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Building boundaries with scent

Building boundaries with scent

Building boundaries with scent
Grant Atkinson

Thousands of square kilometers in Africa’s national parks and game reserves are simply insufficient to stem the decline of many of Africa’s predators. This grim fact is particularly true for Africa’s most endangered large carnivore – the African wild dog. Botswana Predator Conservation Trust is using cutting-edge technology to explore a new concept in conservation. 

Addressing the erosion of wildlife populations at the boundaries of wildlife areas is the single greatest challenge to the conservation of large predators. Wildlife areas are sometimes bordered by fences designed primarily to keep wildlife separate from people and livestock. Throughout much of Africa these boundaries are little more than dirt tracks or simply lines on a map, and even fences simply do not keep African wild dogs in or out.

Boundaries rarely bear any relationship to biological or ecological features and consequently have very little relevance to the animals that are expected to live on only one side of that boundary but not on the other. This fact is the motivation behind the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust’s Bioboundary Research Project, a project dedicated to deciphering the chemistry and behaviour of scent marking that communicates territorial residence of African wild dogs. 

African wild dogs are wide ranging, surviving in small numbers at very low densities. They are territorial and their ranging behaviour might best be understood in terms of their keen desire to know where their nearest neighbours live. This is important because fights between neighbouring packs are costly and can be fatal, so there is a premium on avoiding such encounters.

Reliable communication allows residents to signal their presence and convey information about their territory without having to fight over it. Wild dogs, like many mammals, use scent marks as a system of communication based on chemistry distributed in their urine and scats. Crucial information about a wild dog pack’s neighbours, and consequently their ranging, is determined by using their highly sensitive sense of smell.

Since their natural behaviour is to seek out where their neighbours live, wild dogs range far and end up in conflict with people and livestock. Finding goats and cattle to be relatively easy prey, wild dogs can cause severe problems for livestock farmers and become the target of control measures.

If the absence of resident neighbours’ scents underlies the conflict between wild dogs and people at the edges of protected wildlife areas, then providing them with the smells they are looking for  that  indicate where neighbours live   could go far towards reducing that conflict - a solution that should reduce both the costs of conflict for farmers and the frequency of wild dogs killed and packs decimated by “lethal control”.

In 2008, with a grant from the Paul G Allen Family Foundation, BPCT set up a state-of-the-art organic chemistry laboratory in Maun, Botswana, implementing the latest technologies in Gas Chromatography and Mass Spectrometry equipment to analyze the chemistry of scent marks of African wild dogs. My colleague, Dr Peter Apps, the principal scientist in our laboratory, brings a doctorate in zoology and many years of experience in analytical chemistry to unraveling this complex chemistry.

The challenge is to figure out what compounds among hundreds are used to signal ‘keep out’ to neighbours. This simple question is proving anything but simple to answer. The complexity of mammalian chemical communication challenges all our expertise and resources in the Laboratory for Wildlife Chemistry and in field research.

Although we have identified more than a hundred compounds of interest, we have yet to crack the language. However, the potential upside of this new field of wildlife science is huge. If we can decipher the chemical signals of wild dogs and synthetically copyfunctional bioboundary scents, we will have developed a novel management tool that addresses conflict with Africa’s most endangered large carnivore. 

Perhaps even more importantly, bioboundary technology has the potential to change the way we manage the boundaries of wildlife areas, not just for wild dogs but for most large carnivores, and other territorial species that use scent to mark their boundaries. It is precisely these boundaries, and in particular the inevitable conflict between wildlife habitats and human development, where we will need more effective conservation tools if we are going to keep viable wildlife populations into the foreseeable future.

Read more articles from this issue:
Zambezi Traveller (Issue 11, Dec 2012)

Read more on the work of the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust from the Zambezi Traveller:
Botswana Predator Conservation Trust

Read more about African wild dog from the Zambezi Traveller:
African Wild Dogs - The Best Team in Africa
The Hwange painted dog project
Protecting wild dog in Luangwa
Zambezi key to African wild dog’s future
Wild dog – the picture in Zambia
The African Wild Dog
Building Boundaries with Scent

Read more about the region in our destination guide:

External Links:
Botswana Predator Conservation Trust
Grant Atkinson