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Climate change denier? Ask Laikipia wild dogs

A pack of Wild dogs at a reserve in Laikipia. [Kibata Kihu,Standard]

When Lekitasharan Lepulen, 26, remembers his childhood in Kirimon, Northern Kenya, he recalls his mother’s warnings not to go out at night, or stray far from home.

Nights in the Laikipia plateau were different then. They were darker, noisier and wilder. The howls of unknown beasts often made him and his siblings shudder in fear.

Sometimes on their way to school, or while herding livestock, Lepulen and his friends would encounter wild dogs that roamed the area.

But Lepulen, once the boy who threw stones at them, now sees a kind of beauty in the patchwork of brown, black and white coats of the African wild dogs.

This appreciation has grown on him, working as a tracker with the African Wild Dog project at Mpala Research Centre in Nanyuki, to help conserve critically endangered wild dogs.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists wild dogs among the most endangered carnivores in Africa. 

Threats to the animals include habitat loss, accidental snaring, intentional killing by people, and diseases acquired from domestic dogs.

Together with others in Naibung’a, Lekurruki, and Ol Donyiro, Lepulen is employed to track movements of the packs of dogs and give information to herders to help reduce human-wildlife conflict.

African wild dogs have been locally extinct since the 1980s but recolonised Laikipia, spontaneously, in 2000. But the species, whose numbers have started to increase due to deliberate conservation efforts, are facing a new threat – rising temperatures.

Climate change is threatening critically endangered species and pushing them to the brink of extinction.

Wild dogs, like most predators, play an important role in eliminating sick and weak animals thereby helping maintain the natural balance and improving prey species.  

They hunt for a wide variety of prey including gazelles, antelopes, warthogs, wildebeests, birds and even rats.

They are important because they control the herbivorous species from causing habitat destruction and overfeeding.

 A study by the Africa Wildlife Foundation (AWF) indicates that should wild dogs become extinct, there would be destruction of their habitat. This would be partly caused by overfeeding of the herbivorous and hoofed animals, also referred to as ungulates and which include antelopes, zebra, sheep, buffaloes and giraffes.

High ambient (air) temperatures are restricting the number of hours when wild dogs can hunt, potentially constraining food intake, according to scientific studies.

Scientists at the Zoological Society of London collaborating with the Predator Conservation Trust and African Wildlife Conservation Fund have noticed a shift in patterns of behaviour such as feeding and reproduction, which could conspire to drive the threatened species to extinction.

Findings from studies conducted on a pack of wild dogs in Laikipia and published in 2021 suggest a consistent impact of high air temperatures on African wild dog behaviour and reproduction. It shows that wild dogs’ sensitivity to high temperatures represents narrow physiological tolerance, a trait predicted to increase climate-change vulnerability.

The effects of climate change are being felt in Kenya with hotter dry spells and unpredictable rainfall.

Wild dogs have been affected by a loss of habitat which has driven them into conflict with the human population where they are killed. They are also infected with diseases such as rabies and canine distemper disease, a contagious virus that attacks a dog’s respiratory, gastrointestinal, and central nervous systems.

The virus is common in domestic dogs and spreads to an animal’s nervous system, causing tremors, and sometimes, seizures. Through nomadic pastoralism, domestic dogs kept by pastoralists can infect the wild dogs.

However, while the effect of high temperatures on wild dogs is apparent, the effects of high rainfall are harder to predict. One unusual trait of wild dogs is putting them on the brink due to climate change.

Dedan Ngatia, a carnivore biologist and Wild Dog and Cheetah Project manager at Mpala Research Centre said that unusually among African mammals, wild dogs exhibit seasonal reproduction.

“They typically raise their puppies during the cool dry season,” he said.

Especially to the wild dogs that live in Southern Africa, since low temperatures are optimal for reproduction, climate change may harm their populations, because the region’s cool seasons are projected to become hotter.

Experts say the dogs spend more time sheltering from the heat as climate change elevates daytime temperatures, and thus spend less time hunting, which consequently increases the risks of population extinction.

“As the impacts of ambient temperature appear to be widespread, the impacts of warming may already be evident, and opportunities for adaptation appear limited, it is possible that climate change will increase extinction risks for this already-endangered species,” said Ngatia.

Data from a report by IUCN on the Africa wild dog indicates that the number of wild dogs in Kenya ranges from 5,000 to 7,000. More recent surveys suggest that as few as 15 packs may be present in the whole country.

Other studies have found that while climate change may not lead to new causes of death in wild dogs, rising temperatures may worsen existing threats caused by human activities.

AWF Vice President on Species Conservation and Science, Philip Muruthi, says hot weather has an impact on the animals’ reproductive ability and population survival.

“They can’t run as much as they could when it’s too hot. Data shows that their babies will die and extreme weather will affect availability of water for the dogs. The distribution of the species they depend on for food such as dik-diks and gazelles will also be affected,” he says.

Muruthi, who has spearheaded wild dogs’ conservation programmes in Tsavo and Laikipia and is currently doing so in Zimbabwe, says climate change causes a change in human behaviour where pastoralists move to areas that are wild dog habitats, leading to conflict.

He, however, notes that there are several ways to slow down effects of climate change on wild dogs. These include awareness of where they are and protecting their key essential habitats, as well as reduction in the human-wild dog conflict.

“Another intervention is leaving the spaces open so the animals can move through the interconnected habitats,” he says.

According to researchers at Mpala, conservation efforts of the wild dogs in Kenya are bearing fruit.

Their study “Rise of the phoenix pack: Mpala’s African Wild dogs return” shows wild dogs nearly disappeared from Laikipia in the 1990s due to infectious diseases like rabies and conflict with pastoralists. 

Persistent conservation efforts however saw the population increase to over 300 in Laikipia alone.

In 2017, a severe drought drove herders into Laikipia. The mixture of their domestic dogs and wild dogs led to an outbreak of the canine distemper disease which almost entirely wiped out the population.

A year later in 2018, a lone female wild dog was sighted and in the following weeks two wandering male wild dogs also showed up.

Their co-habiting led to the birth of five puppies and from this, a pack “the phoenix pack” was formed.

In the years that have followed, researchers say wild dog numbers continue to grow.

By 2020, one pack of nearly 20 individuals lived at Mpala. By last year, more puppies were born and with them came hope for their continued presence in Laikipia.

[This story was produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network]