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Endangered Cuteness

October 7, 2009

Meet the African wild dog (a.k.a. the African painted dog), perhaps the cutest endangered animal you’ve never heard of.*

African Wild Dog Conservation

African Wild Dog Conservation

Over the last 100 (or so) years, the number of African wild dogs has declined by 99% from 500,000 to 5,000. Most of that decline is our fault. Until recently, people killed wild dogs for two reasons: because they thought the way the dogs kill their prey was inhumane and because they thought the dogs would eat their livestock. They thought wrong. Wild dogs don’t eat livestock and the way wild dogs kill an animal is actually much more efficient (and therefore more humane) than the way lions and leopards do it.

People are still killing wild dogs today, but it’s mostly unintentional—they hit wild dogs on roads built through wild dog habitat and catch wild dogs in snares set to catch bush meat.

People are problematic, but the dramatic decline in African wild dogs isn’t entirely our fault. Lions, hyenas and the wild dogs’ own lifestyle are also to blame. Wild dogs are puny** compared to the other social carnivores that share their turf and that means they get picked on. Hyenas try (and sometimes succeed) to steal wild dogs’ kills and lions often kill wild dogs and then snag their kill for dessert.

How can African wild dogs survive in a land where humans are out to get them, hyenas steal their food and lions gobble them up? They have their ways…granted, given the 99% decline in their population, their ways aren’t necessarily successful.

To survive, African wild dogs have to avoid the big guys (the lions and hyenas) and to do that, wild dogs have to be different. The big guys have big stomachs that allow them to gorge on food when it’s available and wait a while between feedings. Wild dogs are different. With small bellies that allow them to run quickly, but limit the amount of food they can eat at one time, wild dogs are built for frequent, efficient pack hunting.

The whole pack hunts together with the exception of weak or injured dogs and young pups, who will stay with a babysitter. As a pack, wild dogs can take down an impala or a big animal like a wildebeest. Then, they dine by status. The youngest dogs eat first while the older dogs stand guard. When the young’uns have had their fill, the next oldest dogs dive in and so on. When the pack returns from the hunt, they’ll regurgitate for the pups, the babysitters and anyone else they left behind.

African wild dogs are totally dependent on their packs—their incredibly tight-knit lovey-dovey packs***–and that can cause problems. If a pack doesn’t score as much food energy as it needs when it hunts, it won’t have enough energy for reproduction. Without enough energy to reproduce, the pack is less likely to reproduce (says Captain Obvious) and that could lead to a smaller pack. Then, since smaller packs are less likely to have successful hunts, the pack ends up back where it started with too little food energy. This vicious circle is what scientists and economists call a “poverty trap.”

*Cotton-top tamarins are cute too, but in a funny-looking sort of way.

**Adult African wild dogs weigh between 37 and 79 pounds, which puts them somewhere between Springer Spaniels and German Shepherds, size-wise. Hyenas can weigh up to 190 pounds and lions typically weigh between 250 and 500 pounds.

*** Wild dogs are more social than other social carnivores. While wolves (a very distant cousin of the African wild dog) tend to maintain a distance of at least 15 feet between each other during rest, wild dogs snuggle up right next to each other.

****One more thing you should know: African wild dogs don’t bark. They twitter.

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