Ester and Bullseye’s Story
A Dog’s Life: Bullseye and Ester – the story of the trials and tribulations of two painted dogs in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe, monitored by Painted Dog Conservation
In November 2009, the team at Painted Dog Conservation (PDC) in Zimbabwe were inundated with reports of a new pack in the study area in Hwange National Park. All the reports mentioned three new females, one of which had a tracking collar on. Over the next few weeks, these three females were seen in the company of different males and it wasn’t until the team finally got a sighting of the girls, in company with four males “new to the project”, that they realised that these were three females, one of which had been collared by the team vet, Ester, who had abandoned the two males they were previously in company with, and instead teamed up with the four new boys on the block. The PDC finally managed to dart one of the males from this new pack who became known as Bullseye. He and the collared female (Ester) now were part of a new pack known as the Kutanga pack – Kutanga roughly translating as “something new”.
For a while, the PDC team were kept informed of the pack’s movements by reports of regular sightings from The Hide camp in Hwange, which benefitted from a healthy population of impala close to the camp, which in turn proved irresistible to the Kutanga pack.
It was The Hide who again contacted the team to say that one of the males, named Squirrel, seemed to be suffering and, after a few frustrating attempts the team darted him and treated a bite wound in the most delicate of places!! The pack seemingly waited for him to recover by staying in the Main Camp area for seven days, the entire Christmas to New Year period, so the team enjoyed many hours of dog watching over the holiday period and managed to also fit another protective collar to one of the other males, named Moth. With three members now collared, the team had a good idea of the pack’s movements and were hopeful that they would produce a litter of pups in June 2010.
In February 2010, the fortunes of the Kutanga pack took a turn for the worse. Having tracked the pack down it became apparent that Bullseye had been badly hurt and was limping along on 3 legs, with his front left leg held high up under his shoulder, clearly in pain, and not prepared to put any weight on it. Fortunately, the PDC team had a British vet visiting the project as part of the Wildlife Vets International support to PDC.
After repeated attempts to get in position and dart Bullseye, the sedative dart finally hit its target and Bullseye slowed and wobbled slightly on his three legs. He lay down in a thicket, his head getting lower and lower until he was asleep. The rest of the pack looked on as the team began to investigate the problem. The smell from the wound was terrible. It was full of maggots and very deep. Maybe a bite wound, certainly something had punctured very deep. Fifty minutes later Bullseye started to come around, the vet quickly finished off what he could do under the conditions and was happy enough. He had really cleaned the wound and given long acting anti–biotic plus treatment to keep the wound as clean and free from flies as possible. Now only time would tell. If there was no improvement after three weeks, the team had to consider getting Bullseye to a vet for surgery. As it happened, thanks to their remarkable ability to recover and the attention of this pack, he recovered well and within a few short weeks was back to full hunting duties.
After initial euphoria that the alpha female, Ester, was pregnant and had successfully delivered her pups, the team became very troubled by the subsequent behaviour of the Kutanga pack.
Their fears were confirmed when they walked into the den site. There was no sign of life. The Kutanga pack had moved 25 km away two days before this, something they would never do if they still had pups. The PDC team had seen the alpha female “Ester” mating in April and watched her closely during the weeks of her pregnancy, with the chief tracker, Jealous, often expressing concern that she “looked a bit thin.” Her due date was calculated and the team received confirmation of the den site via the GPS collar fitted onto Bullseye.
During the period May 31st to June 7th the GPS collar on Bullseye confirmed that he and thus the pack returned to the same place each day and, by doing so, he gave away the position of the den site. The pups were born on May 31st and the team were obviously excited and eagerly awaiting the day when they would be able to see the pups. Jealous saw the pack hunting in the Hwange Main Camp area on June 8th, which is roughly 10 km in a straight line from the den site. The alpha female was with the pack and he knew immediately that something was wrong. The pups were only a week old. She should have been with them!
The pack was monitored over the next couple of days as they hunted many kilometres from the den, and the team tried to remain positive, as the female was not with them. Then one evening she was there. They had killed a kudu and looked very full. The team have learnt over the years that during denning season the pack eat quickly and waste no time in rushing straight back to the den to feed the pups and/or any adults left on “pup guarding” duty. They sat in silence, rather despondent, watching the pack playing. They had no desire to go anywhere.
The team speculated endlessly on the fate of the pups. The distances the pack had to cover each day to find enough food are probably the best indicator of what happened. They believed that the alpha female was not getting enough food and though she carried the pregnancy full term, they believe that the pups born would have been very weak and she was unable to suckle them due to her own malnourishment, so they died. The team’s concerns over the state of the Hwange ecosystem have been growing and growing. Suitable prey species for the dogs have declined dramatically over the last 30 years and they are seeing the evidence of this now on a daily basis. Packs are covering more than 12 km a day hunting, when even in the late 1990s the average was only 6 km. Put simply, the energy they spend on such hunts may not be replenished by what they catch, which is obviously not a sustainable situation.
