Wild dog relocation diaries
Derek van der Merwe, Limpopo Regional Coordinator, EWT Carnivore Conservation Programme
We had managed to comfortably collar this pack in October 2019, and even while we were working on the darted individual at the time, the rest of the pack continued feeding on the carcass we had used to bait them. However, we knew straight away that this capture would be a difficult exercise. The pack was suddenly very wary of us and did not respond to the first call up. A call up is used to get the target animal for relocation treatment or collaring into an accessible position for a vet to dart/sedate it so that the wild animal can be worked on in a safe and unobtrusive manner. We later found out that the pack had recently been shot at and as a result were very mistrustful of us. Over the next three days, we managed to coax them into a call up and started habituating them to our presence. Eventually, after three days, we got them feeding within 40m of the car.
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 lockdown put an end to our habituation process and we needed to arrange permits in order to complete this critical relocation. We monitored the pack via satellite collars and noticed one of the dogs was stationary. I was concerned that the dog might be in a snare and asked the landowner to go and check. My assumption was correct and Wildefuffi, the first dog we collared in the area, was found dead in a snare on a cattle farm. We immediately realised that this capture needed to be done as soon as possible! The lockdown meant that there would be no more monitoring on the ground and was a good opportunity for landowners to shoot or even poison the entire pack while there was little police presence or conservation officials working in the area. We started planning the capture, but, while the Wild Dog pack was on a property that is very Wild Dog tolerant, unfortunately we could not gain access. So, we had to wait for them to move off…
After arranging access to all the surrounding properties I decided to go and continue the habituation process. While driving up to the Waterberg, the Wild Dogs moved 8km, crossing two farms, and again I had to arrange access. Fortunately, they were close to a property that was tolerant to them, as they had denned on the neighbouring property the year before. I collected three impala carcasses kindly provided by Lapalala Wilderness and made my way to a farm called Vrymansrust. I was met there by farm manager, Timon Dreyer, and his fiancée Alexi Rough. We then drove up the fence line to get as close to the pack as possible, where we proceeded to call them up. We managed to coax them through the fence and the first call up was a success. However, I forgot to bring wire with me and luckily Timon found a small piece lying next to the fence to secure the impala carcass to a tree. That didn’t hold very long and the Wild Dogs ripped the carcass from the tree and dragged it into the bush. There were some very curious giraffes nearby and they came in to investigate the strange noises of the Wild Dogs feeding. I arranged with Timon and Alexi to gain access before first light and continue the habituation process in the morning…
04:20 An early start as the property was an hour’s drive from where I was camping, and I didn’t want the pack to start moving. The pack had overnighted not far from where we fed them the previous day and we started calling just before 06:00. While calling the pack in, I warned Timon and Alexi that sometimes the Wild Dogs circle and approach you from behind and after about 10 mins that’s exactly what they did. Alexi got a huge fright as she spotted a dog 15m from her behind in the bushes!
It was such a lovely setting as the mist came in. We were able to spend an hour with these magnificent animals. I was so pleased as the whole pack came in to feed on the carcass. Not only the youngsters, even the grumpy old alpha male came in to steal a leg.
We knew from the start that the alpha male would be the key. If he could be darted, we could get the whole pack. After the pack had eaten their full and played with each other, chasing one another up and down, we got to witness something really special – the alpha pair mating. I had to laugh as the male dropped off some food and then continued to mount her while she was eating.
Waterberg Wild Dogs breed later than their Lowveld and KZN counterparts, usually having their pups in late July. That means we should see some pups in about 70 days which is so exciting.
Confident that the pack was habituated enough to try and dart them, I arranged with Dr Zoe Glyphis and Dr Andy Fraser to try to dart them the following morning. Lapalala Wilderness kindly agreed to provide a bigger carcass (a Wildebeest) to lock the pack down. Our plan was to meet with both vets so that we had the best chance of completing the capture.
We set off at 16:00, this time only using an impala’s hindquarters as bait, as we wanted them to be hungry the next morning. The wind direction was not in our favour and we called for 30 minutes to no avail. We decided to move closer and went to the same spot we left them that morning. As we rounded the bend, all the Wild Dogs jumped up not far from the morning carcass. I quickly turned around and drove off slowly with ten hungry Wild Dogs in tow.
