Climate change impact on wildlife

Study linking climate change to African wild dog mortality finds human activity responsible for almost half of deaths.

High temperatures have contributed to an increase in human activity-related African wild dog deaths, with humans responsible for almost half of deaths at study sites, our African wild dog research with Predator Conservation Trust and African Wildlife Conservation Fund published in Ecology and Evolution.

The study found that higher ambient temperatures are associated with a higher risk of African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus) being killed by people or diseases spread by domestic dogs. Overall, the study – which took place at sites in Kenya, Botswana and Zimbabwe – found that intentional and unintentional killing by humans, as well as disease spread by domestic dogs, accounted for 44% of all African wild dog deaths at the study sites between 2002 and 2017. 

Climate change

African wild dog with collar tag for monitoring
African wild dog puppies in Zimbabwe

African wild dog population

African wild dogs are currently classed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of threatened species with the number of adults estimated at only 1,400 adults, and decreasing.

Findings indicate that higher temperatures may exacerbate the risk of mortality from other causes – a phenomenon that has also been observed in studies on humans. Our researchers have previously shown that African wild dogs shift the timing of their hunts and choice of habitat during hot weather, while their new study indicates the change of behaviour could now be bringing them into greater conflict with livestock farmers and diseases spread by domestic dogs. 

The study points to larger pack size as improving African wild dogs’ chances of survival, suggesting that larger packs are better at defending themselves, caring for individuals and avoiding predators, competitors and people. However, pack size is at risk of diminishing in the face of intentional and unintentional killings by humans and the spread of disease by domestic dogs.

African wild dog conservation

A pair of African wild dogs standing together at Whipsnade Zoo
Pack of west African wild dogs captured on a camera trap

African wild dog threats

Lead author Dr Daniella Rabaiotti, of ZSL’s Institute of Zoology, said: “African wild dogs are facing twin impacts of climate change. Our latest study shows that higher temperatures exacerbate the risk of death due to human-wildlife conflict, while – as ZSL reported in 2017 – rising temperatures also reduces their ability to successfully reproduce and survive to adulthood. 

“With higher temperatures limiting the wild dogs’ opportunity to hunt, this is also likely to leave individuals malnourished and immune systems compromised – making them more susceptible to the diseases carried by domestic dogs. These pressures on pack size, itself an important indicator of survival chances, could see the African wild dog spiral towards extinction.”

Reptiles vulnerability to climate change

“It’s clear from our study that the human impacts on African wild dog mortality are pervasive. This is particularly concerning because, as a highly social species with a strong hierarchy, individuals killed by humans can have a disproportionate impact at a population level. If a dominant male or female is lost a pack can splinter, reducing their ability to hunt, breed and fight off competing predators.

“The good news is that our findings indicate the impact of climate change on African wild dog mortality could be mitigated both locally and globally: resolving human-wildlife conflict and reducing disease transmission from domestic dogs could help to make African wild dog populations more robust in the face of climate change, while by lowering our individual carbon footprints we can all contribute to the survival of these incredible animals.”

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