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African Wild Dogs: Helping to Restore Wildlife Ecosystems

An innovative project explores the “science of fear”
By Claudia Kawczynska, October 2020, Updated June 2021
A pack of African wild dog pups (Lycaon pictus) in Gorongosa National Park.

A pack of African wild dog pups (Lycaon pictus) in Gorongosa National Park.

There is a new NOVA PBS, not-to-be-missed special that takes a look at the important role that predators, such as the African wild dog, play in the health and balance of an ecosystem. This amazing film, from NOVA and HHMI Tangled Bank Studios, premieres on PBS on Wednesday, October 14 at 9 p.m. ET/8C on PBS.

Narrated by Michael C. Hall, NATURE’S FEAR FACTOR  features exclusive access to the Gorongosa Restoration Project in Mozambique, revealing how this monumental effort is providing a critical new home for the endangered wild dogs, helping restore one of Africa’s great national parks, and shedding new light on the role fear plays in wildlife ecosystems. It’s real-time field science that could well decide whether the Gorongosa ecosystem survives, or spirals out of control.

 With long-term and exclusive access, this film takes viewers inside the grand experiment of  Gorongosa National Park, from the arrival of the wild dogs on a special charter flight, to their release into the wild and their (adorable) large litter of pups. The film explores the questions the scientists have, including will they bond into a cohesive pack and reclaim a territory their species roamed many decades ago? Will they succumb to hidden dangers lurking in the park? And will their prey even know to be scared after decades of living the good life with no predators around?


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Pile of African wild dog pups in Gorongosa National Park. Credit: Gorongosa Media / Brett Kuxhausen

The scientists are also concerned that the pack might leave the unfenced park and head into the surrounding communities. That’s a problem Gorongosa is already facing with elephants, which cross the river to feast on nutritious crops grown by the local farmers. The park is using innovative solutions—including surprisingly effective beehive fences—to try and keep the elephants at bay, but they highlight the challenges of an effort of this scale. They’re creating the blueprints as they go, tapping into ecological knowledge from other places, and forging new ground in their understanding of complicated ecosystem dynamics. “It's a living laboratory,” says Princeton University ecologist Robert Pringle, “where we can bring our science out into the field and try to figure out the rules that ecosystems work by.”

Watch this fascinating program, NATURE’S FEAR FACTOR that premieres Wednesday, October 14 at 9 p.m. ET/8C on PBS and will be available for streaming online and on the PBS video app.



More about the African wild dog
African wild dog (Lycaon pictus), also called the painted dog, or Cape hunting dog, is a member the canine family and the largest indigenous canine in Africa. Sadly though, this species has been listed as  endangered on the IUCN Red List since 1990. They are fascinating animals who are highly social, living in packs, and unlike other carnivores the females, rather than the males, disperse from the natal pack once sexually mature (to protect against incest that can destroy a species). They live in permanent packs consisting of two to 27 adults and yearling pups. Like other canids, the African wild dog regurgitates food for their young, but this action is also extended to adults, to the point of being central to their social life.
The African wild dog produces more pups than any other canid, with litters containing around six to 16 pups, with an average of 10, thus indicating that a single female can produce enough young to form a new pack every year. 
Interestingly, packs of African wild dogs have a high ratio of males to females. This is a mostly because the males usually stay with the pack while the female offspring disperse and is supported by a changing sex-ration in consecutive litters. The firstborn litter of bitches contain a higher proportion of males, second litters are half and half and subsequent litters biased towards females with this trend increasing as females get older. As a result, the earlier litters provide stable hunters whilst the higher ratio of dispersals amongst the females stops a pack from getting too big.
African wild dog hunts by approaching prey silently, then chasing it in a pursuit clocking at up to 66 km/h (41 mph) for 10 to 60 minutes. Pups old enough to eat solid food are given first priority at kills, eating even before the dominant pair; subordinate adult dogs help feed and protect the pups.
The species is about the size of an medium-sized dog, and stands 60 to 75 cm (24 to 30 in) in shoulder height, measures 71 to 112 cm (28 to 44 in) in head-and-body length and has a tail length of 29 to 41 cm (11 to 16 in). Body weight of adults range from 18 to 36 kg (40 to 79 lb). On average, dogs from East Africa weigh around 20–25 kg (44–55 lb) while in southern Africa, males reportedly weighed a mean of 32.7 kg (72 lb) and females a mean of 24.5 kg (54 lb).  Females are generally 3–7% smaller than males. Compared to members of the genus Canis, the African wild dog is comparatively lean and tall, with outsized ears and lacking dewclaws.
Source: Wikipedia

Gorongosa Media / Brett Kuxhausen