As many of you may have seen in our recent stories, the wild dogs are denning on Londolozi again this year! For those of you who did see it, you may have also seen me sobbing at the first glance of seeing the pups in one of Sean’s stories. Waiting to see the pups for the first time is a feeling I cannot describe, something similar to that feeling as a child when you can’t sleep on Christmas eve, or the night before you are going away on holiday.
Wild dogs are by far my favourite animal and the heartache last year of not being able to see the pups in person was almost unbearable for me. I waited in suspense this year, waiting to see if the wild dogs would den on Londolozi as the pregnant females were seen a number of times. One morning I set out with the trainee rangers with the goal of finding the den. We knew where the wild dogs were often seen going back to a single point in a drainage line after a hunt or before the sunset. This gave us a good idea of where to begin looking for the den. We also knew that the alpha female had most likely given birth as she had not been with the rest of the pack every time they were seen. She had to be in a den somewhere, but where?
And so we started the search…
We went to every termite mound along that drainage line (and boy, there are a lot of termite mounds there). We found a number of potential options that were more convincing than others. Armed with a thermos mug of coffee, we planned on waiting at what looked like the most likely den along the drainage line. Well, at least what we thought was the most likely in our opinions. As we arrived the pack was lying around the very hole we were going to sit and wait at. I squealed and told the trainee rangers that this must be it. I had to talk to myself to try and calm down and not get ahead of myself just yet.
The alpha male stuck his nose in the middle hole and gave off a little contact call. I grabbed one of the trainee ranger’s arm and squeezed it, without breathing in anticipation of maybe seeing the pups. I was later informed of just how hard my grip was, clearly I hadn’t hidden my excitement very well.
The male settled down again and the Beta female then poked her snout into the entrance. We then heard a growl and saw the alpha female’s head pop out. I couldn’t sit still as I was overwhelmed with excitement.
We had found the Den!
Now that the den had been found we chose to not go close and view them. This would give the wild dogs a chance to settle at that den without the noise and disruption. We chose to set up a camera trap to monitor the den for our own research and interest sake. This confirmed to us that this was indeed the den. After a couple of weeks, a number of rangers made the mission down there to see how things were going. I was sadly unable to go with and of course, was riddled with jealousy, so much so I did not want to hear anything about the den when they got back. But they had seen the pups, still inside the hole. They were alive and well.
This would be my first opportunity to see wild dog pups and I cannot think of the words to even begin to describe how much this experience would mean to me. It is on my bucket list. To help put it into perspective, many rangers have been waiting a decade to see pups. I know the pack of two denned here last year, but myself along with most of the rangers were unfortunately unable to be on-site and see them. The only thing that got me through was being lucky enough to get video calls from some of the rangers who were here showing me the pups, watching them play with tears of joy in my eyes.
Then it finally happened, I got to see them for the first time…
As we got to the den one afternoon, in the hope that we might get a glimpse of the pups, we found five males lying in the shade next to the den. We waited for over two hours. I held my fingers in the crossed position the entire time, and even though I was losing circulation, I was making sure luck was on my side. As the sun slowly dipped below the horizon I began to panic as our time was running out, we were going to leave the den shortly after sunset.
One wild dog got up followed by the next, and then all of them huddled together in their excitable greeting ritual right in front of the den entrance.
Then the after about a minute the alpha female came out and ran away. My mouth was dry, I couldn’t swallow. After all the excitement of the greeting and the female running off, I felt let down and wondered if that was it. The pack was going to leave to hunt without me seeing the pups. In a panic, tracker Advice Ngwenya said
“Wait they will come greet the pups before they leave.”
All nine pups came out! This was my first time seeing all nine! I stopped breathing. If I was wearing one of the new health watches I’m sure it would have warned me of a high heart rate and reminded me to take a breath.
To make things even more magical the pups started to suckle, which is also a first for me. I was in awe and could not even speak but when I turned back to the guests, I could tell they were sharing the same feeling as me and not much had to be said. We just sat and had to take it all in.
This is what I had been waiting for, a life-long dream of mine. Their little white legs and the white-tipped miniature tails as well as their little squeals made my heart full. It dawned on me how privileged I am and how this could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
We left the den as the sunset and said we all needed to re-gather our thoughts and really take in what we had just seen. This was something truly magical for me, and an experience which I find difficult to put into words, but one that will never leave me. I will forever has this extraordinary afternoon in my memory.