The African wild dog is the second most endangered carnivore in Africa, behind the Ethiopian wolf. Whilst not a member of the Big 5, like the lion or leopard, sighting a wild dog is more treasured. It is also more of a treat; wild dogs are active and playful, lazy lions lie around doing nothing 20 hours of the day.
What’s in a name?
Wild dogs are not technically dogs; they are the only living species of the genus Lycaon and differ from true canines by having four toes, not five, lacking a dew claw, and they also have different dentition. Wild dogs have a number of different names in the English language, such as Painted dog and Cape hunting dog. You might have read in other blogs, or seen on some nature documentaries that recently there has been a minor movement amongst conservationists to rename the species Painted wolf, due to the negative connotations associated with the name wild dog. Considering that wild dogs are not part of the wolf genus, this seems like a strange decision. In addition, no one appears to have asked the Wild dogs what they prefer to be called.
Wild dogs are a joy to watch should you have the good fortune to stumble across some. They live in packs and can be very boisterous and are highly sociable, communicating with squeaking noises rather than barks. Some biologists also believe that a wild dog pack is a democratic society as when it is time to hunt, each member of the pack votes on whether he/she would like to join the hunt. If not enough members vote to join the hunt, it is called off. Votes are established by sneezing.
Another curious aspect of wild dog life is that it is the females who leave the pack when they come of age, rather than the males. The males will stay with the pack they were born into. The reasons for this are not clear and it is puzzling considering that in most animal species, it is the males who are forced out of their family when they are old enough. Wild dog packs are extremely hierarchical, and in any given pack only the alpha male and alpha female will reproduce.
This is arguably a contributing factor to their decline in population over the past century. If only one female per pack is allowed to have pups, it will be difficult to sustain the population. Even if she is capable of giving birth to 10 or 11 pups at a time, it will always be less effective than allowing all the females to reproduce. The alpha female is usually the oldest in the pack, but this is not always the case for the alpha male. That said, it ensures only the best genes are used and, until human wildlife conflict and habitat encroachment decimated their numbers, this technique saw hundreds of thousands of these beautiful creatures roaming across sub-Saharan Africa. Today there are only around 6,000 left in seven countries.
Being the alpha pair obviously comes with great perks. Even though they are the only ones allowed to reproduce, they do not actually have to look after the pups all the time. The alpha male and alpha female are needed for hunts, being the biggest and smartest dogs, so the job of looking after the pups is often left to other junior females. Wild dogs are incredibly successful hunters, more so than lions. Wild dogs do not hunt like other predators you will have seen on TV. Instead of stalking and then surprising their prey, they like to chase after them in a marathon. Wild dogs are incredibly fit and are able to run their prey to exhaustion. Once this is done, wild dogs don’t suffocate their pray like other predators, but rather rip through their flesh with their sharp teeth.
This is the main reason why they have a bad reputation, because this practice has led to the belief that wild dogs eat their prey alive, which many people feel is cruel. It is also a second reason behind the decline in wild dog numbers. Wild dogs were often shot with impunity by farmers in the past because it was felt that they were excessively cruel to their prey and were seen as pests by livestock farmers.
Once the hunt is over, the prey is consumed at lightning speed, to reduce the chance of the meal being stolen by a larger, stronger predator, often hyenas. On returning to the den and the babysitters, they regurgitate a bit of the meal for the childminders and the young to eat. Whilst sharing is caring, when a poisoned carcass has been left out by a farmer, it makes spreading the toxins extremely likely to wipe out a pack.
Where to find these misunderstood and beautiful animals?
Southern Africa is the best place to find Wild dogs, particularly in Botswana and South Africa. In Botswana, we have regularly spotted wild dogs in the Okavango Delta, Moremi Game Reserve, Khwai, Linyanti, Savuti and Chobe National Park. In South Africa, the best places to see them are in the Greater Kruger Park, Hluhluwe-iMfolozi, Madikwe, and Manyoni. We have also had good luck seeing wild dogs in South Luangwa in Zambia, which is also home to one of the densest population of leopards in Africa. Mana Pools, Zimbabwe, has the most-publicised population, thanks to the BBC’s Dynasties episode.
Please remember that wild dogs are an endangered species and even if you visit every destination in this list, you will still need a bit of luck to find them. If you fail to spot any in the wild, the next place to go is the Painted Dog Conservation centre in Hwange, Zimbabwe, which we sponsor annually.
Photographer, conservationist, dive and field guide, teller of bad jokes.