Early one morning the tranquility of the bush was broken by sharp nasal alarm snorts uttered by a group of impala, giving us an indication that they had seen a predator. Elmon Mhlongo looked back at me from the tracker seat, “it sounds like chaos over there”, he said. His words had not gone cold when suddenly a herd of impala sprinted past our vehicle, jumping and clearing the road effortlessly. “If there was a leopard or a lion, they would have tried to keep it in sight – I think there could be wild dogs around”, said Elmon. The excitement started to build. With less than 5 000 wild dogs in existence and less than 250 in the Greater Kruger National Park, this is not an animal we see every day.
Elmon spotted a glimpse of a single wild dog darting through the bush. We followed, or tried to at least. You see, wild dogs seem to move at two speeds – stop or fast forward. They can reach speeds of up to 50km/h and dart effortlessly through the wooded savannas. Land rovers on the other hand, cannot. We contacted two other rangers and combed the area in a grid like fashion to try and find the wild dogs again. “They are highly mobile south from Tugwaan drive”, Garrett said on the radio. After about half an hour of searching, we had managed to find the spot where the wild dogs had settled down in the Tugwaan drainage line. We were then privileged to watch as five members of the pack chased each other playfully around the water’s edge, which I managed to capture in the GoPro clip below.
Wild dogs are fascinating animals. Their social structure is almost altruistic and there is a strict hierarchy in the pack. The alpha male and female do most of the breeding and the other members of the pack are all subordinates. As a result, there is very seldom any fighting within the pack and members of the pack are treated with utmost care, particularly young pups. When pups are young, they are usually denned in deep tunnels within old abandoned termite mounds and when the adults return from hunting they will even regurgitate meat for the pups to eat. When wild dogs hunt they are highly coordinated and as a result, nearly 80% of wild dog hunts are successful. Using their stamina and by spreading out over vast distances, they often cause their prey to panic and run in different directions, causing one to be split off and chased down.
Sadly, in the past wild dogs have often been misunderstood and were considered vermin by many farmers, who lost livestock to these animals, and many wild dogs were persecuted. In addition, diseases such as rabies and canine distemper have also had detrimental effects toward the wild dog population. Wild dogs can have home ranges of between 400 and 1500 km2 and habitat fragmentation is an ever increasing threat. But it’s not all bad. The Greater Kruger National Park supports one of the biggest wild dog populations in South Africa and several researchers and conservationists are dedicating their time to conserving the “painted wolf” and the areas that they inhabit. In my experience I have noticed how African wild dogs have captured the hearts of those who spend time with them. I believe that we have a strong affinity toward them and other predators because we can relate to their social structures. In addition, their seemingly cunning nature and hunting strategy involves high levels of team work, making them in a sense, a super predator.