Update from the field: Protecting African Wild Dogs in Zambia

Update from the field: Protecting African Wild Dogs in Zambia

Michelle Campbell is on a Zoo Friends and Conservation Fellowship in South Luangwa National Park, Zambia. 

Read her first update here. 

Day 2

Very late last night word came of a young female African Wild Dog observed in the national park with a snare caught around her abdomen. Worse still, it was the dog known as 515, who was treated only 7 months ago for another snare injury, that time around her neck. Today's priority: to locate her, immobilise her and assess the injury.

 South Luangwa National Park is true wilderness - rugged and tough. It is difficult country to negotiate off-road in a vehicle but after many hours of following the signals from 515's radio collar, the team eventually found her. If not for the collar, the task would have been impossible.

 Not long after the dart hit, she was safely asleep. A simple piece of wire was cutting deep into her flesh, strangling her pelvis; a wire that was intended to kill her, to feed the demand for bushmeat. She was in poor condition, probably hungry and weak. I was astonished to learn that she had traversed 1000 square kilometres in recent weeks, a true testament to the tenacity of this species!

 Removal of the snare revealed horrific damage to her muscles and skin but thankfully her internal organs had been spared. Her teeth showed signs of her own fruitless attempts to remove the cruel wire. Veterinary wound care and various medications were provided to give her every chance of healing.

 The procedure was hard on her debilitated body - it was a few hours before she was on her feet again. Whilst she recovered, we stayed to protect her from opportunistic predators lurking as the sun set; until her sister 517 returned to her side. The pair are known to be dispersing from their birth pack, and as such they are potential seeds of a new wild dog family; representing hope for a species desperately fighting extinction. Thanks to the South Luangwa Conservation Society and Zambian Carnivore Programme teams, 515 remains in the fight for now. 

 Day 3

It was an early start, just after sunrise, to begin conducting ungulate abundance transects throughout the national park. There were multiple teams carrying out this work, a task undertaken four times a year by the Zambian Carnivore Programme team to monitor population changes over time and space. 

 I was teamed up with a representative from South Luangwa Conservation Society and another from ZAWA (Zambian Wildlife Authority). Both men were highly knowledgeable about local wildlife and got me quickly up to speed on the basics. It was really a thrill to be able to act as an additional pair of eyes on this research endeavour. 

 What struck me most about our day was the impressive variation in habitat throughout the park - one minute you are in an open green grassland, turn a corner and you hit an expansive wetland, cross a dry river bed into riverine forest or mopane woodland: completely different landscapes, all vital to the ebb and flow of life here. It feels like half a dozen national parks in one. 

 The job was to locate, count and map any ungulate species observed along specified routes. And boy, were there ungulates! Herds of African elephant, Thornicrofts giraffe, impala, puku, bush buck, grysbok, wart hogs, to name but a few. And although not included in our survey, the impressive diversity of bird life was highly distracting. There was one very obvious absence though - the black rhinoceros - tragically poached to extinction here about two decades ago. Oh, how great it would have been to include them on our data sheet. 

 Day 5

 A beautiful Zambian winter's day for a glorious and lengthy drive into South Luangwa National Park to drop a ZAWA wildlife police officer and four SLCS scouts at an open grassland known as Zebra Plains. This will be the starting point of a 10 day on-foot patrol for them conducting surveillance of human activity in and around a lagoon notorious for poaching activity. The scouts undergo a rigorous training program and only the toughest and strongest are amongst today's consignment. They are armed and take all required provisions with them. 

 As honorary wildlife police officers the scouts have the authority to apprehend any poachers they encounter during a patrol. But perhaps more importantly their presence in the area acts as a deterrent to would-be poachers. This vital preventative aspect of their work is having a positive impact, although the results are difficult to quantify. 

 A film crew working on the final stages of a new BBC David Attenborough series exploring the lives of threatened predators arrived in Mfuwe today. They are keen to highlight the incredible work being undertaken to protect African wild dogs in this location, including the anti-snaring activities of SLCS. I was fortunate enough to view some phenomenal, but only partially edited, footage they have obtained of wild dogs during a hunt. The project presents a great opportunity for the teams working on the ground here to get some global exposure for their inspiring work. 

 Day 6

 After a prolonged and complicated journey from the United States, SLCSs two new wildlife protection dogs arrived today. We travelled to the local airport to meet them. They, along with two of their trainers from Working Dogs for Conservation in Montana, were clearly pleased to finally make it to Mfuwe. Sister and brother, Chai and Earl, are 14 month old Belgian Shepherds and have already undergone some preparatory training prior to arrival, demonstrating great potential. It is hoped they will eventually become experts in the detection of firearms, ammunition, drugs and wildlife products such as ivory. 

 The dogs were transferred to their new home kennels and introduced to resident hard-working detection dog, Ruger. It was a delight to see them exploring their new environment, familiarising themselves with the sights and sounds of Africa. Despite the novelty of everything around them, they were surprisingly confident and relaxed. 

 Over the next week or so, the dogs will get to know their local handlers and begin to prepare for their role in fighting wildlife crime. It is anticipated that they, like Ruger, will be used to help conduct searches at the airport, at road blocks and during special intelligence-led operations. Furthermore, it is hoped that the detection dog set-up here in Mfuwe can used as a model for the development of similar programmes in and around other protected parks in Zambia. 

 Day 7

 No rest for new arrivals Earl and Chai; they had their first day of ivory detection training in Zambia. A piece of ivory was hidden in a safari vehicle and each dog given the opportunity to find it. The reward they work so conscientiously for is a simple ball and rope toy. It is their entire motivation for an intensive, thorough search of an assigned area with a trainer. Both did very well for a first attempt, only a day after the completion of their arduous international journey. They have been trained with ivory before, but only with very old specimens and it is likely that today's training tool had a slightly different odour. 

