant Park while plans are being finalized to source appropriate females. If only we could have explained to the dogs several weeks earlier that if they would just let us capture them, they'd have quantities of food and ladies to make their minds boggle; a little slice of paradise for just the cost of being on the end of an immobilizing dart.It was undoubtedly a spectacular end to what was an epic chase. Having slipped from farm to farm over a period of several days since they'd been seen in Thanda, tantalizingly close, but just beyond capture (until with helicopter and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife game capture one dog was trapped), they crossed the N2 3km north of Hluhluwe town. They ranged through cattle and game lands, pineapple fields, and through Zulu Nyala before finally entering Munyawana where the last two were captured on Phinda.With five to go (one of which still had a functional VHF tracking collar), one was plucked out of the group from inside a series of cattle-filled thickets as dusk settled. As the early evening quickly grew darker the drugged animal stumbled out into the open near the vehicles before collapsing into a sleep. A quick shuttle-run to Tembe followed and there were four plaintively "hoo-calling" dogs left in the dark to find their disappeared mate.The following day after much chasing and tracking through paddocks, fences and Zululand bush, the frustration of not finding suitable connecting roads was finally released as the dogs entered pineapple fields and we were able to get them onto a bait. The relief was short lived as the dogs eluded all capture efforts over the swampy, fallow fields, finally grew intolerant of the persistent harassment and chased each other into bordering thickets. Fortune smiled on us in the afternoon and Chris Kelly from Wildlife ACT was able to capture two of the dogs which returned to the bait. Another evening shuttle-run to Tembe and there were two dogs to go; two stressed, nervous dogs. Over several days they ghosted their way through to Phinda until they reached the Mkhuze Game Reserve boundary. We finally had a chance to preempt their movements and get ahead of the pair. Nervous of the vehicle, suspicious of the bait, and single-mindedly determined to cover distance the dogs kept fast-trotting over hill after rugged hill.Finally tempted to an apparently "abandoned" bait, some fine darting and another dog in a crate we thought we could wrap up the final dog easily enough; and that's when good fortune took sick leave. Through the day and night, the wiliest and most edgy of the 6 dogs ducked every attempt at, and method of capture we could conjure up with Tristan Dickerson from Phinda. The crated dog needed to be rushed to Tembe, but the brief moment of seeing the excited response of its pack mates once it was released into the boma gave us a quick buzz and temporary break from our exhaustion.By the following afternoon with a combination of EKZNW game capture, Chris, Tristan, additional Phinda staff, Wildlife ACT volunteers, Mkhuze Game Reserve staff and helicopter assistance generously donated by Grant Tracey Game Capture the stakes were as high as they ever could be to catch the final dog; a Wild Dog desperate to avoid capture. The dog dodged the nets, veered from vehicles and people, lept through the grassy pockets, and hid in thickets. It finally broke out the melee and tore across the hill, all the time being chased down by some spectacular flying before a final, extraordinary piece of darting into that tiny rump dropped it.The project to expand and understand the current range of Wild Dogs through the diverse landscape of northern KwaZulu-Natal is carried out through a partnership between the Endangered Wildlife Trusts' Carnivore Conservation Group and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife; supported by Wildlands Conservation Trust and Land Rover South Africa, and in collaboration with The Smithsonian Institute.