African Wild Dogs are back in Gorongosa National Park

African wild dogs are back in Gorongosa National Park thanks to the hard work and dedication of all organisations and individuals involved in the great Gorongosa Restoration Project (GRP). This same team is rehabilitating pangolins in a special treatment centre in the park, making headline conservation news to inspire the world to take a renewed interest in Gorongosa. 

It just so happens that safari holidays to this leading Mozambique park are trending. As tourists book packaged tours to Gorongosa, so passionate wildlife rangers and researchers are on a ceaseless mission to save the highly threatened painted wolves and scaly pangolins under the GRP banner. This is the inspiring story of the pangolin rehabilitation project and the relocation of African wild dogs to Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique. 

Pack of wild dogs walking down a path in Gorongosa
African wild dogs are social and live in packs, with the average pack size being between 5 and 20 dogs.

Gorongosa National Park has been working alongside the Mozambique Government for more than 20 years to successfully restore the game reserve to its former pre-civil war glory. In its heyday, Gorongosa was one of the richest global biodiversity hotspots ever seen and a leading safari destination in Africa. For the past two decades, the GRP has relied on conservation, science, community involvement and tourism to bring the park back to life, translocating wild animals and restoring the land and infrastructure step by step. Thanks to these brave endeavours, African wild dogs and endangered pangolins can once again live in harmony in the Gorongosa National Park habitats from whence they come, safely protected from poaching and human encroachment.

The IUCN Red List lists African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus) as endangered and the rarest carnivore in South Africa with only 550 individuals left in the country and about 6600 left in all of Africa. These ‘painted wolves’ are threatened by habitat destruction, human harassment, and disease eruptions.

For now, the IUCN status of the 8 pangolin species ranges from vulnerable to critically endangered. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) notes that 4 pangolin species live in Africa: Black-bellied pangolin (Phataginus tetradactyla), White-bellied pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis), Giant Ground pangolin (Smutsia gigantea) and Temminck’s Ground pangolin (Smutsia temminckii). And 4 pangolin species live in Asia: Indian pangolin (Manis crassicaudata), Philippine pangolin (Manis culionensis), Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica) and the Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla). These tiny scaly creatures are threatened by overhunting, trafficking, habitat loss, human agriculture, human development and climate change.

A wild pangolin walking through the bush
Fun fact ~ A single pangolin can eat up to 70 million insects in a year!

The Rehabilitation of African Wild Dogs and Pangolins in Mozambique

This is the inspiring story of the pangolin rehabilitation project and the relocation of African wild dogs to Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, a tale of heroism, challenges and the realities of human greed and habitat destruction. Wild dogs play a vital role in the African ecosystem because when they kill an animal, they feed their entire pack and they leave pickings for vultures who need to survive. In addition, the hunt drives smaller antelopes into areas the dogs rarely visit. The park is so vast that wild dogs have yet to traverse 68% of the habitat, opening doors for more wild dog reintroductions over time. Scientists predict that the ongoing recovery of wild dogs in Gorongosa could build a larger connected population that moves across the wider Gorongosa-Marromeu range. 

Meanwhile, illegal wildlife trafficking is on the rise and Gorongosa National Park rangers rescued 13 trafficked pangolins in 2019 alone and authorities confiscated nearly 50 tons of pangolin scales – sad news for the most criminally trafficked animal in the world.  During 2020, authorities recorded another 31 cases of pangolin trafficking, and these rescued animals were cared for at the newly created Pangolin Rehabilitation Centre in the Park. They have since been released under careful watch by trained game guards. 

Game rangers holding a pangolin and taking it to the rehabilitation centre
Each year, Gorongosa rangers rescue multiple pangolins from poachers and/or traffickers operating in Central Mozambique.