 The dogs come with an impressive pedigree: they are the offspring of a police dog and a detection dog and so they hold great promise for the expanding crime-fighting Canine Unit. The local scouts trained as handlers have already undergone instruction in canine olfaction, practical handling, search techniques and team work and they will receive some supplementary training over the next couple of weeks from Working Dogs for Conservation staff. 

 Day 8

 I accompanied the Canine Unit on a routine airport patrol. A proportion of vehicles arriving at Mfuwe airport throughout the morning were inspected by Ruger and his team of handlers. It was impressive to see the methodical way in which Ruger carries out his searches, looking for wildlife contraband. This is especially true given that he has only been in the job for 8 months, and that he is blind. It is thought that only a small proportion of illegally acquired bushmeat and ivory is currently smuggled out of the area by air, but this work is carried out 2-3 days per week to supplement the road block searches. 

 New dogs Earl and Chai had another opportunity to practice their ivory detection skills at an open area of wilderness. Samples were hidden at the site and both dogs were tested and given time to bond with one of their new primary handlers, Godfrey. 

 As the working day was coming to a close a report came in regarding the identity of a suspected poacher in the area. A plan was made to investigate further in order to gather sufficient evidence upon which to act. 

 Day 9

 A young male elephant on the outskirts of the town was reported as being profoundly lame a few days ago. He was spotted again today. Initial thoughts that perhaps a snare was the inciting cause were dashed on immediate inspection. The subadult was unable to bear weight at all on his left fore leg; hopping painfully and awkwardly around the edge of a lagoon. With the aid of binoculars, a gun shot wound was obvious on the upper part of the affected leg. It was the worst possible finding; a hopeless situation, euthanasia being the only humane option. The government authority were contacted to make the appropriate arrangements. 

 Post-mortem examination revealed a complicated upper left forelimb fracture that was hopelessly infected. There were two bullet entry and exit holes near the fracture that must have been sustained over a week ago. The team explained that it is very likely an injury that was incurred during a poaching attempt or due to retaliation for crop raiding. 

 Human-elephant conflict is a complicated business, certainly not unique to Zambia, and local multifactorial solutions are required to address all the contributory factors. SLCS have teamed up with an organisation called Awely to encourage local farmers to plant crops that do not attract elephants, like chillies, and assist in the development of a market for their harvested goods. Promoting respect for local wildlife is an area of focus for SLCS and today's victim makes the team all the more motivated to continue their efforts. 

 On a more positive note, a giraffe with evidence of an old injury to a lower limb was observed in the area. Inspection of the coat pattern revealed that this animal had a snare removed by the SLCS team four years ago and has managed to survive despite suffering some permanent scarring and dysfunction of the limb. 

Day 10

 To coincide with the recent arrival of the new detection dogs, I conducted a workshop on canine preventative health, examination and first aid for the dog handlers and kennel staff. It was a great opportunity to reiterate some previous instruction they have received and to answer any questions that have arisen during their time with the program. All were engaged, keen to learn and contribute ideas. The overarching principle was that the welfare and health of the dogs is paramount to them being effective in their role fighting wildlife crime for years to come. There is already an impressive schedule of daily examinations, weekly weight checks and regular parasite treatment in place, as well as protocols for dealing with certain emergency situations. We discussed running occasional drills, to hone their skills and improve confidence. 

 Samples of fresh ivory obtained from yesterday's elephant euthanasia were used for ongoing training of the new dogs and Ruger had a practice session with various types of bushmeat. 

 Finally, encouraging news came through from Zambia Carnivore Programme that the African wild dog desnared over a week ago and her sister had been spotted in the park, a positive indication that she is recovering well.

Day 14

 Not a bad way to spend my last full day in Zambia - a glorious drive through a small part of the national park along the expansive Luangwa River, a section flanked by an enchanting ebony forest. Two injured animals were inspected - the first was a lame puku with multiple swollen joints, and the second a zebra with a damaged right ear. Both were deemed to be conditions due to natural processes rather than human interference, and as such SLCS will not intervene; their philosophy and objectives are clear. Reports had also been received of another puku just outside the park boundaries with a snare injury. She was still mobile and could not be located today; tomorrow the team will try again.

 Sitting by the river as the sun sets, vervet monkeys playing cheekily in the trees above and a herd of elephants casually browsing nearby, I have the opportunity to reflect on the experiences of the last two weeks. Impressed by the honesty and integrity of the people I have met and the sheer spectacle of the landscapes this region is blessed with, there is no doubt that South Luangwa would be a poorer place without the helping hand of SLCS.

 I was asked by a local man one day why I had travelled so far to help the animals, and not the people. A fair question, I thought, that warrants consideration. Visitors from wealthy countries are often shielded from the genuine challenges of life in a developing nation, but the one perhaps unexpected aspect of my fellowship has been the chance to see how people really live, to talk to them about their lives. Through observing the everyday work of SLCS, it has become evident to me that by protecting Zambia's wildlife resource and encouraging a respect for the land and its plants and animals, there are direct benefits to the community. The organisation is an employer of nearly 70 staff; all but one are Zambian. They host community events that bring families and villages together. Close working relationships are fostered with tourism operators who in addition to providing direct employment, help fund education and social programmes in the local area. This is grass roots wholistic conservation in practice. There are no egos, no extravagances, there is only a love of the place and a sense of needing to do what is right. It is a refreshing attitude and although progress can seem slow or bumpy, at times, it is certainly moving in a positive direction.