When I worked as a bush pilot in Botswana and Namibia, I always loved spending time working with researchers. One mission that was particularly memorable was when I helped with the relocation of nine orphaned wild dog puppies from the Central Kalahari, to be rehomed with surrogate packs living in the Okavango Delta.
The story of relocating wild dog puppies in Botswana
YZ Malcolm had the most incredible experience when working as a bush pilot in Botswana. Here he retells the story of how he helped relocate nine wild dog pups.
How the story began
The day before the relocation, an Italian colleague and I flew down to an airstrip in the Kalahari and camped alongside the enclosure where the pups were being kept to protect them from predators. They had been looked after there for about a week before we arrived by one of our environmental team, who had been scaring lions away at night by clapping from his tent. I was already experienced in camping in the bush, but it was my colleague’s first time camping in the wild in Botswana. I’m not sure that he got much sleep, and the lions did return in the night, but thankfully our wards remained safe.
Getting the wild dogs onto the plane
Before sunrise, assisted by some members of the wildlife department, we loaded the puppies into a large box for transport. This was not easy, as although they were only puppies, they were wild animals from a pack that had been killed by humans, so they were not keen on being caught and put in a box by us. Eventually when we had them all accounted for, we set off for the roughly 45-minute drive to the airstrip and loaded and secured them for the flight, which was just under an hour. Occasionally during the flight, I went back to the cargo area to check on them, and they were fairly calm considering it must have been a confusing and traumatic experience for them.
Attempting to introduce some puppies into another wild dog pack
On arrival at the airstrip at the edge of the Okavango Delta, we were met by some wild dog researchers and a vet. At this point our part of the mission was due to end, but I contacted our chief pilot on a satellite phone to request permission to stay with the pups for the rest of the day, since officially it was my day off anyway. He agreed on the condition that my colleague flew the plane back and carried on with his schedule for the day and I was to find my way back to Maun, our base, by road with the vet that evening.
We took the puppies the short drive to the wild dog research camp, where they were all weighed, photographed, and checked over by the vet. It was decided to attempt to introduce the four strongest pups to a pack that had similar-aged pups of their own already.
The drive to the den was long and bumpy and I sat in the back of the Land Rover alongside the cage that the puppies were in. They were surprisingly relaxed. I would like to say that was because I was the only one that had been with them all the way through and they felt comfortable with me, but it may well have been that they were just too tired to be concerned by this point.
When we eventually reached the den with that final stretch on foot, we placed the cage beside the den and opened the door. At first they were very tentative, but when the first one decided to take a dive into the den, the others followed in quick succession. It was a really heartening moment and although we couldn't see what was going on inside the den, the indications were that the orphans were being accepted by their new foster pack.
Not long after that, some of the adults came out of the den and the research team decided it was a good time to take advantage of having the vet there to sedate one of the dogs that they wanted to put a collar on. It was an intense moment as the dog was darted and slowly became unstable before nodding off. I found it a real thrill to be able to sit with my hand on the side of this incredible endangered wild animal, feeling it breathing while the researchers put on the collar and took some measurements.
It didn't take long after the antidote was given before the dog started to come back around. Wild dogs are very sociable animals and the rest of the pack waited until their sedated family member was capable before escorting him back to the den. Wild dogs are very curious, and supportive of their pack; they work very well together, which makes them a joy to watch. They really are one of my favourite animals.
Releasing the rest of the puppies
In an even more heart-warming story, when the remainder of the wild dog puppies were strong enough a few days later, an attempt was made to introduce them to another pack that didn't have any puppies of their own. Remarkably they made a den to protect the puppies, which further goes to show what intelligent and caring creatures wild dogs are.
If you ever meet a researcher when on safari
Sometimes, when you travel in Africa, you might come across researchers. If you get a chance to attend a presentation by them or just have a chat about their work around the fire in the evening, I highly recommend that you take this opportunity. Their work is incredibly important, and they are very passionate world experts in their fields. During my time living in Botswana, as well as the mission I was involved in with the wild dog team, I was also lucky enough to meet many other researchers and conservationists including those who are studying elephant populations and ranges, wildebeest and zebra migrations, and rhino conservation and protection.
When I worked in Namibia, I was often semi-resident at Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp, and this is a great place for safari tourists to engage with researchers. The camp has an onsite research centre and provides accommodation and logistical support for researchers. While staying there, I have spent time with people who study desert-adapted lions, brown hyaena, cheetah, and bats. On one memorable occasion, I went out to help protect a humanely caught wild cheetah from a dramatic desert thunder downpour and I spent an evening taking wing tissue samples from bats.
The work of researchers across Africa and the world is critical in understanding and conserving wildlife, environments, and biodiversity, but many researchers face significant funding shortages and can experience difficulties gaining access and research permissions.
However, the good news is that many of the safari operators that we work with provide financial and logistical support to conservation and research projects. Also, just by visiting Africa on safari, you are supporting conservation efforts by contributing to the economic case for protecting wilderness areas.
Conservation trusts and projects that we recommend
This wild dog relocation was a joint effort between the Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks, Botswana Predator Conservation Trust, and Wilderness Safaris: https://www.bpctrust.org/. However, there are many that you can get involved in during your time in Africa.
There are specific camps that work in directly with researchers and conservation projects. A few of our favourite would be:
- Hoanib Skeleton Coast – its research centre was mentioned above
- Desert Rhino Camp – has a partnership with Save the Rhino trust
- Hoanib Valley Camp – has a partnership with Giraffe Conservation Fund
- Abu – is based almost completely around elephant conservation
- Great Plains Selinda Explorers – offers a revised walking safari with scientific slant
And here are some links for the other conservation stories that Malcolm mentioned in Namibia. All of these researchers used Hoanib Skeleton Coast Park as a research base when Malcolm was there. This lodge is one of the best in Africa for guests to meet and engage with field researchers...
If you are interested in a conservation-focused safari, you can take a look at the Yellow Zebra special interests here, or if you’d prefer to talk to an expert like Malcolm, don’t hesitate to contact us here.