Piss on it!
Or… how do you keep packs of African wild dogs inside an unfenced boundary?
Today Scientific American reports on a unique kind of barrier being used to keep African wild dogs inside the reserves designed to protect them.
Over the past year, [Craig] Jackson, a biologist, and his colleagues working on the Northern Tuli Wild Dog Project, have shown that strategically placed urine—called Bio-Boundaries—can help restrict the movements of these notorious fence-breakers in order to keep the endangered canines on protected land. “The fact that we’ve been able to contain these dogs is amazing,” Jackson says.
Keeping wild dogs inside the boundaries of preserves is important for their safety as well as for the safety of domestic goats and other animals the dogs often prey on outside the reserves. African wild dogs hunt in packs like their cousins the wolves. And they are remarkably successful at it.
Compared with lions, which successfully kill just 20 percent of the animals they stalk, wild dogs have a hunting success rate ranging from 40 to 80 percent. That’s not always a good thing for an animal that must coexist with humans and their livestock.
The wild dogs’ success at hunting is surpassed only by ours. Humans are the number one killer of wild dogs, reportedly directly responsible for as much as 60 percent of all deaths. We’re also indirectly responsible for the large number of deaths caused by diseases like parvo, rabies and distemper that wild dogs catch from their domestic brothers.
So keeping wild dogs inside the boundaries of game parks is vital to maintaining viable populations. But how does one keep a bright, wide-ranging, atheletic species confined to a large, unfenced area? Well it turns out that strategically placed urine samples do the trick quite nicely. The Botswana Predator Conservation Trust (BPCT) is conducting research with the goal of identifying the signaling chemicals in African wild dog territorial scent marks. According to their website:
The aim is to identify the chemicals in the scent mark odour that are sending the territorial “No Trespassing” signal and to use them to make artificial territorial boundaries that will protect wild dog packs by keeping them within the safety of protected conservation areas. […] African Wild Dogs, like nearly all mammals, send their social messages as complex mixtures of airborne organic chemicals, called semiochemicals. Wild dog packs stake out their hunting territories with patches of soil soaked with the urine of the pack’s alpha pair, and the odour of these scent marks tells neighbouring packs and itinerant dispersers “This area is occupied, no trespassing.”
BPCT’s goal is to use BioBoundaries to prevent human-wild dog conflicts. And if they achieve their goal, parks won’t be the only areas where BioBoundaries area used. Wild dog populations are in decline across Africa and problems with human predation and diseases spread by domestic dogs aren’t the only factors limiting their numbers. As we’ve posted here before, wild dogs need to live in large packs and have access to interconnected ranges to survive as viable populations. They don’t just need room to hunt game – they also need safe migration corridors that allow populations to grow and mix. BPCT hopes to use BioBoundaries to create genetic corridors between the healthy populations to allow genetic mixing to occur with minimal human intervention.
Will it work? BioBoundaries are not an entirely new idea. Semiochemicals have been used commercially for pest control decades. According to SciAm:
In 1996 J. Weldon “Tico” McNutt, director of the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust noticed that it took a pack of dogs six months to move into a territory in Okavango that was left empty after four packs there were wiped out by rabies. He speculated that long-lasting chemicals in their urine and feces discouraged the dogs from entering those former territories, but never had the opportunity to the put his theory to practice. After all, it would not make sense to disrupt the behavior of healthy dog populations, and smaller populations were all kept within fences.
Finally, in April 2008, after 18 dogs were moved by conservationists to Tuli from Marakele National Park in South Africa, McNutt had his chance and Jackson was tasked with maintaining the bio-boundary and monitoring the animals’ movements with GPS-equipped dog collars. The researchers have flown more than 500 scent marks to Tuli over the last year, and the dogs appear to be staying within the bounds of the fenceless reserve.
BPCT hopes to identify and synthesize key components in wild dog territorial scent. They believe that using laboratory-made scents would be more practical than collecting urine in the field. (Though I can’t help but wonder if collecting scent might be one way to employ local humans and make at least a few of them happy to have wild dogs in their back yard.) If the project is successful, in the future BioBoundaries might be used to control other large predators and territorial species.
Perhaps someday they’ll have formulas we can use to keep pests like deer, rabbits and the neighbors dog out of our garden too.