Panama’s elusive bush dogs are on the move
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Panama’s elusive bush dogs are on the move

The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama has captured rare images of an elusive species of bush dog (Speothos venaticus). The dogs are native to South America, but Panama is the only Central American country where they are known to reside.

Described as by the Smithsonian institute as “one of the most enigmatic of the world’s canid species”, Speothos venaticus is a stubby, short-legged beast that stands less than a foot tall. More closely resembling a mongoose or a bear cub than a common hound, his appearance is unusual but not unattractive – some might say ‘cute’.

But don’t be fooled, however, beyond his diminutive stature and adorable eyes, Speothos venaticus is as ferocious as any other jungle carnivore. A pack of six was once observed pursuing a tapir – an animal almost 20 times the weight of a bush dog.


Existing scientific data on bush dogs is scant due to their rarity, but the new images – taken at four different sites between the Colombian border in the east and Santa Fe National Park in the west – suggest their range may be more far-reaching than previously thought. Smithsonian Research Associate Ricardo Moreno believes the dogs may soon cross the border into Costa Rica.

The images were captured by automated camera traps that fire when their infrared sensors detect the body heat of a passing animal. They are the first camera trap photos of bush dogs in Panama and their scarceness underscores the rarity of the species – just 11 images of the dogs were snapped during 32,000 camera days (the number of cameras multiplied by the days they were in operation).

The STRI acquired the photos while conducting a study on big mammals and used them as the basis for a report published by the Canid Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Deforestation woes

Pending further research, the report calls for enhanced conservation measures to protect the species, including upgrading its status from ‘near-threatened’ to ‘endangered’ in Panama. According to the IUCN, global bush dog populations have declined by up to 25 percent in the past 12 years.

Unlike jaguars and pumas, bush dogs are not actively persecuted by humans. In Panama, their main threat to survival comes from the destruction of their natural habitat. Between 1990 and 2010, 15 percent of the country’s forests were lost.

Since Bush dogs require a large area to support a breeding group – according to a 2015 radio tracking study in Brazil, up to 709 square kilometers – STRI scientists fear that Panama’s increasingly fragmented natural spaces may impact the species’ long-term survival.

Other threats to the bush dog come from competition with poachers. The dogs hunt in noisy packs of up to ten and typically prey on large rodents such as agoutis, which are also popular game for humans. A further threat is posed by diseases carried by hunting dogs and other domestic animals.

Part of the problem of protecting the bush dog comes from a lack of scientific studies regarding its distribution and ecology. These rare STRI photos are a step forward in resolving that.

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