Surviving the scorch: Wild dogs cannot hunt as heat keeps rising

Wild dogs have disappeared from 25 of the 39 countries in which they were previously found and it is believed that there are only about 1,400 adults left. [Courtesy]

African wild dogs can no longer hunt due to rising temperatures, and a smaller number of pups are surviving in the heat.

In the vast, wilderness of Tsavo and Laikipia a stark and heart-wrenching drama unfolds as the iconic wild dogs grapple with an adversary they cannot outrun: climate change.

These creatures, known for their pack dynamics and unparalleled hunting prowess, now find their very existence hanging in the balance due to the relentless rise in daytime temperatures, which has left them struggling to hunt.

The effects of climate change have ushered in a grim reality for these once-thriving predators.

Studies indicate African wild dogs leave their young pups in dens when they set off for their early morning and late evening hunts, avoiding the worst heat of the day.

Scientists found rising peak daily temperatures in Kenya, Zimbabwe and Botswana cut the time the dogs were active and the survival of the pups.

Alfred Mwanake CEO Taita Taveta Wildlife Conservancies Associations (TTWCA), paints a grim picture.

"As temperatures surge due to climate change, African wild dogs are spending more time sheltering from the heat, leaving them with few hours for hunting. This shift in behavior heightens the risks of their population facing extinction."

The impacts of ambient temperature, experts suggest, have far-reaching consequences that may already be evident, leaving limited opportunities for adaptation.

"It is possible that climate change will escalate extinction risks for this already-endangered species," Mwanake cautions.

Heavy toll

Data from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) indicated that the number of wild dogs in Kenya ranges between 5,000 to 7,000 with as few as 15 packs remaining in the entire country.

How domestic dogs are pushing wild dogs to the verge of extinction

Yet, climate change is not the sole adversary on this battlefield. Encroachment upon their natural habitats driven by human activities has resulted in conflict with local communities.

Furthermore, diseases such as rabies and canine distemper have exacted a heavy toll, with domestic dogs serving as carriers of infection.

While climate change may not introduce new causes of death for these wild dogs, it exacerbates existing threats driven by human activities. Patrick Odhiambo, an ecologist at Ecology Without Border elaborates on the dire consequences of hot weather.

"High temperatures affect their reproductive abilities, endanger the survival of their offspring, and disrupt the availability of water sources and prey such as dik-diks and gazelles."

In 2017, a severe drought forced herders into Laikipia's wild terrain, inadvertently leading to an outbreak of canine disease among the wild dog population, nearly decimating it.

In Botswana, the average number of pups surviving to a year old in each litter fell from 5.1 between 1989-2000 to 3.3 between 2001-2012, with temperatures rising 1.1 degrees Celsius between the two periods.

In Kenya, a 1.0 degrees Celsius rise in the peak temperature cut yearlings by 31 per cent and in Zimbabwe 14 per cent.

New Research

"When people think about climate change affecting wildlife, they mostly think about polar bears," said Prof Rosie Woodroffe, at the Zoological Society of London and who led the new research published in the Journal of Animal Ecology.

African wild dogs need large hunting ranges to survive, about 800 km squared for the average pack of nine, equivalent to the area of New York City. But the projected rise in maximum daily temperatures due to global warming is ominous, said Woodroffe. "It's really scary. It is possible that some of these big areas will become too hot for wild dogs to exist."

The dogs' highly energetic lifestyles makes them susceptible to losses of food when it is too hot to hunt antelopes. "Wild dogs live fast and die young," said Woodroffe. "They have these huge litters of up to 14 pups]and then the mortality is quite high.

"If you are an animal who makes your living by running around really fast, obviously you are going to get hot. But there are not enough hours in the day any more that are cool enough to do that. This is something which is genuinely suppressing population size."

Despite these formidable challenges, hope persists on the horizon. Mwanake underscores various strategies to mitigate the effects of climate change on wild dogs, including increased awareness of their habitats, safeguarding their crucial ecosystems, and reducing conflicts between humans and wild dogs.