These are two of Africa’s most encouraging wildlife conservation success stories – the rehabilitation and restoration of both African wild dogs and pangolins in Gorongosa National Park. In fact, the GRP is one of the greatest good news stories to come out of Mozambique since the devastating civil war that lasted from 1977 to 1992. It’s a true example of the phoenix rising from the ashes. Most of the animals in the park died during the war and the land was decimated. In fact, not one African wild dog was seen between 2012 and 2018. This was the year that 14 painted wolves were reintroduced into the park after a gap of more than 25 years and today, scientists have counted more than an astounding 100 individuals! 

In a similar scenario, the ongoing poaching of pangolins encouraged the Mozambican government to join hands with Gorongosa in 2020 to protect these animals and set up better legal frameworks to regulate the criminal exploitation of wildlife resources across Africa. There is absolutely no truth in the belief that pangolin scales are medicinal. They comprise keratin, just like human fingernails, but the Asian market demands the poaching of up to 2.7 million pangolins every year. 

How Gorongosa Got its Wild Dog Population Back

The entire African wild dog population disappeared from a thriving wilderness area in Gorongosa National Park during the destructive Mozambique civil war, 1977 – 1992. Since then, the painted wolves have been reintroduced in a massive project to reinject life into the park after a 25-year hiatus.  In 2018, a combined effort by the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), the Wild Dog Advisory Group (WAG), the Mozambique government and Gorongosa National Park management translocated 6 females and 9 adult males from Phongola Nature Reserve, Lake Jozini, KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. Then, a year later, 9 adult males and 6 females were translocated from Khamab Kalahari Reserve in South Africa’s Northwest Province to Gorongosa. 

a tiny African painted wolf pup in Gorongosa National Park of Mozambique
Pups are the most important part of the pack as the alpha female, being the oldest and alpha male, being the strongest, are the typically the only breeders.

Researchers discovered that holding the new wild dogs together before release in enclosures helped them to bond and form pairs. Then, upon release, these wild dogs formed natural packs as they dispersed widely into the huge park. These packs of painted wolves then had puppies with a survival rate of 73%, all deaths occurring from natural causes. The population grew naturally and notably because the wild dogs deliberately avoided lion territories and human villages – with the support of the Gorongosa Restoration Project’s brilliant management techniques. Wild dogs have existed on the continent for nearly 4 million years in mostly sub-Saharan Africa but the ongoing fragmentation of their territory by commercial farmers and rural villagers is causing enormous losses as they require vast areas in which to hunt and breed. 

A row of african wild dog pups walking over a rock
A row of African Wild Dog pups marching one by one through the wilderness!

How incredible that 50 pups were born in 2020 alone and improved genetics from new pack formations have increased their chances of survival in the long term. In another historical first for Gorongosa’s wild dog rehabilitation programme, three of the new males born in 2019 in the park were successfully moved to Karingani Game Reserve. This marks the first-ever wild dog translocation within Mozambique to promote bonding with females in Karingani. The plan is to move these bonded pairs to Malawi to pioneer a completely new range in that country! Very few people know that Karingani Game Reserve in southern Mozambique, on the borders with Kruger and Limpopo National Parks, is a vital environmental conservation area for several endangered mammals. 

The Painted Wolves are Now Thriving

Gorongosa headline conservation news is that the painted wolves are now thriving, 5 years later – there are pups everywhere! In 2020, 50 pups were born, 22 of which emerged from the two new packs of wild dogs released in 2019. The unique partnership between the EWT, the Bateleurs and the Mozambique Government is enabling the successful recovery of an endangered species, great news for conservation in Africa. Not many people know that the Bateleurs is a team of volunteer pilots who assist conservation organisations in doing aerial surveys or flying animals from one location to the next free of charge and they rely on public donations. 

The mother wild dog looking over her pups in Gorongosa
African wild dog puppies are exclusively nursed by their mother for the first three weeks of life.

