Primitive and ruthless, snares threaten Africa’s endangered Wild Dogs

by Bob Serata, © 2012 Robert J. Serata

The snare is a near-perfect killing machine: simple, cheap, lightweight, easy to make, easy to set up, nearly impossible to escape. The typical snare used in Africa is nothing more than a length of wire ending in a loop formed by a slip knot. Tension within the loop slides the knot along the wire pulling the loop tight. The more tension, the tighter the loop. With the straight end fastened to a tree or rock, the loop opened and placed in the path of an animal, the snare becomes a primitive but ruthlessly effective trap.

The African Wild Dog (Lycaon pictus) — also called the African hunting dog, painted dog, painted wolf, painted hunting dog and spotted dog — has survived disease and infection, mortality from lions and hyenas, the loss and fragmentation of its habitat and human persecution (a well-worn euphemism for people shooting and poisoning these animals to protect livestock and other more valuable wild game, or simply to satisfy their misguided prejudice that classifies Wild Dogs as “vermin”).

They may not survive the snares.

“The worst thing about snaring is that it is totally indiscriminate,” said Dr. Rosemary Groom, who has managed the Lowveld Wild Dog Project in south-east Zimbabwe for the African Wildlife Conservation Fund since 2008. “And because wild dogs are not the intended target it makes it all the more difficult to combat,” she said.

Continued Groom, “We can try to reduce the spread of disease from domestic dogs and we can work with local communities and landowners to reduce direct persecution. But whilst people are hungry and unable to make ends meet via alternative means, snaring will continue and wild dogs will continue to be the unintended victims. The huge upsurge in snare-poaching in Zimbabwe in the last decade, together with mortality from other means, is a serious threat to these endangered animals.”

Once, there were more than 500,000 wild dogs spread across the African continent. Today, the population is estimated to be less than 7,000 individuals, including only about 700 breeding pairs, primarily in Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, South Africa and Kenya. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, “The species is virtually eradicated from West Africa, and greatly reduced in central Africa and north-east Africa.”

Officially, the wild dog is endangered with a high risk of extinction.

Unofficially, the wild dog is facing a tough battle against poachers’ snares.

Poachers set snares to support their illegal bush meat trade. As more and more people move legally or illegally on to once-protected conservation lands, snares become ubiquitous. People need food, but they also need income. Bush meat (illegally harvested wildlife) and skins are quickly and easily converted into currency, especially valuable in countries like Zimbabwe, where there are exceptionally few functioning farms, ranches or other businesses providing jobs.

Wild dogs are part of the by-catch of poaching, like dolphins and sea turtles killed by tuna nets. Walking along, sniffing the air, listening for enemies, the dogs encounter the merciless genius of the slip knot. Their instinct for escape merely tightens the wire noose around their necks, legs or bodies.

According to Groom, 53 percent of the adult wild dog carcasses found over a three year period of study in the Savé Valley Conservancy (SVC) were killed by snares. Put another way: the number of adult wild dog carcasses found during the study was more than doubled by the use of snares.

But there are survivors.

“Barely a month goes by when we don’t find a wild dog with a snare wound around a neck, waist or leg,” said Groom. “On most, the wire is so tight that the resulting injury is severe. Many of these animals disappear from the packs and are presumed dead. A lucky few we manage to dart, remove the snare and treat the wound. And almost without fail these resilient animals, having been given a second chance, never fail to recover fully,” she added.

Once Groom’s team receives a report of a dog with a snare injury, its first job is to locate the pack, which is no easy task if there’s no radio collar on one of the dogs in the pack.

Next the team tries to get within darting range — about 25 meters (a little more than 80 feet).

“This is often extremely difficult,” Groom explained. “Snared dogs, understandably, tend to be very wary of humans and vehicles and often do a good job of staying out of range. Depending on the pack and the terrain, we approach them on motorbike or from a vehicle. If we get in range, I’ll take the shot and if dart placement is good, the dog will be down [i.e., asleep] in five to 10 minutes.

“The first step is to blindfold and block the ears of the dog, and get it into a comfortable position, preferably in the shade. A pulse oxymeter is attached to record blood oxygen and heart rate throughout the procedure. The snare is then removed and the wound thoroughly cleaned and treated. We also give a shot of long-acting penicillin and then reverse the sedative and watch the dog until it has made a full recovery from the shots,” said Groom.

Unfortunately, the economic situation in Zimbabwe, and especially in the southeastern Lowveld, continues to deteriorate, making life increasingly difficult for both humans and wild dogs.

“In the SVC we have seen a huge upsurge in the numbers of dogs killed or injured by snares since the resettlement in the southern part of the conservancy in 2001,” said Groom. “The perimeter fence, which was built to protect the wildlife, has been systematically removed by the new farmers and turned into snares. The consequences have been devastating, and not just for wild dogs,” she said.