In 2006 I was driving with a friend in Hluhuwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve when a strange looking dog ran in front of our car. We followed the dog to a sandy river bank and watched it pace up and down, continuously looking into the slow flowing river. This was my first sighting of an African wild dog. I took an instant interest in these endangered animals and what a thrill it is to see them doing well in Zululand. Since that day I have been so lucky to encounter many dogs in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi.
On reading that wild dogs were now to be released in the Zululand Rhino Reserve I contacted Wildlife ACT to see if I could visit the new pack. I had spent time with WACT in Imfolozi and had an amazing time encountering dozens of dogs whilst out with the monitoring team there. We were privileged to assist in a re-collar exercise and witness a kill.
The Zululand Rhino Reserve is a private reserve and home to many species of game. It is also typical of Zululand with its rolling hills and many species of thorn trees. There is one particular valley slope inundated with thousands of mountain aloes. This slope, known as aloe ridge, must look spectacular in winter when the aloes come into flower. I had stayed before in a few of the lodges so was familiar with the flora and fauna but there is always something new to see.
I was met by the team on arrival at the WACT HQ and base, a homestead with all mod cons, and views into the surrounding reserve. I was worried that I would not find the HQ especially when I was given the instruction “turn left at the giraffe tree”. What is a giraffe tree? Believe me, you like me, will instantly recognise the giraffe tree when you see it. Michelle, project manager, introduced me to Sam and then the two new monitors, Deborah from Switzerland and Armel from France. After a tour of the homestead and the safety guidelines we were ready to start monitoring.
The job of WACT is to assist mainly in the monitoring of game within the reserves where they are based. This might be recording members of the ‘big five’: elephant, rhino, leopard, lion and buffalo. Then there are endangered species like wild dogs and cheetahs. Plus smaller game that is not picked up in game counts that reserves run biannually to check on overall animal numbers within their boundaries. We came across a large herd of buffalo and the team got to work counting the total and the breakdown of males, females and young. There was one particular calf, covered from hoof to head in dry mud, bellowing and sounding in great distress. It was assumed he had become separated from his mother. Older members of the herd seemed to try and push him away from the main herd. This was probably to stop his cries attracting predators. Leaving the herd to sort the young calf we come across a leopard tortoise. He is recorded in the days notes heading up hill away from the road. In folklore this is said to be a sign of rain. The next day the heavens opened and yes it rained!
One of our main tasks during the time I was there was to track down two cheetah. They were escapees from a neighbouring reserve and both collared. The team had a signal from the previous night so we were heading to high ground to try and pick up the signal again. Just like regular game viewing there is always an element of luck needed. We had not made it to the high ground so we had not even turned the tracking devices on when the cheetah were spotted just meters from our vehicle laying in thick bush. They looked up at us, stood, stretched and casually made their way following the track we had arrived on. The area was noted and all concerned were radioed and bought up to speed with the cheetahs new position.
The highlight for me was getting to see the reserves new wild dog pack. The pack of six was made up of four females that were flown in from Madikwe Game Reserve and two males from Zimanga, a local Zululand Reserve. They were still in their boma (holding area) as a collar was late arriving and the pack could not be released if they could not be tracked and monitored. With approximately only five thousand dogs left in Africa every dog is vital and needs managing. Driving very slowly around the boma the team are tasked with ensuring everything is in order: All dogs present and looking healthy, no fence damage and no sign of any attempts by the pack to dig themselves an escape route.
We sat and watched the dogs observing their behaviour. Some dogs played, some tried to chase others who were more interested in relaxing. From time to time they fed on a carcass. When they left the carcass unattended a pale morph tawny eagle and yellow billed kites took their opportunity to feed.
Since my visit I am happy to say that the dogs are now running wild within the Zululand Rhino Reserve. I have read on social media that lodges within the reserve are now encountering the pack and their guests are viewing something very special.
My thanks to the Zululand Rhino Reserve and Wildlife ACT for allowing me to meet the new pack.