Wildlife TV

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Collecting Urine For Conservation

on July 5, 2014

They may not be the most famous or iconic African animals (they’re not one of the ‘Big 5’, for example) but they have a place in the heart of many safari-goers; the African Wild Dog (Lycaon pictus), or ‘painted dog‘, is a fascinating, beautiful and (sadly) endangered animal.

African Wild Dog (Lycaon pictus)

The African Wild Dog (Lycaon pictus) is a beautiful and unique animal, but it is becoming increasingly endangered. Photo Credits.

Wild dog numbers are dwindling in the wild for a number of complex reasons, but work is under way to help conserve the remaining population and hopefully help them prosper for future generations: recent research efforts have shown that the secret to their salvation may be found in their urine! But why are wild dogs in so much trouble? The reason, almost invariably, is because of conflict with humans. Human farmers do not enjoy sharing land with dogs that hunt and kill their livestock.

African wild dogs are exceptional hunters, perhaps some of the most successful hunters in the animal kingdom. Packs of wild dogs cooperate extremely effectively to coordinate bringing down prey that is often much larger and stronger than themselves and their hunts end in a successful kill 80% of the time. Most predators are very lucky if they can succeed in a hunt half of the time. The effective team-working approach to hunting means that individual wild dogs do not have to be strong and powerful which means that if they come into conflict with a competing predator, such as a lion or spotted hyena, they are unable to put up a fight. Indeed, in the wild, lions and hyenas will drive wild dogs off of their kills and steal it for themselves. Wild dogs are also not particularly fearsome creatures; their peculiar social system is based on submission and non-aggression (for example, in the pack, individuals will never fight over food, but rather compete with begging).

In order to ensure that they don’t end up on the wrong end of a lion, wild dogs hunt over huge areas of land, which helps lower the chances that they’ll run into any competition. Unfortunately, huge, open, wild spaces are becoming more and more rare in Africa and wild dogs are feeling the squeeze, in fact, almost all the nature reserves in Africa are too small to sustain a decently sized pack of wild dogs. One quirk that wild dogs possess is that fences cannot contain them; they are notoriously clever in finding a weakness in a fence and getting through it, and they certainly have reason to.

Wild Dog Pack with a Wildebeest

Wild Dogs are extraordinarily effective hunters, able to bring down prey much larger than themselves, however, they are very social and do not show aggression to each other (most of the time). Photo Credits.

The problem arises when wild dogs break free of their wildlife reserves and go out hunting in the human world beyond, often killing farmers’ livestock. Local farmers have resorted to extreme measures in protecting their livelihoods, often resorting to extermination, including poisoning whole packs of wild dog. Diseases spreading from domestic dogs into the wild has also resulted in wild dog deaths and this, combined with severe habitat loss, is threatening the very existence of the animal. Last century there could have been as many as 500,000 individuals throughout Africa, but now their numbers are down to around 5000; only 1% of the former population. In a previous post, we saw how there are only a handful of individuals remaining in South Africa.

Thankfully, work is under way to save the wild dog. Craig Jackson, a wild dog researcher, has recently completed a thesis on wild dog territorial behaviour for the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, and it seems he might have discovered a key for the conservation of wild dogs. Packs of wild dog hunt in clearly defined territories (that ignore human fences) and these territories are marked by the spraying of urine. The dogs are very respectful of these territorial borders and will rarely cross over into a neighbour’s turf. Jackson found that by collecting the sand onto which they sprayed urine, he could relocate it and create ‘fake’ borders and the dogs were fooled; they respected the transplanted urine trails as if another pack had sprayed them.

Urine collection might seem like an unlikely form of conservation, but strategically placing urine trails around wild dog packs will be much more effective than erecting fences and it will keep wild dogs out of danger from rival predators and disgruntled farmers. Unfortunately, the process of following dogs around and collecting their urine is very time consuming and labour intensive, so the challenge is set to try and synthesis a chemical that replicates wild dog urine and mass produce it. Pioneering wild dog researcher and conservationist John ‘Tico’ McNutt is on the case and is currently experimenting with a range of options.

Hopefully, if this new idea can be implemented, we might see a decline in unnecessary wild dog deaths and we might be able to save the species from extinction. It would be a tragedy to see such a peculiar and fascinating animal disappear, but, with the right science it might not be the case.

Much love,

-Nick

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4 responses to “Collecting Urine For Conservation

  1. de Wets Wild says:

    Thanks for sharing the exciting news about this wonderful new technique for protecting the wild dog! They’re among our favourite animals and it gives us much hope for their future!

    • Wildlife TV says:

      Yes, it’s a bizarre solution, but it seems promising and might well be the key to this great animal’s salvation. Hopefully they can live out their lives in peace in the future.
      -Nick

  2. Jenny says:

    What a wonderful post! I’ve loved African wild dogs since childhood and have been deeply saddened by its struggle to survive. Thanks for sharing these nuggets of hope!

    • Wildlife TV says:

      Thank you!
      Wild dogs are indeed fascinating and beautiful animals that are very much in trouble. This solution is a little bit ‘out there’ but it seems very plausible that it could help them out in the future.
      -Nick

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