Over the last few months we were spoilt with phenomenal wild dog sightings. Having the pack of two adults den on Londolozi was something that many of us here have been dreaming of for years.
Year after year, wild dogs have tormented us, building our hopes up that maybe this year they will have a den on Londolozi, only to then den somewhere else. So with all the anticipation mounting as we approached the denning season, we once again became hopeful, but didn’t really give it too much thought.
Then a den was found.
The entire camp was instantly flooded with euphoria. Finally, wild dogs denning on Londolozi! For some this was tempered by the question, “How do we break the news to the rest of the staff locked down at home?”
So began the cliched emotional rollercoaster ride that no-one could have prepared for. After the initial tide of envy had subsided for those of us still on the outside (I was one), excitement took over. ‘Virtually’ following the lives of 10 small pups, through thick and thin, still let us keep abreast of what was happening, and we shared in the experience with our fellow rangers through the social media feeds put out by the team at the lodge.. We all became so invested in the journey as I am sure you did.
The one-eared mother has had her fair share of hardships. Losing an ear in a battle with hyenas, she was separated from her pack and left for ruins. Managing to recover, she soon found a mate, forming their own small pack. The odds were not in their favour, having only two adults along with a first time mother. Chances of raising all the pups were incredibly slim.
Within the first month the pups had survived an attack from hyenas and a pride of lions digging away at the den. A long anxious three day wait to see if they were alive was eventually broken. The male returned, a gentle whimper at the entrance was followed by all ten pups bounding out of the den alive and well, and a huge sense of relief for all.
The pups grew rapidly; they would wander further and further from the den. In larger packs this is less of an issue as they can afford to have a “care-taker” subordinate dog, remain at the den while the rest of the pack hunts. This pack does not have that luxury. The male would regularly go hunting by himself, returning back to regurgitate food for the pups. Then the two adults would go off hunting together to feed the mother. Leaving the den unprotected, roaming too far from the den could eventually prove fatal for the pups.
On the morning of the 15th June, we had seen the full compliment. The adults then trotted off followed closely by all 10 pups. Presuming the adults wanted to move the youngsters to new den, we had visions of all twelve animals running through some amazing open clearings. Only to turn back after venturing 150m or so. Something changed their minds. That was the last time we saw all ten together. However both parents were seen resting at the den later that day but no real sign of all the pups. Leading us to believe that nothing was wrong at this point.
Three days later, after bouts of miserable weather, the female called the pups from the den. Only three emerged, and immediately began following her. Travelling with a determined direction, it was assumed she had a new den in mind. But there were seven pups unaccounted for with no clear evidence what happened. With numerous vultures at the previous den, we assumed the worst. Retrieving the trail-cam we hoped for some clarity. Sadly it revealed nothing concrete. Ten emerged from the den at 12h00 and only three returned at 16h00. This only left us confused and frustrated. How do seven pups just disappear? We could get our heads around one or two, but not seven all at once. Completely baffled, we accepted it and were grateful three had survived.
A few days later a lioness from the Ntsevu pride was followed straight to the new den. She chased off the adults and in all the commotion a pup was found dead next to the den. Truly heartbreaking, but at least this time there was evidence. We knew for sure what happened. That was the last we saw of the pack. Tracks of them went away from there and we were unsure where they ended up. Were any pups still alive?
Days passed with no sign. Until late one evening our friends from Mala Mala sent us a message. They had found a pack of wild dogs with nine pups that had run back onto Londolozi at sunset. In complete disbelief we were reluctant to believe it, in case someone was joking with us. We wanted telling evidence first. Sure enough, we got what we asked for. Video footage showing all nine were alive and somewhere on Londolozi.
At the crack of dawn the next day we set off on the most intense searching effort I have ever been on. Systematically driving every road in the area, walking into every drainage line, checking from termite mound to termite mound. Leaving no stone unturned. One track of an adult was all it took. We were on to something. A direction to follow. They had to be close.
Then, suddenly, there they were, nine pups playing on a mound. We had found them! Against all odds they had made it and were all together at a new den.
Now in hindsight we can theorise what happened. Wild dogs have been known to move pups to a new den in batches and in some circumstances even operate out of two dens. Maybe on moving a batch they encountered danger and were unable to move the rest. Being forced to operate out of two dens. This could make sense in a larger pack, but it doesn’t seem like a feasible use of energy for only two parents. Having to go back and forth between three pups here and seven pups somewhere else would be taxing on them.
No other explanation is possible; pups of that age would not survive 10 days alone. I think it will always be a mystery as to the truth and Mother Nature will continue to surprise even when we think we understand her.
But the fact of the matter is the pups were all alive and well for now.
It is still a long road ahead, but with the resilience this pack has shown we can be optimistic. As we expected would happen at some point, they have moved off Londolozi and from reports from Mala Mala they have been thriving.
For the survival of the species we wish them well and hope to see them back sometime in the future.