The common narrative that I used to give guests was that we didn’t see wild dogs often as they cover home ranges that are enormous. Meaning as they roam, we would easily go weeks without seeing them. Hence my particular fascination with these animals never grew too much. In the last few months that has all change and although I may never be as obsessed as guide Jess Shillaw, each day I learn something amazing about these incredible animals and are drawn to them even more.
With a recent den on Londolozi and several others on our neighbouring reserves, wild dog viewing was at an all-time high. We were seeing at least three packs on a semi-regular basis.
In the North, there is a pack of 12 and recently we found a pack of 5, I am not even sure where they fit in.
In the South, there is a pack of 14, who are not seen too often in the southeastern section. And, I am sure most people have seen the pack of seven adults that was denning on Londolozi. We not sure at the moment exactly of numbers as she has moved dens numerous times and now with the pups being older and more mobile we have not seen them for a while. This particular pack and the pack in the north have provided a much closer insight into the life of a pack of wild dogs that most of us have never seen before.
The African Wild Dog is listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). 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 with just over 1000 as mature adults. The IUCN says that the population numbers continue to decline as a result of habitat fragmentation, human-wildlife conflict and infectious disease. Being so lucky to actually see these animals roaming freely here.
The more I follow these animals, the more they excite me so I thought I would share some interesting facts and why I love seeing the African Wild Dog:
The Adrenaline Rush of these Extremely Efficient Hunters.
Trying to keep up with wild dogs while hunting is a thrill like no other. The common narrative from me is,
“Hold on to the bars, this is a rollercoaster ride.”
Tracker and Ranger weaving their way through the bush and over the plains, while guests shout,
“There!!! I still see one”.
The scene gives you an all-time high in just hoping they will be successful in their hunt. As guides, we may overestimate the success of wild dog hunts, partially due to excitement but they definitely succeed more than they fail. As a statistic, their success rate sits at 70-80%. So if you happen to be sitting on Founders deck and see a herd of impala running for their lives on the crests without letting out any characteristic alarm calls, there is a good chance a pack of dogs is in hot pursuit, with my guests and I not far behind!
A strict social structure worth observing.
We often all value the social structure of an elephant however wild dogs have one of the most valuable social structures. Whereby there is a strict hierarchy, upheld by all while ensuring every member is closely looked after. The highest-ranked male and female dogs in the pack make up the Alpha Pair who almost always lie in close proximity, or touch each other. This is the only pair to breed in the pack. Occasionally a Beta Pair can mate, however, this is only as insurance for the Alpha Pair in that if her pups do not survive then she will adopt the Beta Pairs’ pups.
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. During the denning season, others will stay behind to guard the pups, and when the hunters return they will regurgitate food for the pups to keep them well fed.
When All is Still, Listen.
Yes, they do bark however, it is very unusual to hear them bark. Only heard if a potential threat is close. It is the other sounds that just take you by complete surprise. The “twittering”, a series of high-pitched squeals let out in excitement particularly in greetings. The most amazing call is the “Hooing”, a unique series of drawn-out, 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. It echoes through the valleys and you cannot help yourself but close your eyes, smile and listen.
Wild Dogs Usually Mean Hyenas too.
A common sight to see if the pack of wild dogs is on the hunt is one or two hyenas trailing closely behind, in the hopes of stealing the kill from the wild dogs. Knowing very well the success rate of the wild dogs, you cannot blame the hyenas, they are working smarter not harder. Although somewhat similar in appearance, let us not confuse wild dogs with hyenas. Wild dogs are a distinct species of Canid, Lycaon pictus, which literally means “painted wolf”. 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 but it is quite exciting getting to see both animals in one sighting.
There are many more fascinating behavioural quirks and exciting aspects to wild dogs, which are amazing to sit and spend time with. Having had the wild dogs denning on Londolozi over the last few months has allowed the most amazing insights into their lives and given us all such a great understanding of the interactions amongst the different individuals. I cannot wait to spend some time with them again. So out on safari, keep a lookout for the flash of white on a wild dog’s tail as it races through the bush so that you can experience these wonderful animals for yourself.