African Wild Dogs
The African Wild Dog (Lycaon pictus), also known as the Cape Hunting Dog or Painted Wolf, is one of the most special animals one can be privileged enough to see on safari. Most safari goers are often unfamiliar with Wild Dogs as many will associate the safari experience with seeing the Big 5. But it is time to take look at why seeing African Wild Dogs on your safari should be just as special, if not more so than seeing any of the Big 5.
The Wild dog is Africa's second most endangered large carnivore. With fewer than 5,500 free roaming Wild Dogs in the wild, and even fewer still 450 remaining in South Africa, these animals make for a rare and fortunate find on safari.
Wild Dogs are the only local candid (dog species) to have developed a pack system. Moving in packs is considered an advanced form of social organisation. In wild species it is the exception rather than the norm. Moving in packs has probably developed as a more efficient way of procuring prey, improving reproductive success and defensive capabilities. A Wild Dog pack is led by a dominant pair, known as the alphas. The alpha pair is also in most cases the only pair to breed, and they will lead a pack of 12-30 dogs. There is also a beta male and female which sit next in the hierarchy to the alpha pair. If something were to happen to one of the alpha dogs, the beta animal will automatically take over. The beta dogs do sometimes breed but the pups are usually killed or stolen by the alpha female.
All male dogs in the pack are related and they stay in the natal pack while the females emigrate. This is an excellent way to prevent inbreeding. Non-breeding individuals in the pack take turns to perform different functions. “Den guards "are stationed around the breeding den to protect young pups from predators passing by. Other dogs join the hunting group to secure food to provide for the pups and other members left at the den. All the adults will provide and care for the pups within the pack, as well as members who are unable to hunt due to injury or age.
Wild Dogs make use of disused Aardvark holes/burrows as den sites. Litters of between 7-10 pups are born blind and helpless (altricial). Denning time usually coincides with the end of the Impala rut (breeding season). At this time there are large numbers of out of condition Impala rams exhausted by intense territorial and breeding activity. There are also concentrations of animals around waterholes and with the open veld in the dry season making for ideal hunting circumstance's. The pack will carry meat back in their stomachs where they regurgitate solid chunks to feed the pups and other pack members at the den. After being sedentary for 3 months, the pups will be big enough to start moving with the rest of the pack. Temporary dens are used for some time still but are often changed to prevent parasite build up around the dens. In order to follow abundant game herds and to avoid confrontation with other larger predators like Lions, the dogs will be nomadic occupying home ranges of 200-1000 square kilometres in size.
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Wild Dogs have heavy skulls and powerful jaw muscles to provide a very powerful bite force. Sharp modified upper teeth are used like weapons to grip prey, which usually consist of medium sized ungulates such as Impala, Nyala and depending on the pack size, Zebra and Wildebeest. The dogs hunt by coursing, which is a process whereby the hunter walks directly up to its prey, initiating a chase. No stalking is involved. They are capable of chasing prey over long distances, averaging speeds of 50-60km/h for several kilometres. When the prey species are exhausted and eventually caught it is disembowelled. The kills are extremely quick and do not involve the suffocation process used by the big cats. This endurance style of hunting combined with precise teamwork and communication by pack members makes the African Wild Dog the most successful hunter in Africa, with a success rate of 80%. Lions, Cheetah and Leopards have a varied success rate of between 20-30%.
Sight and hearing are the most important for procuring food. Daytime vision is no better than ours and large dome like ears are used to detect sounds. Their night time vision is probably good but very little hunting is done in the dark. The endurance style, fast running hunts could lead to injury by tripping or falling over obstacles at night. Therefore most hunting will be done in the early mornings and late afternoons, making Wild Dogs crepuscular.
White tips to the tails probably aid as a following mechanism during hunts but also aid in visual communication combined with movements of the large ears which could indicate mood and intent among pack members. Wild Dogs have a variety of vocalisations ranging from a characteristic bird-like twittering made before and during hunts as well as when feeding, to a long travelling “hoo” call used to contact other members at a distance. A growl-like bark serves as an alarm call.
There is little aggression within the pack and submissive behaviour becomes entrenched as pups with ritualised begging behaviour. Begging is the catalyst for adult dogs to regurgitate food. It is common to see two dogs at a limited food supply trying to be more submissive than each other as this behaviour more than likely enabled them to get more food. Interestingly, this submissive behaviour helps to suppress the reproductive urge by inhibiting hormone production. Therefore no blood is shed in the maintenance of the hierarchy within the pack.
Wild Dogs are a very specialised species, with an advanced and complicated social organisation, they richly deserve widespread recognition as a vital link in the ecosystem. So the question arises, why are they so rare and classified as an endangered species?
For decades the misguided belief that the African Wild Dog is a feral, cross-bred dog species who have evolved to live and hunt in packs have led to their persecution, not only by farmers who labelled them “livestock destroyers” , but also by ill-informed game wardens. Wild Dogs were shot and destroyed in efforts to conserve herbivore numbers. The large home ranges required by Wild Dogs to survive and hunt are also being lost to human encroachment and subsequent conflict. Accidental snaring and infectious diseases such as rabies and canine distemper are also causes of population loss. Once widely distributed across most of sub-Saharan Africa, Wild Dogs have all but disappeared from their former ranges, virtually eradicated in West Africa, heavily reduced in central Africa, they are now confined mostly to the southern parts of East Africa and southern Africa.
Conservation efforts in South Africa are leading to a slow population increase, this is however difficult to monitor due to the highly fluctuating birth and mortality rates. Constant monitoring by conservation authorities and NGOs’ are also working at relocating and establishing a meta population of Wild Dogs in medium sized reserves across South Africa.
So before the lazy Lion jumps to the top of your safari wish list, spare a thought for these amazing animals if you are lucky enough to come across them, as they are bound to give you a memorable sighting.
Join Heritage Tours & Safaris as they go insearch of these incredible African Wild Dogs in the Hluhluwe Umfolozi Game Reserve. Daily departures make for some incredible sightings for more information on Day Safaris Please Click Here