Working Dogs for Conservation
Working Dogs for Conservation
News Article | May 16, 2017
Cheetahs' rarity and elusiveness poses a problem for conservationists. To conserve the species, we need to know where they still persist, and whether their numbers are increasing or decreasing. But how can we quickly and cheaply estimate their abundance? Over more than two decades of studying and conserving cheetahs, I have tried many ways of counting them. I have tried simply looking for cheetahs and individually identifying them. This works well. But it requires cheetahs that don't flee from vehicles, an open habitat – and a lot of time and patience. In short, this approach only works on the Serengeti plains and has been key to our long-term Serengeti Cheetah Project which has gathered information on individually known cheetah for decades. I have tried counting spoor – cheetah footprints left in the dust of dirt roads. Even in the Serengeti, where cheetah densities are at their highest, I had to drive an average of 50km to find just a single spoor. At least 30 such observations are needed for a reliable density estimate. Remote camera traps can also work in some circumstances and citizen science in tourist areas. But none of these methods work across different habitats, and all need substantial infrastructure and considerable investment in time. Could the answer to finding cheetah lie with another animal? Dogs have some of the world's most sensitive snouts. We put these to the test in a remote corner of Zambia. One of the things dogs can sniff out very successfully – as any canine's owner will know – is poop. But poop has important properties beside smell. Food, as it passes through the digestive tract and rectum, accumulates DNA from the intestinal and rectal walls, which becomes embedded within the poop. This DNA is a unique genetic signature of individuals. Therefore if you can find cheetah scat, you can extract DNA and identify the genotype of that individual. Cheetahs defecate at least once a day, hence cheetah scat should occur across a landscape more frequently than the cheetah themselves. It follows that, if you can find enough scat and extract DNA from it, you may be able to estimate the numbers of individual cheetah in the population. Finding scat, rather than cheetah, has the added advantage in that scat doesn't run away. So far, so good. But there is a flaw in this plan. Cheetahs, who are largely non territorial, don't defecate in nice, easy to find, prominent locations. As a result, their scat is extremely difficult to detect. Harnessing the power of the canine snout This is where the poop-detecting power of the canine snout comes into play. Domestic dogs are increasingly playing an important role in conservation. Organisations such as Working Dogs for Conservation, and Green Dogs specialise in training domestic dogs for conservation work. They harness the dogs' natural poop detection ability, by training them to find poop of a particular species, signal their trainer when they have found it, and, above all, resist the temptation to eat any poop they find. Could domestic dogs be the key to counting cheetah? Together with my colleagues from the Zambian Carnivore Programme and the Zambia Department of National Parks and Wildlife, we teamed up with Working Dogs for Conservation and Green Dogs to put domestic dogs to the test. This is what brought a team of large carnivore conservationists, two dogs (Faust and Pepin) and their trainers to a remote corner of western Zambia, where a low density, but unknown, population of cheetah still survives in and around the Liuwa Plain National Park. At first, the dogs struggled to find scat on our pre-designated dog walking transects. This was when we started to notice the conspicuous absence of the dogs' poop around our camp. On closer inspection, we were alarmed to discover that, no sooner had a new deposition of poop been made, a small army of dung beetles appeared and started rolling it away in large bundles. A large healthy pile of steaming dog poop could disappear completely in a matter of hours. Having been an observer of cheetah poop in the Serengeti over many years, this was a first for me, and it caused me a substantial amount of anxiety. Fortunately, as the dogs moved south, they started to find cheetah scat laden with bone and hair. This, presumably, was much less appealing to a passing dung beetle. In fact, the dogs turned out to be very successful at finding cheetah scat. In all, they found 27 scats over a survey area of 2,400km2. Humans, on similar transects looking for spoor, found none. This neatly demonstrated the superiority of the canine snout over the human eye when it came to detecting the presence of cheetah. These scats were combined with a number of opportunistically collected scat. The DNA extracted from the scat samples were of poor quality, and so interpreting the genotypes wasn't always easy. However, we were able to generate an estimate of between 17-19 cheetah in the area, with a density of 6-7 individuals per 1000km2. The preliminary estimate of genetic effective population size was low, at just 8-14 individuals, and requires further investigation. Many areas where cheetah still survive are remote and difficult to access. Prior to this study, there were no viable methods for obtaining reliable information on cheetah abundance in most of these areas. The beauty of using detection dogs was that surveys could be conducted on foot, and the whole survey took not much more than three weeks, although genetic work could take substantially more time. Our study, therefore, provides an important step forward in our ability to detect cheetahs across large landscapes, monitor them and assess population trends. Such information is critical for mobilising conservation action and resources to halt the global decline of this elusive and secretive big cat. Explore further: Using dogs to find cats
Filazzola A.,York University |
Westphal M.,Bureau of Land Management |
Powers M.,Bureau of Land Management |
Liczner A.R.,York University |
And 3 more authors.
