Crushed under the wheels of a car and shot – that was the grim fate of four wild dogs from one of the last free-roaming populations left in South Africa. 

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Image: Derek van der Merwe

The bodies of the dogs were discovered on a dust road in the Waterberg region of the country's Limpopo province last week. Given the advanced state of decomposition, it's estimated they were killed a few days before wildlife officials found them. 

Derek van der Merwe, a field officer for local conservation organisation Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), is convinced the animals were killed deliberately. "It was gruesome. The dogs had broken ribs and broken legs. They were absolutely mowed over by a vehicle," he said.

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By the time the EWT team arrived on the scene, the dogs were already in an advanced state of decomposition. Image: Derek van der Merwe

Due to their undeserved reputation as livestock thieves, Africa's wild dogs have been intensely persecuted by humans in the past, and trapping and hunting to control their populations have nearly obliterated the species. Today they are listed as Endangered by the IUCN and it is illegal to harm them.

What makes these wild dog deaths even more tragic is that the individuals belonged to a genetically distinct population, different from others elsewhere in South Africa. "This group of dogs is the last remaining wild population outside of a protected conservation area. They really are special," said Van der Merwe.

Three of the dogs were male. "One in particular was the biggest male wild dog I have ever seen. He was prime breeding stock and probably the alpha male," says Van der Merwe.

Existing evidence strongly suggests that the animals were killed deliberately. An autopsy performed at the scene showed that the dogs were run over by a vehicle and that one of the four had been shot. The Waterberg area is well known for its livestock and game farms, which stock not only domestic animals like cattle, but also rare (and valuable) wild game like black impala and golden wildebeest. There is suspicion that a local farmer may have wanted to rid the area of potential predators by killing the dogs. 

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Autopsy results revealed that the dogs had been hit by a car. One had also been shot. Image: Derek van der Merwe

In an effort to stop human-wildlife conflict of this kind, the Endangered Wildlife Trust has been running an active and successful animal conflict management programme in the area. In addition to a streamlined system that allows people to report instances of roadkill, many of the region's farmers have partnered with the organisation and adopted the Livestock Guarding Dogs project, using specially bred domestic dogs to protect their livestock from predators. Unfortunately, not all of the farmers have been open to the idea.

"Most farmers in the area love wildlife, but there are still a few out there that we struggle with", says Van der Merwe.

Visit the EWT Facebook page for more info.