22 August 2023
African wild dog populations could face total collapse unless urgent action is taken to stop global temperatures soaring, according to startling new research from our experts.
Published in Global Change Biology, the new study combines 16 years of data on the impacts of temperature on the Endangered species in northern Kenya to simulate how the patchwork-coated canines will fare as the planet heats up – with the population risking collapse within the next 100 years.
Dr Daniella Rabaiotti, researcher at our Institute of Zoology and lead author of the study said: “Think of animals at risk of disappearing forever due to climate change and you think of polar bears struggling to survive as ice melts around them, or brightly coloured corals fading to stark white as their ocean home becomes too acidic.
“Adapted for the warm sub-Saharan bush, African wild dogs are likely one of the last animals to cross your mind, yet we’ve shown that just like polar bears and coral reefs, the future of wild dogs depends on us taking immediate, drastic action to tackle climate change. This should act as a wake-up call for how quickly we could lose these animals - and others - for good if we don’t commit to rapid decarbonisation and the restoration of nature.”
By studying one wild dog population in Northern Kenya, the ground breaking research found that if local temperatures increase by 3°C – an increase we are on track to reach by the end of the century without immediate action to step up emission reductions – climate change could push African wild dog populations over an irreversible tipping point as early as 2070. Past this point, models predict population extinction within just a few decades.
How are African wild dogs impacted by climate change?
Under these hotter conditions, the number of African wild dog pups surviving to adulthood would not keep up with the number of adult dogs dying – leading to populations swiftly plummeting. With fewer packs – leading to a lower number of recently-matured wild dogs leaving their family group to form new ones — smaller populations would be worse affected than larger populations, seeing higher extinction risk even under current projections of climate warming.
Rabaiotti warned: “The collapse would be rapid. While the number of packs may initially appear stable as temperatures rise, just 1°C of warming by 2070 could see the number of adult African wild dogs decline by as much as 40% over the next 50 years. If we reach 3°C of warming, our model predicts the total collapse of the population, and by the time we start to see populations significantly shrinking, it’ll be too late to do anything about it.”
And with this study focussed on just one way that the climate crisis contributes to biodiversity loss, scientists fear the collapse may come even sooner than the models predict. Rabaiotti continued: “We were only able to research one piece of the puzzle - how rising temperatures impact wild dog hunting behaviour, reproduction and survival. The reality is, climate change is throwing a whole ensemble of new challenges and threats at wildlife. Disease spread, habitat loss, the loss of prey species – all of these are going to be exacerbated by a warming planet, each one making it increasingly harder for wild dogs to survive. As threats start to pile on top of one another, extinction risk starts to climb.”
The largest wild canine on the continent, African wild dogs are highly social animals who work with fellow pack members to raise pups. With only 700 packs estimated to remain the wild, each containing only one breeding female, the Endangered species now lives in fragmented pockets across their former range.
Rabaiotti added: “African wild dogs are just one species we’re set to lose, but once we’ve reached 3°C of warming, many other species will also be fighting to survive under climate change. We cannot afford to sit by and let countless species go extinct while we still have the chance to save them.”
Studying African wild dogs
Behind the modelling are data collected in Kenya over the course of 16 years by us in collaboration with the Kenya Wildlife Service as part of the Samburu-Laikipia Wild Dog Project, which our experts have previously used to show how hotter days make life harder for the dish-eared canines, as higher temperatures limit their hunting opportunities and leave them more vulnerable to disease.
Dedan Ngatia, Project Manager for the Samburu-Laikipia Wild Dog Project and a PhD student at our Institute of Zoology added: “It’s through years of working with these African wild dogs that we know how they fare with warmer temperatures – but there’s still more to learn as we work to protect their future. Other populations across Africa are expected to face more extreme conditions under climate change, so while we continue refining our knowledge studying the wild dogs in Kenya, our work expanding models to other populations will build an understanding of the future of African wild dogs further afield.”
Conservationists working to protect the species are now using newly-developed tracking collars to gather further data on the impacts of temperature on the species; trialled on African wild dogs living at our conservation zoos, London and Whipsnade Zoo, where they are part of an important global breeding programme for the species. This additional data will further strengthen understanding of how wild dogs, in Kenya and beyond, will be impacted by a warming planet.
Protecting wildlife from climate change
“We’re lucky to be able to glimpse the future for wild dogs before it becomes a reality,” added Rabaiotti. “A tipping point for total collapse likely exists for countless other species – but for many of them, we simply don’t have enough long-term data to know when this point will be. What we do know is that right now we still have a chance to act and protect wildlife across the world - but we have to act fast.”
Matthew Gould, our CEO, added: “Just 3°C difference in temperatures could decide whether wild dogs have a future or go extinct. Climate change and biodiversity loss are two interlinked crises. We have a short window to reverse climate change and protect nature before extraordinary damage is done. We need to commit to both decarbonisation and the restoration of nature if we are to prevent African wild dogs and countless other species from going extinct.”
We believe that nature can recover, and that conservation is most effective when driven by science. We call for science to guide all global decisions on environment and biodiversity and build a healthier future for wildlife, people and the planet.
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