Basic and Applied Ecology | Year: 2017
Research on plant-animal interactions has been focused on direct consumer interactions (i.e. plants as resources), but non-trophic interactions including providing shelter or interference with movement can also affect the fine-scale distribution of animals. In particular, non-trophic interactions that are positive could support threatened animal populations. Positive interactions have been used in the restoration of plant communities, but have not yet been extended to the management of animal habitat. In this study, we tested the hypothesis that non-trophic interactions influence the occurrence of an endangered lizard species in an arid shrub-annual system. At a location known to have a population of blunt-nosed leopard lizards (Gambelia sila), we geotagged 700 shrubs, measured shrub morphometric traits, collected biomass samples, and surveyed for lizard presence using scat detection dogs over two years. Relative to 2014, in 2013 plant productivity was high and lizard scats were found more frequently in areas with low invasive grass cover (i.e. residual dry matter, RDM). In 2014, plant productivity was low because of an extreme drought year, and lizard scats were more frequently observed under shrub canopies, particularly those with relatively dense cover. These findings support the novel theory that positive non-trophic interactions are a critical form of plant-animal interactions in addition to consumption. Dominant shrubs can act as a foundation species by functioning as a basal node in structuring both plant and animal communities through a network of interactions. Managing dominant plants, in addition to habitat, is therefore important for conserving animal species in arid ecosystems. © 2017 Gesellschaft für Ökologie.
Masozera M.,Widlife Conservation Society Africa Program |
Erickson J.D.,University of Vermont |
Clifford D.,Wildlife Investigations Laboratory |
Coppolillo P.,Working Dogs for Conservation |
And 2 more authors.
Environmental Management | Year: 2013
Sustainable management of landscapes with multiple competing demands such as the Ruaha Landscape is complex due to the diverse preferences and needs of stakeholder groups involved. This study uses conjoint analysis to assess the preferences of representatives from three stakeholder groups - local communities, district government officials, and non-governmental organizations - toward potential solutions of conservation and development tradeoffs facing local communities in the Ruaha Landscape of Tanzania. Results demonstrate that there is little consensus among stakeholders about the best development strategies for the Ruaha region. This analysis suggests a need for incorporating issues deemed important by these various groups into a development strategy that aims to promote conservation of the Ruaha Landscape and improve the livelihood of local communities. © 2013 Springer Science+Business Media New York.
PubMed | Cheetah Conservation Project Zimbabwe, Heritage Foundation, Environment General Authority EGA, Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research and 27 more.