From not responding to the first call up to having the dogs running after my Ford Ranger in just ten days is an amazing achievement. We quickly tied the hindquarters to a tree and watched the pack come into feed. While the alpha male was cautious and stayed in the background, Dr Glyphis, who had spent the previous week with me, could not believe it was the same pack. We left the scene feeling very confident that we could dart at least a large proportion of the pack in the morning.
04:00 – Another early start as the team set off with our Wildebeest carcass. The dogs had moved to the centre of the farm; we got there early and started calling immediately. I was getting a very weak signal from the telemetry, so we knew that the dogs had already moved off. We later learned that a farm employee had set off at 05:30 on a Sunday morning to go and check the farm’s rain gauges, and that the pack had followed his bakkie. The signal continued to get weaker but fortunately the satellite collar sent us a pin.
We rushed to the location and just below us was a large buffalo herd and we could see that Wild Dogs had disturbed them. Finally, we caught up with them hunting on the ridge and managed to lure them into following the bakkie.
We offloaded the carcass and the dogs came in. They sniffed at the carcass but weren’t interested at all, settling down next to it. We tried to get within darting distance, but the pack just moved off. What a downer – we needed to come up with a new plan and fast. We radioed Alexi that we required an impala carcass ASAP and she was only too happy to oblige – 30 minutes later the carcass arrived. Andy proceeded to tie the carcass to a nearby tree. This time the dogs were very excited, to our relief they came in and started feeding. Within 15 seconds they had removed the carcass from the tree and Andy had to retrieve it and re-tie it. The various disturbances meant that the alpha male had enough and led the pack off. Unfortunately, the morning just hadn’t run to plan, so we decided to back off. We would have been able to dart perhaps one individual – if we were lucky. So back to the drawing board. We decided to try again that afternoon. Our return to camp saw us a little deflated!
Fortunately, the dogs didn’t wander far, and we were back at 16:00 calling them in. They still took their time coming in, but eventually some started feeding and we decided to just get whatever we could. Zoe shot the first dart, which set the precedent for the rest of the capture. A perfect dart, then Andy quickly let off a second dart. The pack was a bit bewildered and the alpha male clearly did not like what was happening, so he moved the pack off.
We quickly gathered the two darted pack members who had fallen asleep not too far away and moved them both next to the carcass in order to lure the pack in again. We then decided to drive off in the hope that the pack would return to find their pack mates. It worked. Not long after they returned, we were able to get a third individual darted. With the light fading we quickly retrieved the third darted dog and moved off again, with Dr Fraser climbing into a tree to see if he could get one last dog. We were parked a good 100m away when we heard the fourth dart go off. Unfortunately, after a long search we couldn’t find a fourth darted individual, so we called Lapalala Wilderness to inform them that three dogs were on their way.
It was already dark as we drove to Lapalala, with Zoe looking after the dogs on the back of the bakkie. An hour later some very excited Lapalala staff, Glenn Phillips, Herman Muller and Annemieke Muller, joined us at their boma. We waited for the dogs to wake up after their trip and left once we were happy; they would be fine after their immobilisation. Three out of ten dogs meant we were 30% done. We left Lapalala in good spirits arriving back at camp after 21:00. We knew the next morning would be key. We had made real progress but knew there was a lot more to be done.
04:00 Day 4 and another early start. After checking the pack’s movement throughout the night, it was clear that they were searching for their missing pack members and were pretty much where we last saw them. We arrived on the farm at 05:30 and placed the impala carcasses in the same spot as the previous day. The pack was on the move early and it seemed as if they were hunting and heading off in the wrong direction. Another pin location showed us that the pack was not far off in an open field. We quickly reloaded a carcass and left Dr Andy Fraser in a tree with the remaining carcass. Alexi spotted the pack moving off up the ridge. We were hoping that the pack would come to the vehicle as they had the previous three days, but they showed little interest and moved off in the opposite direction, led by a very unhappy looking alpha male.
