When the Kruger National Park lost an entire pack of wild dogs to canine distemper in May 2016, the public responded with outpourings of concern.
The wild dog is the most endangered carnivore in South Africa, and the loss of an entire pack seemed a loss one too many.
SANParks Veterinary Wildlife Services, the SANParks Honorary Rangers, the state veterinary services and the Endangered Wildlife Trust quickly mobilised their teams to prevent any further occurrences.
While canine distemper does circulate between wild animals, it is believed that this case may be linked to an increase in unvaccinated feral domestic dogs outside the boundary of the park exposing wildlife to the disease.
The pack that died – known as the Lower Sabie pack – were killed by a particularly extreme strain of canine distemper. This was the first recorded case killing wild dogs in the Kruger. Because wild dogs are highly sociable animals, a whole pack can quickly be infected should one animal contract the disease. Fortunately, it is unlikely to spread between different groups, as packs do not often interact with one another.
The best way to prevent canine distemper from spilling over into the parks is to vaccinate domestic and feral dogs outside the park, says state veterinarian for Kruger, Louis van Schalkwyk. “But distemper is not a controlled disease and there are no government programmes in place for vaccinations. Which is why we need to encourage owners to vaccinate their animals.”
To further prevent any outbreaks, Kruger teams have also set out to vaccinate core members of wild dog packs against the disease.
“When vaccinating domestic dogs, the aim is to prevent outbreaks,” says van Schalkwyk. “But with wild dogs, we try to protect the core of the pack, so even if there is an outbreak, we can still retain the genetics of the pack. The conservation objective is to retain genes.”
But vaccinating wild dogs is challenging. “It’s very difficult to intervene, because they’re very mobile, and they don’t stick to one spot,” says GM of Veterinary Wildlife Services, Dr Markus Hofmeyr.
The range of a single pack of wild dogs can cover 500km². A recombinant vaccine is used, which is not widely available. To illicit an adequate immune response to protect against live infection, each vaccinated wild dog needs to be darted at least two to three times. This is tricky as teams first need to locate those animals that have already been vaccinated to administer follow-up shots.
In an effort to monitor these packs, an adult dog from each pack will be fitted with a satellite collar in order to track their location for possible top-up vaccines.
This is no easy feat. Each satellite collar costs R30,000, including 18 months of battery life. The cost of the collar excludes costs to fit and monitor movements.
After fundraising efforts, the SANParks Honorary Rangers were able to sponsor four collars, and also received one through a donation. They aim to buy another seven collars, bringing the total number of collars available for monitoring to 12.
“A long-term solution lies in better vaccination schedules for feral dogs on the boundary of the park, and in preventing these dogs from making contact with wildlife,” says Hofmeyr.
The virus often circulates in wildlife without clinical signs or mortalities, as has been the case in KNP for many years. Usually, when animals are affected, a large majority develop immunity against the disease.
The Kruger wild dog population currently stands at approximately 200. “Kruger hosts the largest single unmanaged, viable wild dog population in South Africa,” says Grant Beverley, Lowveld Regional coordinator for the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s carnivore conservation Pragramme. This makes up almost half of the country’s wild dog population. “This makes this population invaluable in the conservation of the species,” says Beverley.
In 2015, the Endangered Wildlife Trust ran a photographic census of wild dog s in the park. During the process, it set up channels through which tourists could report sightings of wild dogs. These channels will assist in monitoring packs to keep an eye out for signs of distemper.
“We use a number of social media platforms, and photos and reports to monitor the population,” says Beverley. “Tourists are encouraged to continue submitting reports and photographs to us. This will help us to identify packs suitable for interventions in terms of vaccinations.”
“Fortunately, there have been no further cases of wild dogs being affected,” says Hofmeyr.
Other threats to the wild dog population include competition with other predators, being hit by cars, and snares –currently one of the largest human induced threats to wild dogs.
Visitors to Kruger can report sightings of any wild dogs, including details of time, date, location, number of individuals, photographs and any behaviour traits observed, to Grant Beverly at [email protected]
Written by Taryn Arnott van Jaarsveld – SANParks Times Editor
Pictures: Grant Beverley
Content courtesy of SANParks Times: www.sanparkstimes.co.za