LIMPOPO-LIPADI PRIVATE GAME RESERVE, Botswana – It looked like an African wildlife version of "West Side Story."
A pack of African wild dogs milled around at dusk, seemingly ready to rumble, as in the musical about New York City gangs. Checking each other out, they made high-pitched whining or chirping sounds. They looked like they were up to something, or about to be — it was, after all, the hunting hour.
This endangered species with big, round ears and a patchy white, yellow and black pelt is in such jeopardy that there is talk among conservationists of renaming the species "painted dog" or "painted wolf" to dignify its image and ensure people don't confuse the name with a scrawny stray. That way, the thinking goes, the species will become more than a footnote to other imperiled animals such as the lion and rhino that are viewed as having more gravitas.
"It's a discussion we have every year," said Kevin MacFarlane, reserve manager at Limpopo-Lipadi, a private game reserve in southeast Botswana whose insignia is a running wild dog. He was referring to a network of regional conservationists that manages wild dog populations and includes one faction that believes a name change would shed any negative connotations of the term "wild dog."
For his part, MacFarlane said he likes to focus on telling tourists that African wild dogs are "amazing" so he can "sell them on that."
A South African wine label, Painted Wolf Wines, agrees. On its website, it says it contributes some proceeds to the conservation of "this intriguing and beautiful animal."
The geographical range of African wild dogs, which are related to dogs and wolves, was vastly reduced over many decades as livestock owners and others killed them. The dogs hunt relentlessly as a pack, sometimes exhausting their prey in the chase (unlike lions, which rely more on stealth and stalking) and even learning to use fences to corral animals.
"It's such a successful animal in the wild that it was highly persecuted for a long time all through Africa," MacFarlane said in an interview in his office at the 80-square-mile (207-square-kilometer) reserve, which used to be farmland.
"Everybody's got lions and it sort of sets us apart a little bit" to have wild dogs, MacFarlane said.
The fenced reserve north of the Limpopo River offers chalets for visiting shareholders and their guests. Warthogs, antelopes, monkeys and large lizards occasionally traverse the lodge grounds. A sign warns of the danger of lurking hippos and crocodiles.
Limpopo-Lipadi has 17 wild dogs; the population was reduced to half a dozen around the end of 2014 because of rabies, but recovered with the birth of pups. Reserve staff members are monitoring five lions that recently wandered onto the territory. Lions have been known to attack wild dogs or snatch freshly killed prey from the smaller predators, but the five newcomers have co-existed so far with the wild dogs at Limpopo-Lipadi.
Africa has between 6,000 and 7,000 African wild dogs, a far smaller population than in the past. About half live in Botswana, a southern African country whose relatively small population of more than 2 million people and large expanses of unfenced areas, many with at least some degree of protection for wildlife, are ideal for an animal that can travel long distances.
In South Africa, which has fewer than 550 wild dogs, conservationists move individual wild dogs to different reserves to prevent inbreeding and encourage the formation of new packs.
Packs usually have one dominant breeding pair and there are limited mating opportunities, said Dr. Harriet Davies-Mostert, head of conservation at the Endangered Wildlife Trust, a South African group. She said the African wild dog program in South Africa could be a "blueprint" for managing other endangered species.
Davies-Mostert said the debate over whether to change the name of the species had gone on for many years.
"I think if there is anything we can do to improve their image, then we should probably do it," she said. Noting, however, that farmers who kill the wild dogs to protect livestock probably don't care what the predator is called, Davies-Mostert said: "But I'd like to see some evidence that it would actually make some difference."
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