African wild dogs, also known as painted wolves or Cape hunting dog, are one of Africa's most endangered predators.
The African wild dog is unmistakeable among the medium-sized carnivores. Characteristic features are the large rounded ears, long legs, bushy, broadly white tipped tails and the shaggy coats with blotches of black, yellow and white.
Throughout their distributional range no two patterns are exactly the same, with each individual having unique patterns on their body.
African wild dog populations have experienced a dramatic decline over the last century, and although once distributed throughout Africa - south of the Sahara, excluding rainforests and deserts, they have now been extirpated from much of their range.
It is estimated that roughly around 3000-5000 African wild dogs remain, with the majority being found in East and Southern Africa.
Currently, some of the best parks to view African wild dogs are Mana Pools National Park, South Luangwa National Park, Okavango Delta, Madikwe Game Reserve, Tswalu Kalahari Game Reserve, Kruger National Park and Selous Game Reserve.
African wild dogs prefer woodland and broken woodland habitats and are also associated with open plains and open savanna woodland. Wild dogs tend to avoid dense forest vegetations which often limit their hunting abilities, which mainly consist of them using their speed and endurance to take down their prey.
African wild dogs are highly social, cooperative breeding predators, and packs may consist of a single dominant unrelated breeding pair, their offspring, and non-breeding adults who are either offspring, or siblings of one of the breeding pair and which help to raise the pups.
A wild dog pack is a well coordinated, efficient hunting unit and the members are interdependent.
The young, or pups as they are referred as, occupy a particularly privileged position, to the extend that, after the first few weeks, the mother is not essential to their further upbringing, for members of the pack either carry food back to the den site, or regurgitate the food for them. Pups are raised in excavated burrows, which they use as den sites, usually taken over from other species such as aardvark, foxes, porcupine etc.
Pups are usually born between April and September, with a peak during the dry season in late May and early July. This midwinter period comes at the end of the Impala rut, when out of condition males are more readily available as prey, and coincides with high concentration of antelopes around waterholes.
The gestation period is around 72 days, with an average size litter of around 8-10 individuals with up to 20 pups being recorded in the past.
African wild dogs occupy very large home ranges, but during the denning period when they need to care for the pups, they would generally remain in the nearby vicinity. In the Kruger National Park for example, a particular pack's home range outside of the denning period was 885 square kilometer, but only 80 square kilometer during the denning period.
Vocalization is a big part of communication for wild dogs, many of which have different meanings and used for different purposes. The best known call of wild dogs is the musical 'ho00p-hoooop' used by members of the pack relocate one another, particularly when the pack has been scattered during hunts. With their heads usually hanging down and their mouth almost to the ground, it is believed that this particular call can carry up to three of four kilometers.
Another form of vocalization takes place before a hunt when the pack get excited and almost psych up other, or when killing, feeding and mobbing other predators and is expressed by a high pitched, bird-like twittering.
African wild dogs are prolific hunters, with the majority of the hunts taking place during the cooler times of the day, early morning and late afternoon.
Hunting is done by sight and consists of the pack trotting through open plains, occasionally splitting up into denser vegetation to flush out any potential prey, and little to no stalking takes place. Once the potential prey is sighted, a high speed chase follows, with the pack once again splitting up, trying to corner the prey.
Wild dogs would bring down their prey by literally starting to feed on it while it is still alive, and little to no suffocation takes place. Although visually the kills can be very hard to witness, the prey is killed within a few minutes and the entire kill can be done in less than ten minutes. This is done to avoid other larger predators such as lions, Spotted hyaenas and even leopard from stealing their kill.
Depending on the pack size, prey species can vary from Impala, Kudu, Wildebeest and even young Eland where larger wild dog packs are present.
How do you Photograph Wild Dogs?
Although Wild dogs are my favorite species to photograph, I also find them one of the hardest. Their dark faces and eyes make it very difficult to get detail in their eyes, unless the sun is on the horizon, and they are looking into the sun.
Having said that, they are fascinating creatures and very social, so the opportunity of getting images of individuals interacting are quite high.
Here are some of the moments I look for when photographing wild dogs.
- Interaction between pack members, usually before or after a hunt.
- Intent stare, usually when hunting, with both their large rounded ears up and facing forward.
- The takedown. If you can keep up with the pack during the hunt, the moment of the actual takedown make for fierce and intense images.
- The leftover. Once the gory scenes are over, you might find a few of the pack members running off with some of the leftovers from the kill. This could often result in some playfulness and even a game of tug of war.
Wild dogs are incredibly special animals, and next time you go on safari, make sure that you add these incredible animals to your wishlist.
Till next time...