Wild Entrust International

Bio Program

By Dr Peter J Apps, BPCT, Wildlife Chemistry Labratory

Perhaps the biggest obstacle facing the sustainability of populations of free-ranging African carnivores is reduced land space and conflict with humans. Although most African countries have set aside large areas in the form of national parks, game reserves, and management areas for wildlife protection, for extremely wide-ranging species, such as African wild dogs and cheetahs—both of which are endangered large carnivores—the areas are often far too limited in size to sustain viable populations. Worse yet is when human developments bordering these areas constitute a severe threat to the protected populations within. The inevitable existence of a boundary, often a mere line on a map or a human-constructed fence, sharply divides wild dogs and other large carnivore species from livestock areas where they are decidedly unwelcome and where there is little or no tolerance for them. “Lethal control” is the current management option for predators found in these habitats. As a result, there is an alarming “sink” into which a predator source population drains away, severely increasing the risk of extinction of an already threatened and endangered species. Short of constructing an impenetrable fence along the wildlife area boundaries or ranchers developing complete tolerance for free-ranging large predators—neither of which is even remotely likely—there are currently no humane management solutions to this ubiquitous wildlife problem.

Rather than depending on a fence, which typically has little relevance to free-roaming wildlife, our proposal is to develop a “BioFence,” a natural boundary of scent marks that mimic the semiochemicals (territorial scent marks) of neighboring wildlife. We hope this solution will serve to limit the numbers of free-ranging wild carnivores coming into conflict with people and their livestock, and slow the devastating impact of the loss of carnivore populations.

Background

All large carnivore species live at comparatively low population densities, have large territories, and rely on communication at their territorial boundaries to inform and discourage intrusions by neighbors and potential competitors. To that end, free-ranging carnivores routinely scent mark throughout their ranges for widely varying purposes, such as reproduction, territoriality, or dominance. Rarely does this entail direct encounters because the costs of an escalated territorial dispute are potentially high and include serious, sometimes fatal injuries.

Our challenge in working toward a BioFence is to first identify various scent marks as territorial, reproductive or boundary. Through the study of African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus), a species that relies entirely on semiochemistry to communicate with their neighbors, we hope to identify and replicate the complex interplay of volatile chemicals used in territorial scent marks, opening the door to developing synthetic signals to communicate specific messages aimed at managing wildlife behavior.

The Challenge

Over the past decade, cutting-edge work on the molecular genetics and neurophysiology of olfaction has grown, and we now know more about how chemical signals are detected and processed than about the chemical composition of the signals themselves. The time is ripe for a renewed focus on the analysis of chemical signals to link the behavior of whole animals to their olfactory genetics and physiology.

We propose to research the territorial scent marking behavior of African wild dogs by a program of intensive fieldwork integrated with the identification of semiochemically active scent mark components in a dedicated semiochemistry research laboratory. The aim is to use artificial scent marks to limit movements by wild dogs into areas where they come into conflict with people and their livestock.

To work on semiochemicals in wild animals, a dedicated analytical chemistry laboratory must be strongly and directly linked to focused fieldwork. Historically, the link between field biology and laboratory chemistry has been neglected; field and laboratory have been separated by geography, specialization, and radical differences in scientific approach and expertise.

The challenge is to jump ahead of the traditional semiochemistry paradigm by combining top-class field biology with top-class chemistry. With sufficient, sustained resources this challenge can be met.