We knew we needed another approach, so we decided to call in aerial support.
Lambert van der Westhuizen from West Dunes Aviation had been on standby over the last two days and was only a 5-minute flight away. We struggled to get cell phone comms but fortunately Timon knew exactly where to go. I set the pin downloads to every 10 minutes. When the first pin came through, the dogs had moved almost 2km west. The chopper was in the air and Lambert, Andy and Alexi were on their way. They located the dogs within minutes and Andy got a few darts off, which unfortunately all missed. Lambert knew they were a little heavy and would need to drop off Alexi in order to increase the performance of the chopper. Alexi was dropped off and joined the ground crew and they set off again and quickly relocated the pack. Andy knew that the alpha male was the key.
While firing a few more missed darts, the chopper flushed a huge leopard male and some bush pigs. A large bush pig boar was running full speed less than a tail length behind the leopard – something you don’t see every day and certainly an added bonus for us!
Finally, we heard the words we had been waiting for – “dart is in”! Wild Dogs are notoriously difficult to dart from the air. Imagine hanging half out of a moving chopper, chasing an animal at 45km/h with a 10 by 10cm target and they turn at 90 degree angle as soon as they feel under pressure! In Andy’s 7th attempt (according to Lambert the first real opportunity he gave to be darted) the dart was in. The ground crew rushed to where the dog was along a pretty challenging farm road. Eventually the alpha went down on the fence line and the air crew informed us where to find him while they continued to try to dart more dogs. When we finally got there, the alpha jumped back to life and Zoe had to put a second dart in from the ground. The next 40 minutes went like clockwork, the chopper located the dogs which had all regrouped, darted another dog and worked the individual onto a road the ground crew could access. Zoe stabilised the dogs on the ground while Andy continued to go locate the pack and dart another two dogs. We managed to get four dogs that morning, all males. It was getting a bit warm, so we decided to transport the four darted males to Lapalala Wilderness and proceed again in the afternoon. We had seven out of ten dogs and were 70% of the way there.
After a great morning we met up again at 16:00. We still needed to get the alpha female, another unknown pup from last year, as well as the collared female. Obviously, we wanted to leave the collared female until last. The remaining dogs had settled in deep kloof and Andy and Lambert located them easily. Andy proceeded to dart the first one in no time at all and eventually shepherded her to a big dam. She went down in some shallow water and Andy made the right call to jump out of the chopper and move her to the road as she could have drowned. Unfortunately, it was the unknown pup, a female, and not the alpha female we were desperate to get.
Then technology started to fail us, so we were having difficulty locating the last two individuals. Andy went up with the telemetry to try locating them from the air. We suspected they had gone underground and were in some warthog burrows. After quite an extensive search with no luck, the chopper landed and then suddenly a pin location came through. Up they went and found the remaining two dogs relatively quickly. Andy darted another dog, and we knew it was the dog we wanted, the alpha female. The chopper followed her until she went down in a dense thicket. They gave us her location and proceeded to try to get the last remaining dog.
We moved into the area where the alpha went down and searched everywhere but could not find her. There was a labyrinth of holes and burrows in the thicket and we had to carefully look for any tracks and disturbed spider webs to see if she had gone into one. The grass was very long and after 20 minutes we still hadn’t located her. Eventually Alexi called from about 200m away, she had found her in the long grass.
In the meantime, the air crew had located the last collared dog and darted her. Andy saw the dart pop out and it probably hit her hip bone. They followed her for a while until she also went into a deep ravine and proceeded to enter a thicket with lots of holes. Lambert made his way back to us and loaded me up with the telemetry to try to locate her on the ground. With virtually nowhere to land, Lambert expertly found a tiny open area and hovered over the ground so I could jump out. There were burrows everywhere and while I was getting a strong signal in the thicket, I couldn’t get a direction. One of the holes smelt of Wild Dog and had fresh tracks – she was in there in my opinion. Unfortunately, we had to return back to the ground crew and we quickly made the decision to fly the two females to the Lapalala boma while the ground crew continued to search for the remaining dog.
