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Story Publication logo August 19, 2009

Endangered in South Africa: Those Doggone Conservationists


The black rhino is emblematic of how civil war and corruption in Africa decimate endangered animal...


When we first spotted Fender through the 8-foot-tall perimeter fence, I could see she was hobbling behind her two pals, Rory and Stellar. While most packs of African wild dogs consist of a dozen animals, the "diamond dogs" living on this DeBeers-owned reserve numbered just three.

The pack has been on its last legs since 2008, when hyenas killed two males and five of Stellar's puppies. Her other two pups died of unknown causes. Now Fender's broken her front left leg, and it's not expected to heal, which means she's never going to be much help on an impala hunt. Left with just two hunting dogs, this pathetic family could wink out in the coming year.

John Power of the local conservation group Endangered Wildlife Trust had taken me out for a firsthand glimpse of these long-legged, big-eared, patchy-coated canines. While South Africans sometimes marvel at the majesty of the lion and protect the cat for tourists and hunters alike, ranchers have never shied away from shooting and snaring the packs that chase down their precious livestock. "They have no mercy for wild dogs," Power says, over the blips of Stellar's radio collar. (In the past, some even argued for wiping out the dogs for the sake of other animals: According to the one-time British consul general for Liberia, RCF Maugham, "it will be an excellent day for African game and its preservation when means can be devised for their complete extermination.") Then there are the diseases, such as rabies and canine distemper, spread by domestic animals—the latter disease probably extirpated the dogs from Kenya's Masai Mara National Reserve in 1991. With all these threats, it's easy to understand how African wild dogs have gone extinct in 25 of the 39 countries they once inhabited.

Saving a wide-ranging international species requires a coordinated effort of wildlife protection and land preservation, but South Africa doesn't have much to offer by way of its own real estate. Just 7 percent of the country has been protected for conservation, and much of that is divided into small fenced-in areas no more than a few hundred square kilometers in size. In 2000, the Trust created a network of these tiny game reserves to house what few wild dogs remain in South Africa. Most of the protected areas—public and private—are only large enough to sustain a single pack, so Trust staffers must tranquilize and transport young males around every year to keep any one group from getting inbred. In other words, the dogs live in an environment that's just a step up from your average zoo. At least that's how Power and his boss, Harriet Davies-Mostert, explained it to me in a conference room one hot afternoon in the rustic Venetia field station.

Perhaps I was in foul mood—it was late in the day and I'd just endured a week of sleepless nights, a stiff neck, swollen lymph nodes, and the throbbing headache that come along with a case of tick fever—but this whole exercise struck me as one of the most pointless conservation efforts imaginable. The Endangered Wildlife Trust claims to tackle issues throughout southern Africa, so it seems as if it would be better focusing its resources just across the country's northwestern border, where some 700 dogs roam freely along the Okavango River Delta. "Why don't you just support conservation in Botswana?" I asked.

There was an awkward silence, and then Power answered, "I guess were a bit patriotic about our wildlife. One can also do it Botswana. Each country can be custodian of its own species."

Maybe there are good reasons for keeping these dogs alive in tiny reserves as an interim measure, but our conversation got me thinking how this kind of "localism," for lack of a better word, has harmed conservation efforts around the world. In the United States, where 15 percent of land is protected, conservation dollars are tied up on costly activities like lobbying, legal battles, and buying up some of the most expensive real estate there is. As the Nature Conservancy's lead scientist, M.A. Sanjayan, has observed, "Conservation has always cost less to do abroad than in the United States." Yet one study estimates that more than half of the $1.5 billion spent by international conservation organizations in 2002 went to habitat protection in the United States.

Take the example of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which Republicans have wanted to open up for oil exploration for the last 30 years. With its caribou breeding grounds and endangered-polar-bear habitat, the remote refuge remains one of the most pristine areas of wilderness that lies within our nation's boundaries. Yet we can rest assured that oil exploration on our own turf is conducted more responsibly than it is abroad. I know I'd rather see rigs popping up in ANWR—or off the coast of Malibu—than hear about new pipelines crisscrossing tribal lands in Ecuador or an army of mercenaries descending on the Niger delta.

Indeed, tightening environmental restrictions at home often means we're outsourcing our environmental impacts. This spring, for example, legislators stripped the House climate bill of rules that would make suppliers of corn-based ethanol liable for increased deforestation abroad, and President Obama has said he's not going to impose tariffs on goods produced by nations that don't commit to reducing greenhouse gases.

South Africa is also an economic powerhouse, at least in comparison with its neighbors: Its economy is 22 times the size of Botswana's. With a population of just 2 million, the latter country remains ripe for corporate exploitation—or groundbreaking conservation projects. Namibia and Mozambique, two more of the poorest countries on the continent, would also be good targets for animal-protection dollars. Which brings us back to this horribly inefficient dog-conservation project. The Endangered Wildlife Trust's own scientists have estimated that it costs 20 times more per pack to protect and monitor the animals in small reserves than it does in large reserves like Kruger National Park—or, perhaps, Botswana's Chobe National Park.

Late one afternoon, Power took me across the street to Mapungubwe National Park, which surrounds archaeological remains from an 800-year-old kingdom said to have been the most complex society in southern Africa. We drove through a red-rock valley with mammoth Baobob trees hanging on cliff edges, then got out of the truck and hiked up to an overlook where we could see three countries—South Africa, Botswana, and Zimbabwe—collide under the setting sun. Below us their borders were marked at the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo rivers.

Power tells me that dogs periodically migrate south from the wild Tuli region in Zimbabwe and Botswana when the rivers are running low. Once they arrive in South Africa, they get lost in a deadly maze of roads, fences, and gun-toting farmers. If the Endangered Wildlife Trust can convince government authorities to drop some of the barriers around South Africa's protected areas, then all these reserves will become part of a 3,000-square-kilometer transfrontier corridor that could eventually give the dogs a route all the way up to the Okavango delta.

I'm skeptical of their chances. So long as wildlife ranching plays second fiddle to beef, Limpopo cattlemen will ensure that not one but two fences remain in place around game ranches and government reserves to protect their bovines from wildlife diseases spread by buffalo. Replacing cattle with native fauna has numerous environmental perks; one of them will be making the landscape more dog-friendly, as adjoining ranches drop their internal fences and form private conservancies, such as the ones now common in the province of Kwazulu-Natal.

In the meantime, there is some good news—for South African conservationists, if not the species at large. It looks as if Stellar could have a new litter of pups this month.

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