African Wild Dogs, also known as Cape Hunting Dogs or Painted Wolf is not often known by many visitors coming to Africa for the first time.
Is this because so much has been made of the "Big 5" that other rare species are not necessarily the main focus? Or maybe certain species have been given an unfair reputation dating back to the early days when current game reserves were farmlands?
Either way, in this blog post I would like to introduce the African Wild Dog to you. An animal that is my personal favourite to view and spend time with, but also an animal in need of our protection.
What is an African Wild Dog?
Similar size to a domestic German Shepherd, African Wild Dogs are lean, long-legged canids with large rounded ears and their bodies usually blotched with black, white, brown and yellowish brown colours. The markings of each individual Dog is unique (similar to our finger prints). Wild Dogs, only weighing in around 44-55lb (20-25kg) are built for speed and endurance, and when one considers that they are also social animals living in packs, you can understand why they are known to be such prolific hunters.
Where can you see Wild Dogs on Safari?
Over the past decade, Wild Dog numbers have fluctuated quite a bit, with the loss of habitat and human animal conflict being two massive hurdles for these endangered predators. Wild Dogs were once found throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, with the exception of forests, but due to the reasons I mentioned above, numbers have been drastically reduced.
It is important to understand that Wild Dogs roam massive territories, and thus prove to be a challenge to sustain their numbers in Reserves and Parks in South Africa most of which have fences around them. There have been some amazing conservation efforts in protecting these endangered animals and today numbers seem to be on the increase in a few reserves and parks in South Africa like the Kruger National Park, Madikwe Game Reserve and Tswalu Kalahari.
Although it is virtually impossible to guarantee viewing of Wild Dogs, purely because of the huge distances they cover on a daily basis, there are a few parks in Africa where you stand a good chance of seeing them:
- Mana Pools in Zimbabwe
- South Luangwa in Zambia
- Selous in Tanzania
- Okavango Delta in Botswana
A little more about their behaviour
The social structure of a Wild Dog pack is a fascinating, almost altruistic system. Like other pack animals there is a strict hierarchy – the pack is dominated by the Alpha female, and usually the alpha pair are the only ones to breed.
When a litter of pups is born, they take priority in the pack, even over the alphas. At first pups are fed by pack members that regurgitate fresh meat after returning from a hunt, but once old enough, they are taken to the kill and given first choice over the spoils. Adult pack members patiently wait on the side lines, standing guard until their turn to feed. They almost never fight amongst themselves over food due to this ranking system.
When a pack member becomes ill, injured or elderly, restricting or even incapacitating their effectiveness as a hunter, the rest of the pack cares for and feeds them. An alpha female of a pack in Botswana who lost one of her forelegs during a hunt, remained as alpha female for a few years afterwards, continuing to breed and raise pups while being looked after by the pack. For other predators this level of injury would would be a death sentence.
The dominant pair is monogamous and would usually be the only ones in the pack to breed, though a beta pair does sometimes produce pups as well, which are then either killed or adopted by the alpha pair. Each litter can have between four and 12 pups. Unlike most other pack animals, male African Wild Dogs tend to stay within their pack’s territory once reaching sexual maturity, whereas the females will travel long distances to find a mate and start or join a new pack. This behaviour is a good countermeasure against inbreeding.
Wild Dogs are generally diurnal animals, moving mainly during the cooler hours of the day such as early morning and late in the afternoons. Packs can cover a huge amount of ground per day, from 6 miles (10 km) where game is abundant, up to 25 miles (40km) per day where game is scarce. There are records of a pack in the Serengeti that were denning on the plains, making round trips of up to 43 miles per day (70km)!!
By all rights Wild Dogs should be a very successful species. It is the most successful hunter (catching 85% of the animals they actually chase) and also lives in large packs dedicated to rearing the largest litter of any other carnivore (up to 18 pups).
So why are Wild Dogs endangered?
- Loss of Habit
Areas that used to be wild and free for animals to roam around, are now occupied by humans. This has meant that Wild Dogs cannot roam the areas they used to, often conflicting with people, usually resulting in the Wild Dogs being killed. In smaller game reserves Wild Dogs's chances of encountering other predators such as Lions and Spotted Hyaenas are a lot higher, often resulting in serious injuries and even death.
- Human Animal Conflict
With Wild Dogs often targeting domestic animals as easy prey, may farmers have retaliated and killed Wild Dogs in the process. Areas that border National parks and Reserves are under extreme pressure to try and resolve these issues.
Wild Dogs are extremely susceptible to diseases such as rabies and canine distemper, often wiping out an entire pack within no time.
Wild Dogs on the hunt
There simply is nothing that get the adrenaline pumping like watching Wild Dogs going on a hunt.
Usually rising after a nap, the dogs would rush around performing a greeting ceremony accompanied by high pitched sounds almost like an athletic team pumping each other up before a game. This rally bring the pack members into hunting mode before they start a steady paced trot as the hunt is underway.
Pack members would often split up, flushing through dense vegetation to see if there is any wildlife resting in the shade, before joining the pack shortly afterwards (almost like a cycling team joining and leaving the line). Every now and then individuals will pause to scan the surroundings, using their incredibly senses to try and detect their prey.
Once prey is spotted, the pack will do into a high speed chase, and keeping up with them during this time can be a real challenge. Pack members will split up, cornering off their prey, usually biting the hind legs to slow it down. Once the prey has been brought down it is over within seconds. If a herd of Antelope are present, it is not uncommon for a number of animals to be taken down by the pack, especially when pack numbers are higher. The pack goes into a feeding frenzy and within minutes the entire carcass is finished, with usually only a few bones left over.
Wild Dogs remain one of Africa's key species and hopefully with ongoing conservation efforts, creating larger habitats for them and by creating more awareness we can once again enjoy heathy populations throughout Africa.
So next time you are on Safari, make sure you keep Wild Dogs on your must see list, you won't be disappointed.
If you have had some amazing Wild Dog encounters, I would love to hear about it.
Until next time...