We struggled to get the two dogs in the chopper but once they were loaded, we continued the search for the last dog. The location was much further than anticipated, after a 20-minute jog we found the thicket and continued to search for the dog using the telemetry. It became clear that she was in one of the burrows. I climbed into the burrow I felt she had entered. It was too narrow, and I couldn’t see well but the soil had been disturbed and the spider webs indicated something was definitely in there. I tried to access the burrow from another, much larger hole. There was a huge system of tunnels and cavities, one large enough to nearly stand on my haunches. I found an old impala leg and plenty of bones and porcupine quills. It was the one of the den sites that the pack used last year, confirmed by satellite data. We still couldn’t locate her, and the sun was now setting so we made our way back to the vehicle with a single torch. We got there after dark and proceeded to collect Andy who had safely delivered the two dogs at Lapalala. We had now caught nine out of ten dogs and were 90% of the way there. It was a good day, it was just such a pity we could not get the last dog. Alexi informed us that the collared female was calling incessantly when we got to camp. We had to catch her the next morning.
04:00 I didn’t get much sleep last night – I kept following “the calling lady’s” (aptly named by Alexi) movements. She hardly rested at all last night, as she moved all over the farm in search of her pack. A few of the locations I received were the exact spots that other individuals had been darted and went down, proving just how amazing their ability to relocate each other is. On the way to the farm, I saw that she had left the property and was heading north at quite a speed. I immediately messaged Timon and sent him the calls and asked him to start calling her in. Three minutes later he was calling her in with a huge speaker. I got a pin location and she was still moving away, almost 3km away. I was stressed and contacted that landowner to gain access. Fortunately, she agreed. Then the next pin came in 10 minutes later and she was right at the farmhouse, 300m away – she had travelled almost 3km in a matter of minutes. Very relieved, I stopped calling knowing that she was nearby. She started hoo calling in the most chilling manner I have ever heard. Her call was horse and desperate, it almost sounded as if she had lost her voice and one knew that she had been calling all night. We all looked at each other as the desperation in her call was noticed by the entire team: we had no option but to capture her today. Lambert arrived three minutes later. The vets were ready, and Andy jumped into the chopper and off they went. By now she knew what the helicopter was all about and started running to the same den site she found refuge in the previous day.
The helicopter was able to locate her rather easily and we heard the news we had all been waiting for “dart is in”. The ground crew were on their way and we moved in under the chopper circling on a rocky ridge. Andy had already jumped out and was on his way to find her 100m from the road. Unfortunately, he startled her, and she started to move deeper into the bush. Andy screamed get the chopper in the air! Lambert and Timon sprang into action and soon the chopper located her. She was moving. Zoe instructed Timon to get another dart in and Lambert expertly hovered into position and the dart went in. What a relief! A capture like this is never over until the fat lady sings. She took a while to finally go down and we were all relieved. Zoe and Andy stabilised her and we loaded her into the bakkie for her final journey to Lapalala. It was quite a surreal feeling driving with one of southern Africa’s most endangered carnivores in the back seat, with Zoe monitoring her progress closely. After an hour, we finally arrived at the Lapalala boma. We offloaded her into the boma, and the vets administered the reversal drug. Shortly afterwards, she got up and stumbled drunkenly to her feet and made her way deeper into the boma where she was excitedly greeted by her pack members. She was finally home safe with her pack.
It was only while leaving Lapalala that finally a feeling of accomplishment started to hit me. We had successfully darted and relocated the whole pack. We could not have done it without such a dedicated and professional team. I cannot think of a better place withing the Waterberg for this pack to call home and am so pleased that we finally have a reserve big enough and willing to house this pack, especially as they are the Waterberg’s own dogs and we need to keep them there where they can now survive and roam free from persecution or human induced threats. This pack is safe at last.
This operation was made possible by Princess Charlene of Monaco, Patron of the Waterberg Wild Dogs, the Elizabeth Wakeman Henderson Fund, Tintswalo at Lapalala, Lapalala Wilderness, Ford Wildlife Foundation, and the incredible team members involved – Dr Zoe Glyphis, Timon Dreyer, Alexi Rough, Dr Andy Fraser, and Lambert van der Westhuizen from West Dune Aviation.