Larger than Austria and Germany combined and nearly twice as big as the United Kingdom, the enormous KAZA (Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area) lies in the Kavango and Zambezi River Basins where Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe converge. The five countries partner in the KAZA TFCA (Transfrontier Conservation Program) initiative, which focuses on forming a transboundary ecological network to ensure connectivity between key protected wildlife areas and, where necessary, reconnect isolated wildlife areas.
Gems in this 200,773-square-mile expanse of diverse ecosystems and landscapes—the world’s largest terrestrial conservation preserve—are the almost 6,000-square-mile Okavango Delta, an explosion of blue and green in the midst of parched terrain and the planet’s largest inland delta; and the awe-inspiring, tumbling cataracts of Victoria Falls, a World Heritage site and one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. Thirty-six other protected areas are included, such as community conservancies, forest reserves, game reserves, game/wildlife management areas and national parks, comprising a dense network of wildlife corridors for populations of endangered species.
And now, a new study shows how endangered African wild dogs, which mostly remain within the boundaries of the KAZA when dispersing, depend on such large-scale conservation areas for maintaining the wildlife corridors they need to survive.
This finding might cause us to wonder if, given the increasing threats to wildlife from human activities, such vast reserves and intact wildlife corridors are now not only desirable as one of many tools but essential for stemming the loss of endangered species—and other wildlife along with them.
The African wild dog is an extremely endangered mammal that used to be found all over the continent of Africa. Now, currently numbering around 1,400 mature individuals, they mostly reside in sub-Saharan Africa, especially in Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Unlike all the other members in the Canidae (dog) family, African wild dogs only have four toes on each foot. They have black, brown, red, white and yellow mottled fur, giving them their scientific name, Lycaon pictus, or painted wolf.
Very social and team players, African wild dogs are effective predators of medium-sized prey, such as antelopes and gazelles. They can run more than 44 miles per hour; and as a result, 80 percent of their hunts end successfully, compared to that of lions at 10 percent. In fact, it was only recently discovered that African wild dogs use sneezes to “vote” on hunting decisions.
After reaching sexual maturity, African wild dogs disperse in an attempt to find potential mates and suitable ranges to settle. They require vast territories to survive—much larger than most other carnivore species. Similar to wolves, wild dogs can cover hundreds of miles during these journeys.
It would be hard to overestimate how important dispersal is to African wild dogs. It promotes gene flow among populations, rescues small and isolated populations from going extinct and enables the colonization of unoccupied habitats. In human-dominated landscapes, however, dispersing animals are finding it increasingly difficult. African wild dogs often need to cross high-speed roads. There are even several instances of packs using roads as resting places. This leads to numerous accidents, especially where the roads cut through dense wildlife areas.
For these reasons, the identification and preservation of wildlife corridors worldwide has become of utmost importance for conservation authorities.
Navigating the network
Conserving and managing large portions of land to connect wildlife reserves is a strategy that is increasingly used to maintain and restore connectivity among wildlife populations. Boundaries of such conservation areas are often determined based on expert opinion and sociopolitical constraints—not the animals’ actual, highly used corridors. So, researchers at the University of Zurich (UZH) set out to study African wild dogs, the most mobile and most endangered species in the KAZA.
In order to find out how and where dispersing African wild dogs move and whether the different populations within the Kavango-Zambezi Conservation Area are able to connect with each other, the UZH research team put GPS collars on several African wild dogs. They used that tracking data to find out which habitats dispersers prefer to cross and ultimately to predict which areas contain suitable wildlife corridors.
Combing through the computations
Between 2011 and 2019, scientists collected high-resolution GPS data from dispersing African wild dogs from a free-ranging population in the KAZA. They analyzed the habitat selections of the dispersers and compared landscape permeability across different regions within the KAZA, as well as outside its boundaries. They also calculated least-cost paths and corridors to verify that major movement routes were adequately encompassed within the KAZA.
The results showed that most of the wildlife corridors that the animals used are located within the KAZA, with northern Botswana appearing to act as a central hub for dispersing individuals. Another important corridor connects national parks in Angola and Zambia. That corridor runs through areas that are largely unprotected; but, fortunately, the KAZA initiative does intend to place those zones under protection. Even so, there is still potential for expansion since several suitable dispersal routes currently remain uncovered by the KAZA.
Not all areas, however, are equally suitable for establishing wildlife corridors. In some countries, dispersers encountered little obstacles during dispersal, whereas in nations such as Zambia and Zimbabwe, high population densities and associated activities hinder animal movements. The presence or absence of rivers, swamps and open water was also a factor.
In conclusion, the researchers stated that the statistical methods and movement data employed in this study will not only be of use to KAZA initiative decision-makers but can also be implemented to create new protected areas or to modify existing zones, making efficient use of limited conservation funds. They urged that the types of country-specific differences that they found be taken into consideration when administering the KAZA initiative.
Benefiting more than African wild dogs
While the researchers’ findings that the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area largely meets the needs of dispersing African wild dogs, making an important contribution to conserving this endangered species, what’s even more encouraging to me is that expanding the network of wildlife corridors doesn’t just help African wild dogs. Other species that live in the same ecosystem, such as cheetahs, elephants and lions, are also likely to benefit. Once again, it shows that when we try to help one animal, we’re really attempting to help them all.
The KAZA is one of those places in the world that is naturally and richly endowed with a great diversity of ecosystems, ranging from the dark and dense canopy of tropical dry forests to a mosaic of woodlands, from sun-soaked tides of rolling grasslands to the parched vastness of salt pans, and from drifts of water lilies floating on papyrus and reed-shrouded wetlands to soul-stirring, thundering waterfalls.
African wild dogs show us that wildlife corridors that provide safe passage are crucial for keeping that kaleidoscope full of things that can burrow, climb, crawl, float, fly, hop, hover, run, slide, soar, slither, swim, walk or wiggle across the land.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,