Wildlife biologist has dedicated years researching endangered wild dogs in the Botswana bush
By Carey Quan Gelernter
When wildlife biologist John “Tico” McNutt ’75 first arrived in northern Botswana’s Okavango Delta in 1989 as a Ph.D. student, he thought he’d be staying 18 months, tops. He had come to help out at a struggling bush research camp run by a University of California, Davis professor, where they were studying a population of chacma baboons.
He had no notion then that, far from leaving Botswana in 18 months, he would never really leave at all. Or that over the next 26 years, he would become known as the world’s foremost expert on the African wild dog; raise two children in the bush with his anthropologist wife and collaborator, Lesley Boggs McNutt; and direct a research project that would chart the life histories of more than 1,000 wild dogs spanning eight generations and prove essential in building momentum for conservation efforts — as would the book he’d co-author with Lesley, “Running Wild: Dispelling the Myths of the African Wild Dog.”
That was all still far in the future; in 1989, his research sights were on both a different continent and different species.
McNutt had just returned from South America where, supported by a Thomas J. Watson fellowship, he’d spent two years backpacking in the austere wilderness of Patagonia in search of Kleinschmidt’s falcon, F. kreyenborgi. Then dubbed the world’s least-known large falcon, there had been only a few recorded sightings.
McNutt, who had trained falcons since age 12 (giving him an identity at Lakeside as an enigmatic birdman), located 17 pairs of F. kreyenborgi and published findings that it was actually a kind of peregrine falcon, not a separate species.
He then scouted another remote site in South America, planning to return to research Darwin’s rhea, an endangered, flightless bird.
The trip to Botswana would derail both a return to Patagonia and a life revolving around birds. But McNutt discovered “my modus operandi. My passion is about learning things that people thought they knew and had wrong. Taking an iconoclastic approach to natural history. I enjoy that because it requires doing the hard work. People who have gone before are willing to stop short of getting the full picture. As a consequence of that, they get the picture wrong.”
In Botswana, the baboon-research camp was having difficulties with the Botswana government, which was starting to put more restrictions on foreign researchers. The U.C. Davis professor suggested confidentially that if they weren't able to extend the baboon study, maybe the government would grant permission to study wild dogs, which were considered a threat to Botswana's all-important cattle industry. Government officials were interested. McNutt, though, made plain that “any research is not about pest control but in the behavioral ecology of the endangered species.” The Botswanans agreed, probably, McNutt says, because he had brought an official of U.S. AID (Agency for International Development) with him to the meeting.
While he still had no notion he’d make wild dogs his life work, McNutt was intrigued: A genetically different species than domestic dogs, they were little understood and classified as Africa’s most endangered large carnivore. Only some 5,600 remained, and Botswana had one of only two known large populations left. A growing human population feared their reputation as vicious killers.
People who have gone before are willing to stop short of getting the full picture. As a consequence of that, they get the picture wrong.- John "Tico" McNutt '75
It took six or so months in Botswana before McNutt actually saw a wild dog. And then, “I was so struck by these spectacular animals.” Their looks were arresting: large, rounded ears and distinctive patchwork coats. Each dog has unique markings; their Latin name, Lycaon pictus, translates to “painted wolf.”
He also realized this species offered an avenue for exploring his interest in the evolution of social behavior. Wild dogs are known to be obligate social breeders, meaning they live in social groups of extended families and usually only the dominant pair reproduces; the others help feed and protect the pups. This led McNutt to “a fascinating evolutionary question. How do you evolve a system where they are willing to do that?”
He embarked on the painstaking field research to find the answer. Operating out of a simple bush camp, he piloted a microlight, and later a Cessna, to cover the vast, mostly roadless, terrain and track the few-and-far-between dogs.
Only about 5,600 wild dogs remained. They were little understood and classified as Africa’s most endangered large carnivore. A growing human population feared their reputation as vicious killers.
McNutt found that, contrary to their reputation, wild dogs are highly social and cooperative – even raising orphan pups – and do not attack humans but are “remarkably tolerant” of their presence.
His findings also contradicted previous reports that males stayed “home” watching the pups while the females ventured afield. Earlier researchers’ erroneous conclusion was formed after following too few animals for too little time, he says. Also, “it was written in the 1970s, and the sociopolitical environment made it really appealing, I think.”
As to obligate social breeding, it appears to be wild dogs’ best survival strategy. They compete for prey and habitat with many dangerous predators bigger than them — in particular, lions, hyenas, and leopards – and living together in a large group increases their chances of avoiding ambush and defending offspring. Even though most males don’t get to reproduce, “helping to raise their nieces and nephews — genetically reproducing at half the rate — is a better option than trying to go out on your own.”
An African wild dog runs through the Okavango Delta in Botswana, one of only two areas where known large populations remain. McNutt’s research has found that on average wild dogs live less than three years. Lions and hyenas often get them.
Today the expanded wild-dog research project, renamed the Botswana Predator Conservation Program, has become Botswana’s umbrella program for large-predator conservation research, including the spotted hyena, leopard, lion, and cheetah. It’s become clear, says McNutt, that “the entire predator population is a key indication of health of the ecosystem.” The loss of predators leads to cycles of disease in their prey, overgrazing, desertification, and diminished species diversity.
Challenges abound but several hopeful developments are progressing. One is the Bioboundary Project, based on McNutt’s concept of creating artificial urine that chemically mimics that of wild dogs’, thus repelling dogs from what they perceive as rivals’ territory. These “biological fences” will naturally keep them away from human settlements.
Another is the McNutts’ Coaching for Conservation social program, which combines organized sports opportunities for Botswana youth with education about the value of conservation and how to protect wildlife and habitats.
And what about that long-ago project in southern Patagonia?
More has been discovered about the endangered Darwin’s rhea, but no one has yet done the detailed field work. “I still would love to do what I proposed, 25 years ago.”
This article was first published in the Spring/Summer 2015 Lakeside magazine. Carey Quan Gelernter is the editor of Lakeside magazine. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.