In Celebration of the African Wild Dog
On this day, we celebrate Southern Africa’s most endangered large mammal: the African Wild Dog. You might know these fantastic hounds by a different name, from cape hunting dogs, to the direct translation of their scientific name (Lycaon pictus), meaning ‘painted wolf’. True to these names, African Wild dogs are famous for their mottled coats, each as unique as a fingerprint, their untamed nature, and rather infamous killing techniques. In this blog, we will delve into exactly what makes wild dogs so special and why we must work together to ensure their conservation. So, read on, and have a very happy African Wild Dog day.
A pack of wild dogs approaches, with pups in tow. Photo credit: Hannah Gormley
Wild dogs have to be one of our favourite animals to work with. Each day starts early, with a frantic greeting ceremony, excited yips, exposed teeth, deferential bowing and furiously wagging tails. These tell-tale behaviours form the greeting ceremony that marks the beginning of the hunt. Researchers have shown that the dogs also use sneezing as a democratic way of voting. If the dominant male or female of the pack sneeze, an additional three sneezes from other pack members guarantees departure. However, if a subordinate sneezes, it requires 10 other allies before the group rally together. As you could guess from this example, wild dogs are extremely social animals, with their packs (of up to 60 members!) led by an alpha male and female. They lead the hunt at full tilt, as we attempt to follow desperately behind. Wild dogs can run up to 44 miles per hour, the same speed as a greyhound, so this is no easy feat! With their exceptional sight, smell and hearing (with radar-dish-like ears controlled by fine muscles that let them swivel towards a sound) it’s not long before they spot a target.
A wild dog pauses mid-meal to look into the camera. Photo credit: Hannah Gormley
Working together as a pack, African Wild Dogs have a success rate of killing their identified targets of nearly 80% (quite impressive, when you compare that to a lion’s 30%!). They are famous for their ruthless hunting, so much so that the San hunters of Botswana would traditionally smear the Wild Dog’s blood on the soles of their feet, believing that in doing so their own hunts would be rewarded with such success. The Ndebele also have their traditional philosophies about the African wild dogs. They believe that the dogs gained their ferocious killing techniques when the zebra and impala failed to deliver the medicine needed to save the alpha male’s dying wife. As he saw them standing over their smashed gourds, he and his family chased them and tore them to shreds in revenge.
Two wild dogs pursue a wildebeest. Photo credit: Hannah Gormley
True to this story, wild dogs do have a rather unsavoury eating technique. In a matter of seconds, they can reduce an animal to scraps with specialised dentition designed for shearing meat and snapping bones. This behaviour prevents the kill being stolen from larger and sneakier competitors, like the hyena. But despite the feeding frenzy, everyone gets a bite, even those who were not involved in the hunt. African Wild Dogs will care for ill, injured and elderly pack members, no matter if they are holding the pack back. On top of this, they have an average litter of 10 pups: the highest of any canid. With all these extra mouths to feed, the crepuscular dogs must hunt again at dusk, relying on its twilight hours for the perfect camouflage. In the meantime, they have a long snooze, the perfect opportunity for our cameramen to also recover from their early morning start!
A pack of pups squabble and play. Photo credit: Liz Johnston
With the dogs already hunting twice a day, they simply cannot support anymore hungry stomachs. It is because of this that breeding is strictly prohibited for the alpha male and female. Should a beta breed, the alpha will be forced to decide whether to adopt or kill her subordinate’s offspring, or banish her to raise the pups alone. Raising the pups requires all hands on deck. Male and female babysitters are designated to guard their underground dens while the rest of the pack hunt, and between 3 to 10 weeks old, the hunters will return and regurgitate up their feast for the next generation. Once the pups are old enough to join the hunt, they are given priority at the kills, until usurped by next year’s brood. The alpha female’s first litter contains a higher proportion of males to females, but with each successive litter afterwards the proportion of females gradually increases until it outweighs those of males. This strategy has evolved because it is the males that will stay within their natal packs, and the females that must disperse. This way, they have a guaranteed good brood of hunters, but the pack never becomes too big.
A Wild Dog's Tale follows the incredible story of Solo, a lonely African Wild Dog. Photo credit: Nat Geo Wild.
The dispersed females leave to join other packs, where they may have their own chance to become alpha female. In doing so, the risk of inbreeding is prevented within the local wild dog populations. In 2010, the NHFU followed the story of ‘Solo’, a lone female wild dog whose pack was tragically decimated by a pride of lions. For years, we watched as she established her own motley crew with the local hyena and jackal populations. She went so far as to share her kills with her new allies, calling for them at night and presenting herself to them when she was in oestrus. However, the most incredible part of ‘A Wild Dog’s Tale’ had to be the moment at which she stole the pups from her befriended jackal family, going so far as to feed, groom and guard them herself as her innate maternal instinct took over. Today, the lives of these remarkable and social creatures lies in our hands.
Our community education project translates our documentaries into Setswana and hosts viewings in the local communities to change perspectives on Africa's most persecuted animals. Photo credit: Noah Falklind
Across Africa, Wild Dogs are being driven to extinction by human development and encroachment. Once found throughout the continent, illegal snares, domestic dog diseases, habitat and prey reduction, means that today only 6,600 wild dogs are left in the wild. These top predators play a vital role in their ecosystems, controlling prey populations to prevent desertification and population collapses. Without them, not only do we risk losing an important predator, but also an iconic, beautiful, social and democratic animal unlike any other on our planet. Fortunately, conservation organisations across Africa are breaking ground in protecting wild dogs. Here in Botswana, the pioneering work of the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust is using fake urine samples to mark agricultural areas, to prevent wild dog packs moving in and educating local populations on their importance. Despite their persecution, the Okavango Delta remains a stronghold for this wonderful creature. So instead of despairing, on this day, we celebrate an animal that was nearly driven to extinction and is poised on the edge of a phenomenal comeback. It is people like you that could turn this dream into a reality.