The African Wild Dog: An Ambassador for the World’s Largest Nature Reserve

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African wild dogs in the Moremi Game Reserve in northern Botswana. The animal in

African wild dogs in the Moremi Game Reserve in northern Botswana. The animal in front has a GPS collar that records the distance travelled during migration. (Image: Arpat Ozgul/UZH)

The world’s largest nature conservation area lies in southern Africa, comprising 520,000 square kilometers that span five countries. A study has now shown that the critically endangered African wild dog mostly remains within the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA) during its long periods of migration. This confirms that the wildlife corridors most important for the conservation of the African wild dog and other threatened species fall within the boundaries of KAZA’s protected zone.

Migration is essential for the preservation of many animal species. Individual animals have to leave the areas in which they were born in order to settle and reproduce elsewhere. This facilitates genetic exchange between physically distant populations, strengthens critically low population levels, and allows for the settlement of new areas. In landscapes shaped by human activity, however, it is becoming increasingly difficult for animals to cross through populated areas that separate their habitats. For this reason, countries are increasingly establishing wildlife corridors and other protected zones.

In Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe, there are plans to use wildlife corridors to link up 35 existing national parks, reserves and conservation areas. The Kavango-Zambezi Conservation Area (KAZA) spans roughly 520,000 square kilometers, making it the world’s largest land-based nature conservation area. But do the boundaries of this nature reserve coincide with the migration behavior of the animals it seeks to protect? Researchers at the University of Zurich sought to answer this question by studying the African wild dog, a species that is among the most threatened - and most prone to long migrations - in KAZA’s protected territory.

Critically endangered large predator

African wild dogs currently number around 6,000 and are scattered throughout different fragmented populations in southern and eastern Africa. Wild dogs (Lycaon pictus) live in packs that are led by one dominant couple. After reaching sexual maturity, young wild dogs set out to find mating partners and suitable territory for establishing their own packs. Similar to wolves, they can cover hundreds of kilometers during this journey.

"We want to understand which routes these animals take and whether the different populations within the enormous Kavango-Zambezi conservation area are able to connect with each other," says David Hofmann, first author of the study and PhD candidate at the Department of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies. The UZH research team equipped the animals with GPS collars and used the tracking data to find out which habitats they prefer or avoid and which areas contain suitable wildlife corridors.

Very few corridors outside the conservation area

The results suggest that most of the wildlife corridors that have been identified pass through KAZA, with northern Botswana appearing to act as a central hub for the animals. Another important corridor connects national parks in Angola and Zambia. "While the corridor still runs through places that are largely unprotected, the KAZA initiative does intend to place these zones under protection," says Hofmann. "There’s still more potential for expansion, however, since there are several suitable migration routes not currently covered by KAZA."

Not all areas are equally suited for establishing wildlife corridors. In some countries, animals encounter no problems during migration, whereas in countries such as Zambia and Zimbabwe, high population density - with its human settlements, road networks and agricultural activity - poses the greatest obstacle to animals on the move. The researchers have thus called for these country-specific differences to be taken into consideration when implementing the KAZA initiative.

Lions and elephants also stand to benefit

The statistical methods and migration pattern data applied in this study will not only be of use to decision-makers working on the KAZA initiative. They can also be used to create new protected areas or to modify existing zones. The researchers’ findings underscore that the Kavango-Zambezi Conservation Area largely meets the needs of the African wild dog population, thereby making an important contribution to conserving this endangered species in southern Africa. "Ultimately, expanding the network of wildlife corridors doesn’t just help the wild dog population. Other species that live in the same ecosystem such as lions, elephants and cheetahs also stand to benefit," says Hofmann.

Literature:

David D. Hofmann, Dominik M. Behr, John W. McNutt, Arpat Ozgul, Gabriele Cozzi. Bound within boundaries: Do protected areas cover movement corridors of their most mobile, protected species? Journal of Applied Ecology. 7 May 2021. DOI: 10.1111/1365-2664.13868

About the KAZA initiativ

Southern Africa is home to the world’s largest terrestrial nature reserve: the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA). Stretching across Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe, this cross-border nature reserve has a surface area of around 520,000 square kilometers, making it larger than Germany, Austria and Switzerland combined. The unique KAZA initiative seeks to connect a total of 35 existing national parks, reserves and conservation areas via the establishment of wildlife corridors, thereby creating a dense network that preserves endangered species populations. KAZA will be formally established based on an international treaty between the participating African countries.

KAZA