Type: Journal Article | Journal: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America | Year: 2016
Establishing and maintaining protected areas (PAs) are key tools for biodiversity conservation. However, this approach is insufficient for many species, particularly those that are wide-ranging and sparse. The cheetah Acinonyx jubatus exemplifies such a species and faces extreme challenges to its survival. Here, we show that the global population is estimated at 7,100 individuals and confined to 9% of its historical distributional range. However, the majority of current range (77%) occurs outside of PAs, where the species faces multiple threats. Scenario modeling shows that, where growth rates are suppressed outside PAs, extinction rates increase rapidly as the proportion of population protected declines. Sensitivity analysis shows that growth rates within PAs have to be high if they are to compensate for declines outside. Susceptibility of cheetah to rapid decline is evidenced by recent rapid contraction in range, supporting an uplisting of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List threat assessment to endangered. Our results are applicable to other protection-reliant species, which may be subject to systematic underestimation of threat when there is insufficient information outside PAs. Ultimately, conserving many of these species necessitates a paradigm shift in conservation toward a holistic approach that incentivizes protection and promotes sustainable human-wildlife coexistence across large multiple-use landscapes.
Ralls K.,Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute |
Sharma S.,Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute |
Smith D.A.,Working Dogs for Conservation |
Bremner-Harrison S.,California State University, Bakersfield |
And 2 more authors.
Journal of Wildlife Management | Year: 2010
Noninvasive survey methods based on analyzing DNA extracted from feces can be useful for carnivores that are difficult to study by other methods. Changes in fecal deposition patterns associated with reproduction in kit foxes (Vulpes macrotis) might affect results of such surveys. We used a trained dog to collect fresh scats on 2-km transects in the home ranges of 11 radiocollared female kit foxes in January, February, and March 2008 and determined sex of the individual that deposited the scats by amplifying the zinc finger protein gene. Female foxes give birth in mid-February to mid-March. We found a similar number of scats each month. In January, the sex ratio of the scats was not different from the expected 11. However, in February there were almost 2 male scats for every female scat and in March there were >8 male scats for every female scat. Comparing March to January, there were more male scats on all 11 transects and fewer female scats on 10 of 11 transects. Around the time pups are born, both sexes appear to show changes in fecal deposition patterns that make it easier to find male scats and harder to find female scats. Effects of these changes on survey results will vary depending on the purpose and design of the survey. Surveys to determine distribution and relative abundance would probably not be negatively affected by these changes. However, if surveys to estimate abundance are conducted during the reproductive season, they could result in an underestimate of population size unless the increased heterogeneity in scat detectability is taken into account. © 2010 The Wildlife Society.
Shore R.F.,UK Center for Ecology and Hydrology |
Taggart M.A.,University of the Highlands and Islands |
Smits J.,University of Calgary |
Mateo R.,Institute Investigacion en Recursos Cinegeticos |
And 2 more authors.
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences | Year: 2014
Pharmaceuticals are highly bioactive compounds now known to be widespread environmental contaminants. However, research regarding exposure and possible effects in non-target higher vertebrate wildlife remains scarce. The fate and behaviour of most pharmaceuticals entering our environment via numerous pathways remain poorly characterized, and hence our conception and understanding of the risks posed to wild animals is equally constrained. The recent decimation of Asian vulture populations owing to a pharmaceutical (diclofenac) offers a notable example, because the exposure route (livestock carcasses) and the acute toxicity observed were completely unexpected. This case not only highlights the need for further research, but also the wider requirement for more considered and comprehensive ‘ecopharmacovigilance’. We discuss known and potential high risk sources and pathways in terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems where pharmaceutical exposure in higher vertebrate wildlife, principally birds and mammals, may occur. We examine whether approaches taken within existing surveillance schemes (that commonly target established classes of persistent or bioaccumulative contaminants) and the risk assessment approaches currently used for pesticides are relevant to pharmaceuticals, and we highlight where new approaches may be required to assess pharmaceutical-related risk. © 2014 The Author(s) Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.
PubMed | University of Calgary, Working Dogs for Conservation, University of the Highlands and Islands, Institute Investigacion en Recursos Cinegeticos and 2 more.
