by Russell Hill
Rosie Woodroffe’s paper deals with an increasingly common topic in zoological research; the behaviour and sustainability of wild animal populations living in human-dominated landscapes. Having highlighted one of Rosie’s papers as my last editorial board member’s choice, I hadn’t intended to select this manuscript, but was drawn to it not simply because of the quality of the manuscript, but also because the conservation outlook is relatively positive. This latter element is far from ubiquitous, and the fact that African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus) might prosper in human dominated landscapes is an encouraging finding.
The endangered status of the African wild dog has often been linked to their large home ranges bringing them into conflict with expanding human populations. Even in protected areas wild dog ranges often extend beyond park boundaries where conflict with humans, traffic-related mortality and domestic dog diseases all increase. The prospects for wild dogs outside of protected areas thus looked bleak, but the reality of the situation may be more encouraging. Indeed, the fact that Woodroffe’s study area in the Laikipia District, Kenya, was naturally recolonised in the 1990s provides initial cause for optimism.
One of the strengths of Woodroffe’s paper is that it is able to draw upon long-term data sets, as well as making use of the detailed movement data that can be derived from radio-telemetry. The latter is particularly important when studying elusive species that range over large areas, but also allows information to be gained on multiple groups simultaneously. In this study wild dogs avoided almost all forms of human activity, but interestingly they behaved like populations living in protected areas in most other respects. Wild dog packs generally avoided one another and showed evidence of territoriality, but the overriding impression was that the ranging behaviour of packs was largely driven by their own resource needs. As habitat generalists, therefore, wild dogs have the potential to thrive outside of protected areas.
Of course, the conclusions of the paper are not unreservedly positive. As traditional practices of land tenure and livestock husbandry are abandoned throughout much of Kenya, the emerging patterns of land use are likely to be less favourable for wild dogs. As a consequence, there is the potential for the conservation picture to change quite rapidly. Nevertheless, the study provides encouragement that the presence of large carnivores in human-dominated landscapes need not inevitably lead to conflict and the decline and extinction of natural predator populations.