The smallest gray wolf is the Mexican gray wolf which averages 65 to 70 lbs.
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The African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) has been regarded as one of Africa’s most endangered canids. Historically, the range of the African wild dog extended across most of sub-Sahara Africa. Presently, they have been extirpated from most of their range; they are extinct in most countries in west and central Africa. Today, wild populations of wild dogs exist only in eight countries of Africa including Botswana, Zambia, Tanzania, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Senegal, Namibia, and Kenya. Current numbers of wild dogs are anywhere between 3,000 and 5,500.
African wild dogs can weigh anywhere from 37-80 pounds
(13.9kg – 30.3kg) and measure approximately 30 inches (76.2cm) in height. The dogs have very unique features including large, rounded ears and brown circles around their eyes. Each individual wild dog can also be distinguished by a unique patterning of black, white, and yellow patches on their bodies, which has given them the nickname of “painted wolves”. Wild dogs breed from late March through June and give birth to an average of 10 pups about 73 days later.
Similar to its cousin, the wolf, the African wild dog is a highly social animal. They have been described as being one of the most intensely social canid species, spending 80% of their time in close association with one another. During the whelping season, all pack members assist with the feeding and care of the newborn pups and their mother. In addition, once the pups emerge from their den about three weeks after birth, all pack members, including the males, regurgitate to pups after a meal. Packs are made up of adults and yearlings and can number up to 25 individuals.
Wild dogs are among the most successful hunters of any canid. All members of the pack take part in a kill and work cooperatively to bring down prey animals that are large enough to feed all members of the pack. Wild dogs capture their prey 60% of the time, which is one of the highest success rates of any predator species. Running up to speeds of 37 mph (60 km/h), wild dogs prey on ungulates such as Thompson’s gazelle, antelope, impala, kudu, and wildebeest.
Compared to other canids, the African wild dog is exclusively carnivorous. They eat no plant food and rarely consume carrion or return to previous kills. As such, they have only shearing cheek teeth instead of the broad, flat molars of omnivorous canids.
African wild dogs were once common throughout most of their range of Africa. Over the past 100 years their range has been reduced to a few small populations in eastern and southern Africa. Persecution by humans, habitat loss, and domestic animal diseases has attributed to their population decline.
As competition for resources increase with the rapidly growing human population, the frequency of conflict with livestock also increases. African wild dogs have been systematically exterminated in predator control efforts in response to these conflicts with livestock. Poisoning, trapping, and shooting are just a few methods that taken the lives of many dogs in the wild.
Wild dogs are uniquely susceptible to habitat fragmentation due to their very large home ranges. Even animals inhabiting protected areas often come in contact with human activity on reserve borders. Over half the wild dogs found dead in protected areas have been shot, snared, poisoned, killed by road traffic. As a result they will be the first species to disappear as wildlife lands are fragmented.
Another dilemma that the wild dog’s face is disease transmitted through the feces of neighboring domestic animals. Cattle that are usually accompanied by dogs are grazed by the reservoirs. The feces left behind are a major source of infection for the wild dogs. Distemper and rabies have taken a toll on the wild dog population. Rabies has caused the extinction of at least one African wild dog population.
Recovery Efforts and Captive Breeding
The African wild dog was listed as an endangered species in 1984 and has been classified as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). They are nearly as endangered as the black rhino and are still persecuted by farmers and hunters. Through the combined efforts of a multitude of special interest groups and a number of zoos and breeding facilities, the African wild dog is being provided an alternative to extinction.
Captive breeding centers and zoological institutions have implemented captive breeding programs to provide insurance against extinction, increase world populations of this species, and raise public awareness. The Endangered Wolf Center is one of the only 26 zoological institutions that are displaying the African wild dog. As of January 2004, there are approximately 85 dogs in captivity in the United States.
Zoos and related institutions are participating in the African wild dog Species Survival Plan (SSP), which strives to build strong, healthy populations of endangered animals in captivity through selective breeding and research.
Currently, research is being conducted to find the best method to protect free ranging wild dogs from disease. A cooperative study with institutions currently housing wild dogs has helped biologists discover a new vaccine that will be used on captive populations and will be evaluated for its efficacy. In addition, a large-scale inoculation program, in which domestic dogs in the vicinity of African wild dog packs are vaccinated, has been implemented and results have been favorable.
In addition, field researchers with the Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe have been working with SSP participants to compare data between captive and free ranging wild dogs. Information on how new packs are formed, vocalizations between dogs, and interactions between pups and adults has been gathered. This type of information will be useful in improving husbandry practices and increase captive breeding success. Experiments can also be designed in captivity to answer the needs of the wild populations.
Two of the projects currently under way in Africa to conserve and increase the number of wild dogs are supported in part by the One With Nature conservation program at the Philadelphia Zoological Garden, one of only 27 zoos in North America that maintains this species. The Botswana Wild Dog Research Project, in the Moremi Wildlife Reserve, is conducting research focused on the population of dogs in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe. The projects are located in two very different ecosystems and are using technology such as global positioning systems and DNA analysis to track and learn more about wild dog biology and behavior. Information gained through research will be valuable in the development of conservation strategies for this species.
In the past, reintroduction of animals raised in captivity has played an important role in the conservation and recovery of a number of species. While the reintroduction of the African wild dog is possible, it not attainable in the near future. This is due to the lack of suitable release sites and low numbers of animals that have genotypes that fit a specific area. Few reserves are sufficiently large enough and well protected to sustain viable wild dog populations. Where reintroduction is most needed in west and central Africa, there are no wild dogs in captivity with the appropriate local genotype. Therefore, protection of existing populations and captive breeding research are presently at the forefront of wild dog conservation.
Sadly, attitudes presently held towards African wild dogs, in their native range, are similar to attitudes that were held by North Americans toward the gray wolf in the last two centuries. However, through public education, captive breeding, research, and reintroduction programs, the gray wolf has started to recover. Hopefully, the African wild dog will someday experience the same successes.
In the fall of 2003, the The Endangered Wolf Center received five African wild dogs that were born at the Denver Zoo. The The Endangered Wolf Center is dedicated to working with the SSP in regards to captive breeding and a number of identified research needs involving reproductive behavior.
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