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Studying the Wild Dogs in Zululand

By Mathilde Sauquet, VI Form

DSCN2913As a child, I held many dreams for my future. Although I never got my letter from Hogwarts, I had the amazing opportunity to make one of my childhood fantasies come true this past summer. It involved wild animals, the Savannah, and a big slap in the face.

Last spring, I was awarded the A.A. Jones Family grant to fund a dream I had cherished for years, inspired by countless hours spent in front of the National Geographic Channel: travel to Africa and work in a game reserve park. After a quick Internet research, I was able to find what looked like THE perfect place that could fulfill my vision of service for animals. According to the brochure and the pictures provided by the website, the daily schedule of a volunteer appeared to be something like this:

8am-9am Feed the lion cubs

9am-4pm Pet the lion cubs

5pm-6am Clean the enclosures

Enclosures, yes. Because none of the animals in that park were actually free. Although the idea of cuddling and playing with tiny fluffballs all day long sounded extremely convincing, I began learning more about this so-called Lion Park based near Johannesburg, South Africa. The organization was a humanitarian disguise, in reality hiding a cruel and terrible truth. Once too big to stay on one’s lap, the lion cubs, supposedly waiting to be reintroduced in the wild, were destined to be sold to professional huntsmen, looking to enjoy playful hunting parties. Unable to feed themselves or take shelter due to their years of captivity, the poor animals made a glorious, yet easy trophy.

There was absolutely no way I would ever support such an abominable system by becoming one of their volunteers. And so I undertook a much more careful research to find a reserve whose effort was really aiming at wildlife protection and conservation. The Hluhluwe-Imfolozi game reserve, situated in the Zululand region of South Africa, would be that place.

Although opened to tourists, the park is a sacred land for endangered species such as black DSCN2655rhinos, wild dogs, and cheetahs. There, the animals live among each other, free for movement and undisturbed by the few concrete paths linking the research camps. It is verboten to touch or feed the animals. The only time these rules can be broken is when an endangered animal requires medical attention.

I was assigned to a conservation team that specialized in wild dogs and responsible for the camera trapping survey of cheetahs and leopards. Wild dogs had been reintroduced in the reserve only a couple years earlier, but had struggled to produce viable offspring. However, the survival of the pack was finally secured this past April, when Fossey, the alpha female, gave birth to six healthy puppies. The most difficult part of the process, however, remained (and remains) to protect the dogs until they reach adulthood. Slower than hyenas and weaker than lions, they too often make their predators’ meal. Vultures are also known to target the smaller puppies for a “grab n’ go” snack.

DSCN2748Therefore, the job of the volunteers rests in the daily assessment of the pack’s movement, diet, and condition. This is the only way to accurately estimate the number of individuals in one area and confirm their well-being. Unfortunately, poaching still remains an important predicament everywhere in Africa. While I was only a couple miles away, a white rhino bled to death as its horn was being cut off.

Everyday around five in the morning, well before sunrise, our team would jump in the back of a pick up truck driven by a local ranger to spend the majority of the day cruising around the 170 square-mile reserve. But our search was not processed randomly, otherwise we would probably have never come across the pack. When reintroduced in the wild, a couple of adult dogs were collared with satellite tags, allowing us to track them with a receiver and an antenna. We therefore always had accurate knowledge of their geographic position. However, even with the best of technologies, the lack of practicable roads sometimes prevented us from finding the dogs in their deeply buried dens.

We would drive to the most recent spot we had seen the pack and work from there. By holding the antenna up in the air, we were able to get a signal from of the dogs’ collars. It worked somewhat like cellphone reception: the more “bars” we would get on the receiver, the closer to DSCN2756the dogs we would be. When turning the antenna in different directions, we were also able to better identify the provenance of the signal. With this information, we would take the road again, moving closer to our goal. Of course we never found the dogs after one try. We usually had to repeat this process five or six times before sighting them on a good day. On many days, our search was inconclusive in the morning. We would always go back to camp between 11am and 3pm, as these were the hottest hours of the day, during which most animals remain inactive and hidden. This hiatus allowed us to rest for a while and enjoy the company of the many monkeys who lived around us. I mentioned earlier that the team I was part of was also responsible for the surveying of cheetahs and leopards. During our lunch break, the members of the team would alternate analyzing the pictures taken by the motion sensing cameras we had camouflaged around the reserve. By carefully looking at fur patterns and spots, we were able to differentiate one individual from another and how many of them they were in total. In the middle of the afternoon, we would jump back on the back of the truck and repeat the morning’s process until the dark African night had settled in.

When we came across the pack, our biggest concern was always to make a census of all of the members. We never knew what could have happened the night before. I still follow the work of the reserve, and a couple of weeks ago, the beta female, Solo, was reported missing. According to data, she has not been seen since September 15th. The chances of ever finding her again decrease every day. A daily observation of the pack’s life also enables those on the reserve to understand the hierarchy established among the dogs. Hierarchy is subject to sudden changes: last month, the beta male, Ian, provoked the alpha male, Bala, into a fight and won his position as the new leader.

The first day I went out with the team, we did not find the dogs. I grew anxious that I might not see them at all, if they ever decided to settle their puppies in a remote area of the park. I thought, “How are we supposed to help their preservation if we are not even capable of seeing them?”

That’s when I realized it.

We were not supposed to find them. The whole point of reintroduction lay in the hope of eventually letting nature take over (and by taking over, I mean taking back what was originally hers). The adult dogs were perfectly qualified to secure the lives of their offspring without human supervision. And if, unfortunately, a dog came to die, killed by a predator, it would simply be the completion of the natural circle of life.

When I finally caught sight of the puppies for the first time, I cried of joy. I felt grateful to have the privilege to observe them and almost felt out of place, hiding there behind a bush, camera and binoculars in each hand. What saddened me the most was the reaction of the adults, who, of course, had spotted us well in advance. They just stood there, alert, but not defensive, curious at the most. They were used to human presence. This is the reason why it has been easier and easier for poachers to pursue their activity. Animals are starting to lose their instincts. Used to cars of tourists passing by, they were not taught to differentiate a camera lens from a rifle.

Thus, my work as volunteer was to protect animals from my own kind. I finally understood that the puppies I was watching over needed protection because, I, along with the rest of the human race, had put them on the endangered species list in the first place.

In the future, I really hope to repeat my volunteering experiences as much as I can, in South Africa and in different regions of the world. In the meantime, my goal is to educate people about the true situation of endangered species across the globe and about the repercussions of our actions on them.

Last month, the entire race of Western Black Rhinos went extinct. That’s one race too many. Change starts here, with St. Markers, with you, and with me:  http://www.wildlifeact.com/5-easy-ways-to-give-back-to-conservation-this-christmas

Mathilde Sauquet is a VI former from Poitiers, France who has been a prefect in Gaccon for the past two years. During the school year, she plays soccer and basketball and rows in the spring. In the summer, she enjoys coaching basketball and flying planes. 

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