Hanging out with African wild dogs
I am back in the Kruger Park after working with a student group at the Dinokeng Game Reserve. I will be guiding a group of volunteers over the next few weeks and I am excited to spend time at my favourite camp – the rustic Rusermi River Lodge in Balule Game Reserve. This trip has already been awesome so far, with the highlight being a long anticipated sighting of African wild dogs.
The dogs had been in the area the first time I worked at the Rusermi camp in January last year yet I kept missing them. Each time the group encountered them I always seemed to be somewhere else. Needless to say I was quite bummed. I was really sad to leave without seeing them when my last contract was up. And by the time I returned to the site in October they had moved off to areas inaccessible to us.
A stroke of luck
Finally, whilst on a game transect, we heard some lions calling. We decided to see if we could find them but the veld was too dense. As we turned a few roads up, one of the volunteers shouted “hyena!” I turned the bakkie around so we could all get a good look. Just then, several large pairs of rounded ears caught my eye along with the very distinct mottled fur. Those were no hyenas. It was one of several African wild dog packs roaming the area. They seemed to be checking out a potential den site when a small breeding herd of elephants came passing through. I was so excited to see the dogs, it didn’t really occur to me that some of my volunteers had never seen elephants before. It was interesting to watch the ellies become annoyed with them as they played and patrolled before moving off.
We decided to follow them, maintaining a respectful distance behind the pack. They led us to an impala kill.
It looked like they had killed it earlier that day and left it unguarded for some reason. Perhaps they were distracted by something, causing them to leave the kill site. We watched for some time as they feasted.
They were completely comfortable with our presence – even playing right next to the bakkie. It was truly a magical moment.
I went on to explain my excitement to the group and why this was so special. African wild dogs are seriously endangered, especially in South Africa where less than 500 individuals remain.
Threats to African wild dogs
The main threats result from habitat fragmentation which drives them closer to human habitations where they contract diseases like rabies and canine distemper from domestic dogs. They are also extremely susceptible to snaring and are often killed by livestock farmers and property owners.
We watched for a while as they feasted. Also known as painted dogs, or painted wolves, these incredible carnivores are highly intelligent. Their social structure and behaviour is fascinating. Each pack has an alpha male and female. These are the breeders of the pack with the beta pair next in line. Similar to wolves, wild dogs to rarely reject old, sick or weak members of the pack, but rather include them and care for them in a similar way they do for their young.
They are extremely skilled hunters, strategizing and communicating vocally through high pitched squeals, chirps, yelps, and hoots, as they run their prey down. Wild dogs kill by disembowelment which is argued to be a kinder method than that employed by the big cats.
The last time I encountered wild dogs was a few years ago, also in the Kruger. Seeing them again made me feel rather emotional. They are incredibly special animals and are in desperate need of protection.
with only around 7000 dogs across the continent, Wild dogs are Africa’s second most endangered carnivore - after the Ethiopian wolf.
Efforts to help protect them
As part of the project we monitor predator guilds using camera traps and collecting data from predator surveys. Other predators surveyed include lions, leopards, cheetahs, and hyenas.
Several organizations such as the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), Wildlife ACT, and Painted Dog Conservation are working together doing intensive monitoring, habitat management, rehabilitation, snare-hunts, and community development initiatives to alleviate pressures on wild dog populations.
I hope that one day they will be as revered as our lions are, that everyone would be as excited as I was to see them, and that their species survives long enough for either to be possible.