Wildlife Spotlight: The African Wild DogMay 3, 2021
With a striking, multicoloured coat that’s earned it the Latin name of Lycaon pictus—“painted wolf”—the African wild dog is one of the continent’s most eye-catching creatures. It’s also one of the most endangered, with an estimated population of only around 6,500. While rare to see for many travellers on an African Safari, the species is inherently social—meaning that if you’re lucky enough to spy one, more are almost certain to follow. Here are a few reasons why the African wild dog tops many safari travellers’ must-see lists.
As remarkable as they look—with their mottled, patterned coats that are as individual as fingerprints, and large batlike ears that help them both hear distant prey and regulate their body temperature—what’s even more extraordinary is the way African wild dogs sound. Researchers have discovered the dogs’ vocal “language” is among the most elaborate used by any canine species, and comprises dozens of distinct barks, yips, chirps and whines. Many of these vocalizations can sound, to the untrained ear, like the calls of birds (though your Micato guides will know better).
One of the most astonishing ways in which wild dogs have been observed using vocal communication is by “voting” about whether to embark on a hunt. Scientists studying wild dog packs in the Okavango Delta found that pack members commonly gathered together before heading out to find prey—but would only proceed with a hunt if a certain number of dogs made sneezing sounds (apparently signaling their agreement to the plan). If a dominant dog initiated the first sneeze, the scientists noted, only three other dog sneezes were necessary before the group departed. If a dog of lower status sneezed first, though, more sneezes of assent were required.
Have a listen to a pack of wild dogs that my colleague Leslie Woit captured in South Africa’s Sabi Sands National Park. The pack is reuniting after a day of hunting:
Collaborative Hunters—and Caretakers
African wild dogs live in packs that typically include between seven and 15 members, though a few have as many as 40. Within the pack, the dogs adhere to a cooperative social hierarchy that maximizes their communal chances of survival.
When hunting, the dogs work together to surround and chase down prey animals, which include gazelles, kudu, impala, warthogs, wildebeest calves, and even sometimes full-grown wildebeest. While the dogs can sprint at speeds up to 45 mph, their main advantage as hunters is their exceptional endurance. Packs have been recorded pursuing prey animals for miles, until they succumb from exhaustion. Once a kill is made, the entire pack is brought to the carcass to feed; unusually for predatory pack animals, pups eat first.
Each African dog pack is led by a dominant, monogamous pair. These partner dogs, as well as directing hunts, are also the only members of the pack to breed and have young. Their litters of pups, though large (usually more than a dozen) face many threats, including predators like lions and hyenas, disease, and exposure to the elements. So all the adult pack members work together to ensure they’re fed and protected. Both male and female dogs take turns guarding litters while other pack members are off hunting, and regurgitate food for pups too young to feed at a kill site. These same caretaking behaviors are also employed to look after elderly or sick pack members.
Where and When to Spot Wild Dogs
Since they need unobstructed terrain for chasing down prey, wild dogs are almost always seen in the wide-open grasslands of southern and East Africa. (Luckily, these landscapes offer good visibility for safari travellers, too). While packs are scattered throughout these regions, they’re most plentiful in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, and Botswana’s Moremi Game Reserve. The dogs are crepuscular hunters, so you’re likeliest to spot them on early-morning or late-afternoon game drives.
A pack’s range can extend for hundreds of square miles. When there’s a new litter, though, the pack stays close by the den area until the pups are weaned—providing your best chance of seeing them. In southern Africa, this typically happens between April and July; in East Africa, though, the dogs don’t have a fixed breeding season, so you’ll need to rely on the in-depth knowledge of your Micato guides.