A couple of years ago on South African television there was a motor vehicle advertisement in which a gentleman said: “A leopard cannot change its spots, but a wild dog can change the world”.
This specific line, however true or false it might be, has been ingrained in my memory ever since. The African Wild Dog is the second most endangered mammal species in South Africa. In the entire greater Kruger area (of which Londolozi is a part) there are only about 250-300 Wild Dogs. Some say even fewer than that. To give you a comparison, the most recent census concluded that the area hosts upwards of 1300 leopards! This gives one an idea as to how few wild dogs there actually are and what a blessing it is to sometimes be in the presence of what I regard to be the most successful hunters on this planet.
While on the hunting topic, and comparing leopards and wild dogs, we are looking at between a 20-30% success rate for the spotted cat and a 70-80% success rate for the canids. There’s really no comparison!
Their persistence and astonishing teamwork make them a nemesis to all antelope species at Londolozi up to the size of Blue Wildebeest. Wild dogs are the exception to the rule in almost every aspect of their existence. When any other predator tries to hunt and is seen, an alarm call is given by the prey species to announce the presence of that predator. When wild dogs are seen, the air is filled with a certain eerie quietness, almost as if the inevitable is about to happen. The prey species will freeze and hope that they are either missed because of their camouflage or that the wild dogs have set their sights on another hapless antelope. If they realize this is not the case, the prey will save their breath and not alarm, choosing instead to simply flee for their lives. Wild dogs are stamina hunters that run their prey to a standstill, so an alarm call to tell the dogs that they have been spotted is simply wasted oxygen.
Wild dogs are quite small, but in a pack they can pack a punch. I have personally seen wild dogs hunting and killing a buffalo cow! This is a feat that even lions can’t achieve on a regular basis.
To find wild dogs is high on the priority list of the most avid naturalist and visitor to Londolozi and a couple of days ago the dreams of some of our guests were fulfilled.
Excitement was running riot at the lodge; wild dogs had been found on the morning drive. Knowing that wild dogs are definitely not a sighting we get the pleasure of every day, I knew exactly what I was going to plan for the afternoon drive.
It has been tremendously hot at Londolozi in the past few weeks; for this day though, the heat was a blessing in disguise. Wild dogs, like most other mammals, don’t want to be exposed to the fiery African sun for prolonged periods and on the day in question they had gone to seek shade in the southern parts of the reserve. We left the lodge quite early in the afternoon, anticipation bubbling. James Tyrrell, one of the other guides, wasn’t far behind. We drove into the area where the wild dog pack had been found in the morning… we focused on all the obvious places such as shade, waterholes and longer grasses. It wasn’t long until we heard that the wild dogs were found close to a waterhole in a shady area, resting out of the sun’s rays. When we arrived I told the guests on the vehicle that we needed patience because this was going to be a waiting game. The dogs did not look particularly well fed, so we were confident that as soon as it cooled off enough, they would go on the hunt once more.
As the sun started to drop, increased movement in the pack became evident. The dogs started grooming, yawning and showing general signs that they are preparing to get active. When I say move, I mean move! Wild dogs can ran at about 65 km/h, even maintaing slighly slower speeds of about 55km/h for up to 5 km! This is absolutely unheard of in any other African predator.
The pack got up, had a drink of water and without hesitation, they were off on the hunt! This is when all hell broke loose! Nyalas, bushbuck and impalas scattered out of the bushes, all trying to avoid the knock on death’s door. We tried to follow the hunters but to no avail; the bush was simply too thick. Euce, the tracker I work with, cleverly said I should switch off the engine and just listen. It wasn’t a couple of seconds before we heard them and the chase was back on. We careered through the bush and found the pack finishing off an impala that they had killed probably less than a minute before. We sat and watched in awe. Their effectiveness, proficiency and hunting abilities left everyone dumbstruck. And then, just as they had gotten up to hunt, they went back to the water to quench their thirst and blessed us with the opportunity to photograph them in perfect light. It simply can’t get better!
Back to the quote at the start of the blog: In my mind the quote applies directly to how the wild dog can influence the health of an ecosystem. In the Greater Kruger area, impala are by far the most abundant antelope. They are hunted by most of the larger predators such as the lion, leopard and cheetah. However, the impala is the favoured prey species of the wild dog. The wild dog is the only animal in this area that could have a direct influence on the number of impala and thereby actually help conserve not only impalas, but also other species of antelope. If the numbers of impala climb too dramatically it could have a detrimental effect on the other species relying on the same food sources. Leopards and lions pick off an impala here and there. One pack of wild dog could potentially successfully hunt 1000 impalas a year.
Wild dogs are my favourite animal at Londolozi and my fascination with these animals develops every day. Someone once told me that watching wild dogs is like going to a casino and hitting the jackpot. If you do it once, you are hooked! You will always take the chance to return because you just never know what might happen…