Wild Pups Romp Again in an African Paradise

Last summer, not long after releasing a pioneer pack of 14 African wild dogs into Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park as part of an ambitious wildlife restoration effort, Paola Bouley went to see for herself what in the name of Canis major could have happened to the wild dog pups.

As Gorongosa’s carnivore expert, Ms. Bouley knew that Beira, the alpha female of the pack, had been pregnant when the dogs were set free. She knew that the closely bonded and highly endangered apex predators had dug a maternity den for their queen, and that Beira had spent a lot of time down there — until one day, she didn’t. She and the pack had moved on.

But where were the pups?

As Ms. Bouley was crouching by the abandoned den and peering into the hole, she met the likely answer. A giant African rock python — the continent’s largest species of snake — dropped from a nearby tree, stared her in the face and then slithered off.

“I think it was disappointed that I wasn’t a warthog,” Ms. Bouley said.

For a snake that can grow to 20 feet and swallow an impala whole, even a large litter of Lycaon pictus pups would barely rate as an amuse-bouche.

Yet the wild dogs were unbowed, and this year, after migrating to a less serpent-y sector of Gorongosa’s one million acres, they made up for lost time in spectacular fashion. Beira give birth in late April to 11 pups, who emerged from their den in early June and appear on camera trap footage to be thriving, as well as inexcusably cute (although the runt of the litter eventually died).

Of greater surprise to Ms. Bouley and her colleagues, Nhamagaia, the beta female of the pack, defied the L. pictus convention that only the resident alpha female gets to breed, and in late June delivered her own litter of eight.

The researchers initially feared that Beira and the other adult dogs might reject the off-label young, leaving them to die of neglect. But no: The new pups have been swept up into the sens-a-round frenzy of carnivore kumbaya — life as an ardently, obligately social mammal for whom, as wild dog expert Scott Creel of Montana State University put it, “the worst thing that can happen is to be alone.”

Gorongosa’s pup eruption didn’t end there. Not far from the Beira-Nhamagaia crèche, a group of four adult dogs that had split off from the original pack in the spring — three males and one female — appeared to be successfully rearing yet another litter of eight pups.

“It’s incredibly exciting,” said Cole du Plessis, coordinator of the wild dog range expansion program at the Endangered Wildlife Trust. “At the beginning of last year there were no wild dogs in Gorongosa, and now we’re closing in on 50.”

And why not? “When I flew over Gorongosa,” Mr. du Plessis said, “looking at the prey numbers, the water, the topography — I thought, if you could sketch what wild dog heaven would look like, Gorongosa is it.”

The successful reintroduction into Gorongosa of African wild dogs underscores the park’s position as one of the bright spots on an otherwise grim landscape of shrinking forests and accelerating loss of large, charismatic animals unlucky enough to not be our pets or livestock.

During Mozambique’s civil war, which ended in the mid-1990s, Gorongosa’s abundant wildlife was almost completely destroyed. Since then, the park has been steadily recovering, aided by an unusual partnership between the Mozambique government and the wealthy American philanthropist Gregory Carr, along with input from local communities, international teams of scientists, conservationists, human rights advocates — really, anybody Mr. Carr can get on the phone.

Researchers see in Gorongosa the chance to track the recovery of a complex ecosystem from the ground up, and to see what will heal on its own and what requires intervention.

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