Wild dogs are rare enough as it is, so to see them with pups brings a whole new dimension to a sighting. They den in the autumn and winter, so this is the only time of year you are likely to see a pack with little ones, and we had just such luck recently when one of the local packs brought their pups onto Londolozi and treated us to an unbelievable morning.
The dogs were found by legendary tracker and one of Africa’s best, Renias Mhlongo, but only a few of the adults were there, the rest clearly having gone off on the hunt, leaving only three to guard the pups. When this happens, the pups will wait patiently with their guardians until the rest of the group returns; if their hunt was successful, the returning adults will regurgitate some of what they’ve killed so that the pups can feed as well.
After 45 minutes or so, the keen ears of one of the adults suddenly perked up, and within a few seconds all 12 of the dogs (9 pups and three adults) were scampering off to rejoin with the rest who we could see returning from out of the thicket.
After a short reunion, without too much regurgitation that we could see (almost certainly indicating that their hunting had been unsuccessful), the pack trotted off towards the Manyelethi River, in which they started moving through the dense stands of wild date palm thickets.
We were trying to keep them in sight, when all of a sudden the strides of the ones closest to us quickened and they went racing off to catch those ahead of them.
As we came up to the rest, the reason became clear; they had surprised an impala ewe in the thickets and had already torn her to pieces.
Ever observant tracker Innocent Ngwenya, working with ranger Fin Lawlor, suddenly spotted movement up on the bank a little further downstream from the dogs and their meal; it was a small leopard, stealthily approaching through the long grass.
Recognising her as the Ingrid Dam young female, we thought she simply might not have known the dogs were there, but her subsequent behaviour suggested that she had in fact been attracted by the commotion and was investigating the possibilities of an easy meal.
Leopards are regularly treed by wild dog packs, but when a kill is involved, it’s not uncommon for a leopard to rush in, grab some of it, and make tracks up into the nearest branches before the dogs can catch it. It certainly looked as though this was what the young female was intending as she crept ever closer, but with so many dogs around it was almost inevitable that she would be seen.
With a bark, one of the adults caught sight of her, instantly putting the rest of the pack on alert, and after a brief few seconds stand-off in which both sides sized up their options, the dogs went rushing in towards the leopard, who made a bee-line for the nearest Leadwood tree, which she just managed to get up ahead of the dogs’ yapping jaws. A small leopard like the Ingrid Dam young female would stand no chance against the canids, as size-wise she was roughly the same as them, and properly outnumbered. All she could do was watch as the dogs returned to their kill. She descended a little too early however, while some of the dogs’ attention was still on her, and before she knew it she had been chased up another Leadwood.
Eventually once the pack had settled down to feed on whatever scraps were left of the impala, the leopard was able to make good her escape, creeping down and racing off into a nearby thicket line.
The dogs meanwhile moved down into the sandy riverbed towards a pool of water to drink and wallow. Wild dogs will often lie in shallow waterholes in order to cool down, but for the small pups – to which I imagine big bodies of water are still rather a novelty – this was all a bit too much, and they opted to climb in and out of a tiny hole in the sand that elephants had dug, and into which a small bit of water had seeped.
Almost two hours had passed since we had first met up with the pack, although it felt like less than thirty minutes, so action-packed had the morning been. Hyenas had also been hovering around the fringes while everything had been happening, and even a crowned hornbill had flown over; a very rare bird on Londolozi.
Mornings when one heads out with no real intentions can escalate in the blink of an eye into something utterly spectacular. I’ve never measured my pulse after a sighting, but I imagine after this particular one, my cardiovascular capacity would have been nudged up a notch!