A Story of Africa's Cats and Dogs

“Naaaaaaaaaaaaaaants ingonyama bagithi baba”

It is 3:45 in the morning, the sun has not even thought about rising, yet my alarm is blaring, and I cannot help but smile (after first, in a half-awake frenzy, find my phone and shut off the alarm). 

For those of you who are not fluent in Zulu the above is from the intro of a song all of us are very familiar with. You know, those iconic words that no one really knows how-to-say-but-sings-them-anyway as the sun rises in the opening scene from The Lion King? That is them. Now you know. Sing away. (But seriously, is there a more epic alarm tone to have in Africa?) 

So, why exactly am I waking up at 3:45 in the morning? To go find the dogs. And I am not talking about my faithful mutt, Ryno, who accompanies me on most of my adventures. I am talking about African wild dogs. The second most endangered carnivore in all of Africa (second to the Ethiopian wolf). I “live,” and I use the term live loosely because I have a really nomadic gypsy lifestyle, but we’ll get into that later… anyways I live in Madikwe Game Reserve in South Africa along the border of Botswana. Some days, often my favourite days, start out with finding one of the resident wild dog packs by using telemetry to listen for a “beep” in a sea of static that indicates the dogs are close. 

I spend a few hours monitoring them, watching them and recording their behaviour – who is lying next to who? who initiates a hunt? when did they last eat? how far have they moved since they were last seen? These data are important for research which can help us in conservation efforts to save this incredible species. 

One of the packs in particular that I monitor is a pack that was artificially formed. Often when wild dogs reach about one to two years of age, same-sex groups will leave their natal packs and range to find mates and start a new pack. This is to ensure better genetic diversity as opposed to mating within their pack where they are probably all related. Wild dogs can disperse extremely long distances, dispersal groups have been recorded travelling over 450 km before! And while that is an amazing feat, it is a huge problem in South Africa where many of our protected areas are fenced. To combat that, wild dogs are managed through a metapopulation system. The Wild Dog Advisory Group – South Africa keeps a studbook of the wild dogs throughout South Africa and humans then play a role in helping dispersal groups to travel the vast distances (usually by vehicle or by air) to meet other unrelated dogs and form a new pack. Think of it as a wild dog match maker service. Wild dogs are joined together in a boma to establish a bond and then once the pack looks cohesive, they are released into the reserve. This is exactly what happened with one of the Madikwe packs. Four of the females were born in Madikwe and left their pack to find mates, but there were no males in the area. So, four males were brought in from KwaZulu-Natal to meet the ladies. And now I follow them at the crack of dawn to make sure they are all still getting along and acting like a pack should while recording valuable data that might help in future artificial pack formations. 

And this is not even my day job. Well, I guess you can call it my dawn and dusk job? I am a research technician for Panthera. Panthera is the only organisation in the world that is devoted exclusively to the conservation of the world’s 40 wild cat species and their ecosystems. This is where my gypsy lifestyle comes in to play. No, I absolutely cannot dance to save my life, but I do travel. A lot. The longest I have stayed in one location consecutively in the past two years was for five weeks. Have Cruiser and dog, will travel is basically my life motto.

My position at Panthera has me setting up and running camera trap surveys nearly all-over South Africa collecting data on leopard population trends and densities. How often do you just go out and see a leopard in the bush? Unless you are in the Sabi Sands, the answer is probably not as often as you’d like. We use motion-activated camera traps placed strategically in key sites to capture images of leopards as they walk past. Did you know that a leopard’s spot pattern is unique to the individual? Just like our fingerprints. Using these unique spot patterns, we can identify and count individuals, and then over time find out what leopard populations are doing. With that information, conservation strategies can be created to combat the decline in leopard populations. Cool, hey?

Oh wait… there’s more. These cameras catch a whole lot more than just leopards. They take a photo of anything that walks by. Using the data from the camera traps, I am also looking into population densities of another spotted African cat – the serval. Very little scientific research has been done on servals, and we want to know what is going on with their populations. And if you do not know what a serval is, I suggest you go and Google it right now. Don’t worry, I will wait. Are you doing it?

Cute, hey? Servals are super elegant, long-legged, big-eared hunting machines. But they are extremely elusive and predominately nocturnal which means they are not seen often at all on safari and many people do not even know they exist. All that leads to them not being of much interest to donors wanting to spend money on conservation. Lucky for us, leopards are “sexy” and people like spending their money on sexy. Servals can benefit from the money spent on the conservation of leopards. We just need someone willing to do the analysis – which is what I end up doing during my “office days” after spending the morning monitoring wilds dogs. (See look, we just circled back to the beginning). 

Basically, if you are still reading all of this, you might have figured it out by now, I pretty much live and breathe conservation. Which is why I was so ecstatic to not only find a company like Sapmok, but to have the honour to become an ambassador for their brand. The leather comes from ethical tanneries (there is even a vegan line) and they focus on environmental responsibility. I practically live in my vellies, so finding a company with such strong values and such a quality product has been a game changer for me. 

“The things you are passionate about are not random, they are your calling.” - Fabienne Fredrickson

Feel free to follow along in my adventures on my Instagram @jotaylorwild or on my Twitter @tigerbushcat