Barking mad: KZN wildlife agency in the dog box
The KZN wildlife authority is in the dock over the curious case of 14 endangered wild dogs
Why is a government wildlife conservation agency determined to expel South Africa’s most endangered carnivores from desperately needed living space in a game reserve deemed ideal for their survival?
This is the question raised in a Durban High Court application against Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, which has confined a pack of 14 wild dogs to a small boma for more than eight months, with the intention of shifting them to another small boma for a further six months and an uncertain future thereafter.
Ezemvelo is now under pressure from conservation groups to release the animals back into the Tembe Elephant Reserve on the SA-Mozambique border, where the rare species was re-introduced nearly seven years ago.The reason for the relocation, according to court papers, is because the animals have escaped and are impacting on the neighbouring local community.
The Endangered Wildlife Trust, which has been involved in conserving African wild dogs for three decades, says that unless the 14 dogs are released there is a risk they will lose their ability to hunt and avoid being killed by lions.
EWT chief executive Yolan Friedman says in a court affidavit that there are less than 450 African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus) left in South Africa, noting that they are the second most threatened carnivore species in Africa, after the Ethiopian wolf, and the most endangered carnivore in Southern Africa.
Over the past two decades, the trust had overseen the steady growth of the South African wild dog population from just 20 animals in two game reserves in 1998 to just over 240 animals in 13 reserves, (excluding the largest free-ranging populations in Kruger National Park and the Waterberg region in Limpopo province).
“As such this has been the most successful conservation project for the species worldwide,” she said.According to the World Wildlife Fund, the wild dog is “one of the world’s most endangered mammals”. There are about 6,000 left across the world.
Yet, last October, Ezemvelo recaptured the last 14 dogs in Tembe Elephant Reserve, placed them in a boma and signalled its intention to remove them permanently.
Earlier this year, Tembe Safaris lodge operator Ernest Robbertse questioned the decision and requesting an undertaking that the dogs would not be ousted.
Robbertse was told that an executive decision was made by Ezemvelo to remove wild dogs from Tembe as the 30,000ha reserve was considered “too small” to support them, and because there had been repeated dog escapes leading to the death of livestock in surrounding local communities.
As the largest tourism employer in the park, Robbertse insisted he should have been consulted about the decision to remove them, arguing that one of the big attractions of visiting Tembe was the possibility of sighting these rare animals.
Ezemvelo has now sent out mixed messages about the dogs’ future.
In a court affidavit, acting chief executive Bheki Khoza said that there was “nothing in principle to show that the re-introduction will not happen in future”.The conservation agency was anxious to move the dogs out of the holding boma because it was needed to house a group of lions from Tembe, pending relocation to a Zambian game reserve.
“The dogs will be held for at least six months and perhaps even longer (in another boma) in Pongola and during that time could readily be returned to Tembe should conservancy or management needs so require.”
But then he states that: “The dogs cannot be released and returned to the wild (in Tembe) on account of issues with the community … the intention is however to not return them to the park thereafter, and certainly not without community consent.”
Khoza said the 80km-long Tembe fence line rested on sand, making it easy for dogs to dig their way out of the park.
He said Tembe originally hosted at least two wild dog packs, one of which escaped habitually from the park, and Ezemvelo now faced substantial claims for compensation for livestock allegedly killed by some of these dogs.
Yet an internal Ezemvelo memo suggests that the reported deaths of a calf and two goats were most likely due to starvation, leopard, hyaena or feral domestic dogs.
Khoza also said that a community demonstration was held outside the park gates in May 2016 to protest against the presence of wild dogs.
Robbertse disputed that the community is opposed to the presence of dogs. He cites a recent letter from the Tembe Tribal Auhority stating that the community is not opposed to the dogs being released – provided that they are monitored with GPS tracking devices and that livestock compensation agreements were followed.“The solution is simple in that the fence line must be inspected and maintained …not the removal of the wild dogs, which may or may not be the cause of the alleged problem.”
Robbertse asked Ezemvelo to provide sound scientific advice why the dogs should be removed permanently.
The Endangered Wildlife Trust, which has been cited as a respondent in the case, said in an affidavit that Tembe was “definitely suitable” for wild dogs based on the size of the reserve and prey abundance.
Trust chief executive Yolan Friedman also urged Ezemvelo to release the dogs into Tembe as there were no other suitable areas countrywide to relocate them.