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The Painted Wolves of the Serengeti

African Wild Dogs have been driven out of large parts of their natural habitat throughout Africa. Now, they reclaim some of their previous territory.

Seronera, 22 February 2016, by Patrick Eickemeier

When Markus Borner travelled through the Serengeti on behalf of the Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS) in 1977, one of his first sights on his way from the city of Arusha to Rubondo island in Lake Victoria was a large pack of 42 African Wild Dogs on the western rim of the Ngorongoro Crater. Until the 1960s, even Serengeti Park rangers had shot these animals on sight as ‘vermin’. But despite of intense persecution, the Wild Dogs still roamed large parts of the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem.
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Release of Painted Wolves in February 2016 in the Nyarori area of the Serengeti. Photo: Patrick Eickemeier/FZS
But the pressures on the population were increasing. Outside of Park area, there was conflict with the growing human population when the Wild Dogs preyed on goats. Many packs were poisoned. In the 1980s, FZS researchers started equipping animals with transmitters to be able to follow their movement through the great plains.

For the ‘Painted Wolves’, the literal translation of their scientific name ‘Lycaon pictus’, Savannah was difficult territory. Prey was abundant for short periods, when herds of grazing animals moved in to the wolves’ territory on their migrations. At many times throughout the year, though, prey was scarce. Painted wolves are very efficient hunters who will follow their prey for many kilometres. But often they were driven from their kill by the larger hyenas, the researchers found, and lions would kill the wolves as competitors.

Diseases that were transmitted by domestic dogs also started taking their toll on the population. Rabies and later the canine distemper virus (CDV) was found. Through the wolves’ intense social lives, with close body contact as one of the strong social ties, these viruses would often infect all of the animals of a pack. Especially the offspring would die from infections with CDV. By 1991, the endangered population disappeared from the Serengeti-Mara.

But only ten years later, in 2001, the wolves naturally re-established themselves in the region. But they did not return to the Serengeti National Park. Several packs remained in the Loliondo area to the East of the Park. They had taken on a secretive nocturnal behaviour to avoid humans and they regularly would take domestic animals like goats. This behaviour spelled trouble for the predators again while something was blocking their way into the Western parts of the National Park.

The sixth release of Painted Wolves in the Serengeti

The Serengeti Wild-Dog Project, established through a cooperation of the University of Glasgow with the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute (TAWIRI) in 2012, started looking into the question why the wolves would not move further westward. A valid explanation are the growing populations of lions and hyenas in the park. Their territories could form a barrier that the wolves cannot pass.

In 2012, the first pack of Loliondo wolves was caught and transferred to a temporary holding ‘boma’ near the Nyasirori area. This Northwestern part of the Serengeti is bushland that is well suited for the wolves. In comparison to open Savannah, the vegetation cover makes it easier for them to hunt and they lose their prey to other predators less frequently.

Still, the first pack that was released would not stay in the area for long. The animals that were equipped with collars transmitting GPS position data via satellite moved further to the North into Kenya and then eastwards, as far as the coastal area and covered a distance of more than 4000 kilometres.

But since the first release, five more packs have been brought into Nyasirori, 83 animals altogether, and the researchers find that the packs released following the first one are staying and breeding in the area. And so far, no kills of domestic animals are reported. Apparently, the wolves find enough natural prey and are able to avoid conflict with humans in the areas adjacent to the Park.

Four decades later

When Markus Borner returned to the Serengeti in February 2016, now as Professor of the University of Glasgow, he was invited to the release of the sixth pack. The guest of honour at the occasion, the Tanzanian Minister of Natural Resources and Tourism, Professor Jumanne Maghembe, officially named the 17 animals that were to be released the ‘Borner’ pack.

It did take some persuasion by the project team until the first two of the wolves made their way to freedom through the opened fence. Eventually, the rest of the pack followed. One female just gave birth, so she and her young and two helpers from the pack will remain in the holding boma a little longer, but they will get to join their group soon.

Meanwhile, their pack-mates were recorded successfully hunting a young Topi gazelle in their first night in the newly acquired freedom and teaming up with an already free roaming pack on the next day. Prospects are good for the Borner pack and all the painted wolves of the Serengeti.

Current FZS Projects in the Serengeti