Being my favourite animal, if there is any chance of wild dogs being found on the reserve, I am often the first to be out looking for them. However, I have noticed that my love for these animals is not shared by everyone else. In fact, a lot of guests have never even heard of these wonderful creatures, often confusing them with hyenas. So on that note, let me shed some light on the African Wild Dog and help give them the attention that they deserve and desperately need.
- Wild Dogs are NOT Hyenas
They are not simply feral dogs either. They are a distinct species of Canid, Lycaon pictus, which literally means “painted wolf”. I recently learnt that the German name for Wild Dogs is Hyänenhund, which may account for some of the confusion between the two unrelated species. Furthermore, Dutch zoologist Coenraad Temminck was first to name wild dogs scientifically, calling them Hyaena picta, in the belief that they were a type of Hyaenid. Wild dogs are slimmer than hyenas, are almost always found in packs and generally always are a mix of white, tan and black. Hyena (spotted) are a tan colour, with dark spots, lacking the white of wild dogs and are much heavier set with a sloping back. No more getting confused!
- They are the second most endangered carnivores in Africa
After the Ethiopian wolf - which occurs in very small numbers in isolated pockets in the highlands of Ethiopia. The African Wild Dog is listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), as the population numbers are so low. They are now found in only six of the 34 countries in which they once roamed freely. Population estimates are between 5000-6500 in Africa, of which only around 1600 are mature individuals. Furthermore, according to the IUCN, population numbers continue to decline as a result of habitat fragmentation, human-wildlife conflict and infectious disease. Thankfully there are several organisations that are dedicating their daily work to monitoring wild dog populations, changing public perceptions and ensuring genetic diversity is upheld across reserves in southern Africa.
- A strict social structure is upheld
The highest ranked male and female dogs in the pack make up the alpha pair. This is the only pair to breed in the pack, with the rest of the pack assisting in rearing the pups. Other pack members will take turns in staying behind during denning season to guard the pups, and will regurgitate food for the pups after a hunt to keep them well fed. The alpha pair almost always lies in close proximity, or touching each other. The alpha male will also always urinate on top of where the alpha female has urinated, almost claiming ownership.
- Research has shown that wild dogs may sneeze to initiate a hunt
As comical as it may sound, researchers at the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust have provided recent evidence to suggest that a pack will suggest a hunt by sneezing. Higher ranked individuals have a more influential sneeze than lower ranked individuals. A series of sneezes could set the pack off after an impala! Although not yet well understood, it may be worth keeping an eye out for when next watching a pack of restless wild dogs that look like they may be getting active.
- The alpha pair is not necessarily in charge of leading a hunt
Individual dogs have been observed to show different “personalities” or rather strengths and weaknesses within a pack. Wild dog researchers have observed that often certain individuals, other than the alpha pair, will take the lead in a hunt. This shows the complex nature of these animals of which we are merely touching the surface in terms of understanding.
- Wild Dogs are extremely efficient hunters
Although the field guides may overestimate the actual success of wild dog hunts, the dogs definitely succeed more than they fail. Some sources may state that dogs are successful on 70-80% of hunts. Although these statistics rely on many variables such as the size of the pack, the terrain in the area, the experience of the dogs and the density of prey, one can be assured that if you see a herd of impala running for their lives without letting out the characteristic alarm calls they use for other predators, there is a good chance a pack of dogs is trailing them at high speed!
- A series of different vocal calls are used to communicate within the pack
People often ask whether wild dogs “bark”. The answer is yes. However, it is very unusual to hear them bark. They will only do so if they are startled at close quarters by a potential threat, but will not use a typical domestic dog-like “bark” as a regular means of communication. Other more common vocalisations include: “twittering” – a series of high pitched squeals let out in excitement particularly in greetings; and “Hoo-calling” – a unique series of owl-like hoots (Hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo) used to relocate other pack members when they have been separated while on the move, particularly after a hunt.
There are many more fascinating behavioural quirks unique to Wild Dogs… Best get out on safari and keep a look out for the flash of white on a wild dog’s tail as it hurtles through the bush, so that you can experience these wonderful animals for yourself!