Known for its brightly colored, spotted coat and large, bat-like ears, the African wild dog is one of the planet’s most endangered mammals.
The species has been endangered with decreasing numbers since 1990, and according to the IUCN, the global population is estimated at 6,600 adults. However, African wild dogs have a concrete social structure in which only one alpha female in each pack is reproductively active.
The largest wild dog populations remain limited to southern Africa and the southern part of East Africa, with more condensed communities found in Tanzania and northern Mozambique.
These unique animals are rarely seen, so many population estimates are based on observational data rather than systematic monitoring.
Despite their elusiveness, the various causes of these large canines’ decline are relatively understood.
As opportunistic predators who can reach impressive speeds of up to 44 miles per hour, African wild dogs require ample space within short-grass plains, semi-desert, savannas, or upland forests in which to hunt and roam. As a result, they are highly susceptible to habitat fragmentation and conflict with livestock farmers, which can also foster other issues like prey scarcity and disease.
Habitat Loss and Fragmentation
Habitat fragmentation (which can be caused by both human and natural processes) divides larger and more contiguous wild dog habitats into smaller, more isolated patches of habitat.
According to a 2015 study published in the Journal of Mammalogy, packs of African wild dogs in the Okavango Delta had average range sizes of about 285 square miles and moved over three square miles each day. Breaking up that necessary range can lead to inbreeding and starvation. Moreover, less access to appropriate habitat can also increase their contact with humans and domestic animals, leading to the transmission of infectious diseases and opportunities for human-wildlife conflict.
When the animals are only given a chance to populate in smaller numbers, it makes them more vulnerable to catastrophic events (since larger populations have a greater probability of recovery) and predation by larger animals.
As available habitats decrease and human settlements expand, African wild dogs are more likely to come into contact with people whose livelihoods depend on farming livestock. Often, they’re killed by farmers who view them as a threat.
They can also be caught in poaching snares set for bushmeat and be subject to mortality on roads in more highly populated areas.
A 2021 study analyzing mortality patterns in radio-collared African wild dogs in Kenya, Botswana, and Zimbabwe discovered a connection between high ambient temperatures and dogs being killed by people. According to the research, African wild dogs shift the timing of their hunts and habitat choice when the weather is hotter, which could bring them closer to developed areas (and isn’t exactly good news considering the progressively increasing temperatures from climate change).
Pack animals are typically more susceptible to viral diseases like rabies, canine distemper, and canine parvovirus, and the African wild dog is no exception. Members of the species are so closely connected to one another that they’ve even been observed communicating through sneezes.5
Infectious diseases aren’t limited to animals in the wild either.
There’s a lot of competition in Africa’s savannas. African wild dogs share a limited supply of prey species—such as antelope, warthogs, and birds—with other, faster hunters like spotted hyenas and lions.
In Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, the African wild dog population disappeared entirely in 1991 after a gradual decline. Scientists believed that a viral disease was to blame—specifically one caused by human handling in a radio-collaring program—but it wasn’t until a 2018 study published in Ecology and Evolution that the actual reason behind the pack loss was discovered. According to the study, the population never went extinct within the broader region but purposefully left the area because of other predator competition from hyenas. During the same Serengeti wild dog decline period, the spotted hyena population increased by 150%.
As with many endangered species, African wild dogs may require a little help from science to avoid extinction.