Dr. Kate Jenks is a Conservation Biologist at the Minnesota Zoo. She was recently in Thailand leading the Zoo’s efforts to save endangered dholes (otherwise known as Asian wild dogs) in partnership with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI). The team was hoping to place GPS collars on dholes to track their movement patterns and assess threats to their survival. This work is funded through private contributions to the Minnesota Zoo Foundation and grants to SCBI.
Studying elusive dholes in the wild is about as easy as nailing jello to a tree. First, no one has even heard of dholes. Second, no one is studying them. Third, there is a reason why no one is studying them…you can’t find them! So, how did I ever becoming interested in saving this endangered species? Flashback to the middle of a tropical rainforest in Thailand, nearly ten years ago. As part of an internship at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI), I was acting field manager of a project to study clouded leopards in the wild. Clouded leopards are also elusive and to find them every month we backpacked for days to place camera traps in the forest. Camera traps are cameras that are secured to trees and automatically, 24 hours a day, take photos of anything that moves in front of the camera. During one of those trips, sitting around the camp fire at night, I asked the rangers, “What is the scariest animal in the forest?” I expected them to answer, tigers, or maybe a herd of elephants. The answer? Dholes.
A dhole is not a big aggressive fearsome beast. Dholes are wild dogs, reddish-brown in color, and 30 pounds (about the size of a border collie). Yes, they hunt in packs and are fearsome predators, but they in no way pose a threat to humans. So, I was intrigued by the rangers’ impressions of dholes. And, as I learned more about the species, I found out that they are endangered, but one of the least-studied of the canids.
I have been studying dholes for eight years through graduate school and now working as a Conservation Biologist at the Minnesota Zoo. I am grateful that the Minnesota Zoo Foundation supports our international fieldwork. Up until this year, my colleagues and I had only collected detailed information about one dhole pack. Like clouded leopards, we use cameras in the forest to locate dholes and learn about the time of day they are most active. We can gather even more information by fitting dholes with a GPS collar to track their every move. That doesn’t sound that difficult, right? You might imagine putting a collar on your dog at home. But putting a collar on a wild animal and one where there are fewer than 2,500 left in the wild is a tremendous challenge. Just to get permission for the task we needed a permit to work in Thailand, a permit to conduct research in a wildlife sanctuary, and a permit to work with live animals. We needed funding, a trained field staff, and an available veterinarian. Oh, and we needed to know where to find the dholes! All of this takes time. And all of this has to come together at the same time. So, no, it is not as simple as putting a collar on your dog at home. It took me eight years to get GPS collars on three dholes and in future posts I’d like to tell you about the most recent two.