“I believe of all natural things he hated only the wild dogs for their ruthless ways with weaker animals.” Laurens van der Post – The Lost World of the Kalahari
The thrill of following a pack of African wild dogs as they chase down their prey at thirty miles an hour over open ground is something not easily forgotten. A fair few of our guests here at Londolozi Game Reserve can relate to this experience and it will forever remain etched in their memories.What happened on an eventful day a few weeks ago was no exception.
There were four of them in the middle of the road scanning in different directions, breathing heavily in the crisp morning air. They had narrowly missed a herd of impala and were regrouping, deciding where to go next. On silent cue, they began a steady jog down the road through the mist towards a wide grassy crest. We followed them as they fanned out through the bush. Soon they were hot on the hooves of a second herd of impala. Our vehicle was trailing behind, the teary wind rushing past our faces, trying to keep up. Surrounded by stotting impala – a rocking motion signifying fitness whenever they see African wild dogs – the four predators reined in a family of warthogs which found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were trying to make good their getaway at full speed, tails in the air like flags, before the lead dog caught one of the subadults by the hind leg. Amidst the dust and distress, the pack satiated their appetites.
As the energy of the sighting subsided, vultures began to descend, sensing opportunity. Unbeknown to us a second pack of eight was moving in our direction, drawn to the scene by all the commotion. As they emerged into view both packs looked at each other for the briefest of moments before the pack of eight engaged in hostile territorial pursuit of the pack of four, who promptly disappeared into the Combretum thickets to our south. It didn’t take long before we realized that this new drama was moving too far and too quickly to keep up so we returned to the heap of flapping vultures fighting over the scraps, and tried to grapple with the reality of what we had just seen. We had tangoed with Nature’s darker side and through all the adrenaline and excitement we hadn’t even paused to truly appreciate how lucky we were just to see this rare and endangered animal let alone watch them execute a perfect hunt.
The African wild dog, or Cape hunting dog, is the African equivalent of a wolf. They have a pack-orientated hierarchical social structure and between their voracious appetites, collaborative hunting techniques and a kill rate of up to 70 percent they are arguably Africa’s most accomplished predators. They are the only extant member of the Lycaon genus which split from other canids two to three million years ago. Although they are distant cousins of the wolf and domestic dog, they lack the vestigial fifth toe, or dew claw, found in other canines. At 45 to 55 pounds they are roughly the size of a border collie but with a black, white and sandy yellow coat that was described by writer Natalie Angier as “a furred version of combat fatigues”.
African wild dogs have a troubled history. Due to the grisly efficiency with which they despatch their prey they were eliminated from South Africa, except the Kruger National Park, by 1920. None were noted in Sabi country between 1931 and 1944 where previously they had flourished. It was only in the mid 1980’s that they became a protected species, but disturbingly, their numbers are still in decline. According to Mitch Reardon in his book Shaping Kruger they have been evicted from 25 of 39 countries that encompassed their former range. 60 percent of known populations traverse international boundaries which compounds and complicates monitoring and conservation efforts. The exact cause of their continual decline remains a mystery but loss of prey, direct persecution, habitat destruction and modification as well as susceptibility to diseases carried by their domestic cousins, have reduced them to fragmented subpopulations, dangerously isolated both genetically and geographically. With approximately 5750 African wild dogs left, the majority occurring in South- Eastern and Southern Africa, they have become Africa’s second most endangered carnivore, after the Ethiopian wolf.
These inveterate wanderers, as Reardon puts it, live on the move and when game abounds they can range over 1500 square miles (3885 square kilometers). Radio collars are used by conservation authorities to locate them once a month in order to determine their location and composition. This information helps to determine factors affecting wild dog distribution, numbers, movements and density.
Just seeing one in the wild is akin to a safari gold medal and for a species that has been on the sharp end of persecution for so long, we are incredibly fortunate to have regular sightings on Londolozi Game Reserve.