Type: Journal Article | Journal: Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences | Year: 2014
Pharmaceuticals are highly bioactive compounds now known to be widespread environmental contaminants. However, research regarding exposure and possible effects in non-target higher vertebrate wildlife remains scarce. The fate and behaviour of most pharmaceuticals entering our environment via numerous pathways remain poorly characterized, and hence our conception and understanding of the risks posed to wild animals is equally constrained. The recent decimation of Asian vulture populations owing to a pharmaceutical (diclofenac) offers a notable example, because the exposure route (livestock carcasses) and the acute toxicity observed were completely unexpected. This case not only highlights the need for further research, but also the wider requirement for more considered and comprehensive ecopharmacovigilance. We discuss known and potential high risk sources and pathways in terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems where pharmaceutical exposure in higher vertebrate wildlife, principally birds and mammals, may occur. We examine whether approaches taken within existing surveillance schemes (that commonly target established classes of persistent or bioaccumulative contaminants) and the risk assessment approaches currently used for pesticides are relevant to pharmaceuticals, and we highlight where new approaches may be required to assess pharmaceutical-related risk.
Beckmann J.P.,Wildlife Conservation Society |
Waits L.P.,University of Idaho |
Hurt A.,Working Dogs for Conservation |
Whitelaw A.,Working Dogs for Conservation |
Bergen S.,Wildlife Landscape Research
Western North American Naturalist | Year: 2015
In the northern U.S. Rockies, including the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), connectivity is a concern because large carnivores have difficulties dispersing successfully between protected areas. One area of high conservation value because of its importance for connecting the GYE to wilderness areas of central Idaho is the Centennial Mountains and surrounding valleys (2500 km2) along the Idaho-Montana border just west of Yellowstone National Park. The current expansion of grizzly bears (Ursus arctos) and other large carnivore populations outside protected areas of Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park has placed a greater emphasis on potential linkage zones in the northern Rockies. Here we use black bears (Ursus americanus) as a test case to demonstrate the utility of using detection dogs and DNA analysis coupled with resource selection probability function (RSPF) models to examine habitat suitability for large carnivores in critical linkage zones. Detection dogs specifically trained to locate the scat of black bears and grizzly bears were used to sample the study area. Here we report the RSPF results for black bears and discuss the utility of detection dogs for sampling species of carnivores to undertake similar analyses. Utilizing location data from genetic analysis of 616 fecal samples for black bears, we developed a RSPF model to examine use of the landscape with respect to habitat parameters, public land management, private lands, and human activities. The most parsimonious model determining probability of use for black bears included parameters for elevation, coniferous forest, land stewardship, road density, distance to roads, and an interaction between human population density and road density at the scale of 500 m. The model identified specific core-habitat areas in the region that potentially are crucial for the Yellowstone population of grizzly bears as it expands into areas west of Yellowstone National Park. Here we demonstrate that detection dogs are a useful method for sampling large carnivores and, when coupled with genetics and RSPF models, offer an effective approach to addressing questions of habitat suitability in areas of high conservation importance.
Zorrilla I.,Integrated Quality |
Martinez R.,Integrated Quality |
Taggart M.A.,University of the Highlands and Islands |
Richards N.,Working Dogs for Conservation
Conservation Biology | Year: 2015
Exposure to residues of the nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) diclofenac present in livestock carcasses has caused extensive declines in 3 Gyps vulture species across Asia. The carcass of a wild Eurasian Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus) was found in 2012 on an Andalucian (Spain) game hunting reserve and examined forensically. The bird had severe visceral gout, a finding consistent with Gyps vultures from Asia that have been poisoned by diclofenac. Liver and kidney samples from this Eurasian Griffon Vulture contained elevated flunixin (an NSAID) levels (median = 2.70 and 6.50 mg/kg, respectively). This is the first reported case of a wild vulture being exposed to and apparently killed by an NSAID outside Asia. It is also the first reported instance of mortality in the wild resulting from environmental exposure to an NSAID other than diclofenac. © 2014 Society for Conservation Biology.