After losing their pups in June, they were now fully nomadic, covering enormous distances each day in the search for food.The GPS collar on Bullseye was filling in all of the gaps and indicated that the territory being used by the pack was approaching 2000 square kilometres! A typical territory size just ten years ago was 750 square kilometres.
The Kutanga were actually doing ok for once. Ester and Jealous had been doing a great job, keeping up the monitoring of the pack and dealing with what are now known as the “usual” issues with the Kutanga. One of the males, Moth, had a badly wounded ear, which was red raw and hanging down. Ester immobilized him and cleaned the wound. Alpha male, Bullseye, had been limping around but recovered quickly as he has a new young female, called Shoulder Patch, to attend to. However the pack were now spending a lot of time outside Hwange National Park and thus in the poaching “hot spots”, so the team decided that all of them should be collared. The collars not only give the team valuable information on each individual but also afford them some protection from snares and perilous roads.
Last year the PDC team were saddened by and disappointed for the Kutanga pack when the alpha female Ester lost her pups. No one expected a repeat of this in 2011. However, exactly the same scenario played out. Ester was clearly pregnant and the team were anticipating a new litter. However the alarm was raised when she disappeared from the pack again. With the help of the Lion Project plane, she was finally located on the outskirts of the small town of Dete. Not a great place to den! The project’s Anti Poaching units were mobilised into the area to sweep for snares and maintain a protective presence and she was monitored with growing concern. She was seen by the project manager but, although clearly pregnant, did not look close to giving birth. However, just a couple of days later she was back with the rest of her pack and again showed no sign of suckling or interest in the den site. The team walked in and confirmed that a den did exist but there was no sign of life.
It took the whole team a while to come to terms with this devastating news when every new puppy is a cause for celebration. They had never experienced anything like this before and speculated over the possible reasons. The project leader, Greg Rasmussen, has established a “body index scoring” protocol, which allows him to measure the physical condition of any individual dog from photographs. The project has the well-fed Ukusutha pack as the model of what a dog should look like.
The photographs of Ester showed that she was not in great physical shape and it was speculated that she was not in good enough condition to carry the pregnancy through to full term. Vets have also been consulted who have suggested that Ester may have a bacterial infection in her uterus. If this is the case then there is a plan for next year, if she manages to become pregnant again, which will mean treating her with specific antibiotics.
As if to underline the never-ending struggle for life and breeding success, Peter’s phone rang one evening with the kind of message that he is always dreading. Three dogs had been spotted and photographed by clients staying at The Hide Safari Camp. Closer examination of the photos revealed that one was carrying a snare around her neck. When the team received the photos it took only a second to identify the dogs as the Kutanga females. Juliette had been snared and to make matters worse, Bullseye was missing. The team needed to find the dogs and find them fast and so a plane was organised for the next day.
Peter did not sleep well that night and got up early to drive into the bush. The signal from Juliette’s collar soon reached his ears— the familiar beep, beep beep, confirming she was close by. He frantically checked for the other collars. Alpha female Ester was there, as was the third female, named Shoulder Patch. However, Bullseye was still missing. Following the three females Peter managed to look at Juliette through his binoculars and saw that the snare had not cut into her neck. She was lucky. She had a wound on the side of her mouth and another behind her left front leg. Neither looked too serious and his tension eased a little, but Bullseye was still missing and so was the priority.
The plane arrived – a 20-minute flight was all it took to locate Bullseye, approximately 10 kilometres northeast of Ganda Lodge. The collars fitted onto the dogs have three signals: a moving, a resting and a mortality signal. The signal Peter was receiving from Bullseye’s collar suggested he was moving. They landed and quickly drove to the nearest point, picking up some anti- poaching scouts on the way. Peter continued to listen to the signal as they walked into the bush and it changed to a resting pulse. The team hurried on and came across the brutal scenes of Bullseye’s death. The remains of his body were still caught by the cruel snare. Vultures had been feeding on his carcass, creating the movement that had given rise to the false hope. Peter was devastated and dropped to his knees by Bullseye’s side. The snare, made from copper telephone wire, encircled his waist.
Peter states “Witnessing these scenes does not get any easier, no matter how many times you see it. The agony of his death is hard to imagine. My despair turned to anger as I surveyed the scene. We recovered 15 snares that had accounted for an elephant and an impala, as well as Bullseye.”
This life and death story is typical of the trials and tribulations faced every day by painted dog packs in Zimbabwe. Bullseye’s death has meant that the Kutanga pack has dispersed with the three young males heading off to find new females and the two existing females, including Ester, now face an uncertain future and spend much of their time hanging around the PDC Rehabilitation Centre, as if they know that there, at least, they are safe.
This one story, with its highs and lows, encapsulates all that PDC is doing to try and save this beautiful and endangered species from extinction. It has involved tracking and collaring the dogs in an effort to save them from the snares, anti-poaching patrols, veterinary intervention to save them from life-threatening injuries, investigations into failed pregnancies, aerial searches and finally the importance of the rehabilitation facility in possibly organising a new pack for the Kutunga females.
This is everyday life for the staff of Painted Dog Conservation and to be successful, we need your help . .