Painted wolves are critically endangered due to human-induced habitat destruction and fragmentation but the plan is to encourage the packs to move in managed territories. So, the GRP now manages the greater Gorongosa-Marromeu range, stretching a massive 2800 square km both within and without the park, to boost the conservation of all species. Wild dogs need vast home ranges to survive as free-ranging animals and the merging of conservation areas in Africa is a necessary goal.  Most game reserves and national parks are surrounded by farms and rural villages so the dogs come under immediate threat if they leave the reserves.

Pangolins Under Threat – The World’s Most Trafficked Animal

All eight species of pangolins in Africa and Asia are threatened with extinction owing to their terrifying status as the world’s most trafficked animal. More than 1 million pangolins were trafficked over 10 years according to 2019 data which equates to one pangolin being poached every 3 minutes! Some human beings seem to think that the scales can cure skin diseases, asthma and ulcers but this is a fallacy! 

A staff member at Gorongosa holding a Pangolin
The pangolin is endangered, and is the most trafficked mammal in the world.

World Pangolin Day falls on 15 February every year to highlight the plight of these poor creatures, also rampantly poached to satisfy the Chinese and Vietnamese penchant for their meat and body parts. They are therefore worth $750 a kilogram, an exorbitant price forcing the Asian pangolins into near extinction. As the Asians close in on African pangolins, the Mozambican authorities are tightening the laws around species protection, and national parks like Gorongosa are coming to the party to protect these vulnerable and innocent creatures. 

Pangolins are unfortunately very easy to catch as they are shy nocturnal animals that use their sharp claws to dig into termite heaps for food.  When threatened they curl up into a ball to protect their soft bellies and legs but this makes them easier prey for humans who simply pick them up. Deforestation in Africa and Asia is also driving pangolins over the brink and fortunately, Gorongosa has set in place an excellent community reforestation programme.  Numbers are estimated to be 150 000 left in the wild in Africa but many pangolin poaching incidents go unrecorded or slip through the cracks. 

How Gorongosa Is Rehabilitating Pangolins and then Releasing Them

Gorongosa National Park rescues and rehabilitates critically endangered African pangolins at a centre in Chitengo, in the south of the Park. Since 2018, more than 73 of these extraordinary animals have been saved from poachers and bush meat traders. Pangolins have always been endemic to Gorongosa and adjacent provinces but wildlife traffickers poach them for the Asian market where the scales are used in medicine and the meat is sold in open markets. Sadly, local Mozambicans get caught up in the trade, bribed to catch pangolins for Asian kingpins. 

Pangolins eat termites and ants, playing a primary role in the food web, maintaining the ant and termite populations, and their burrowing skills aerating the soil. The conservation team at Gorongosa started the first rescue programme ever for this mammal in 2018 and, to date, about 100 pangolins have been rescued and released back into the wild. 

A Gorongosa ranger holding a pangolin in the park
During the first half of 2019, Park rangers rescued 27 trafficked pangolins in Sofala and Manica provinces. This number is growing and more and more are being saved every year by these brave heroes!

Wildlife rangers guard them closely using satellite technology – each individual is tagged and constantly monitored for research and survival reasons. As communities become more aware of Pangolins through education programmes, they reveal more to authorities, helping to reduce the trafficking over the years. Poaching has already decreased by 60% on the Gorongosa boundaries thanks to the dedicated team of 260 wildlife rangers trained in law enforcement. They fight the illegal trade in ivory, pangolins, skins, bushmeat, body parts and more and they are committed to conservation and human rights. It’s hard work to patrol nearly 12 000 square km of habitat including the buffer zone where many villagers live. Ecotourism helps to fund this programme and highlights the benefits for both parks and communities.

African wild dogs and pangolins are iconic species with special habitat needs so saving these species in Gorongosa Mozambique will automatically save their natural habitat and ensure the ongoing conservation of wildlife and landscape in Africa. Community involvement is a necessary part of this inspiring story of the pangolin rehabilitation project and the relocation of African wild dogs to Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique.