02 November 2013

It's Been A While

I haven't done a blog post in quite a while, hopefully I can still remember how to slap something together... The die hard followers (if there are any left) will be glad to hear that I plan to get a couple of camera trapping posts out before the December holiday season kicks off, so here goes...

About two months ago, while going through some old holiday photographs, I decided that I would like to do a post on the African Wild Dog. Now, being the rarest carnivore in Southern Africa I've never camera trapped one, in fact I've only ever seen them once in the wild. I'm worried that based on what I saw, I might have used up all of my luck! The African Wild Dog is Africa's largest Canid species, and world wide second only to the Grey Wolf.

This was back in 2008. I managed to take some photographs and video clips using my trusty old digital camera, a model well known to many camera trappers, the Sony CyberShot S600. The video quality isn't that great, but it's better than nothing. This is a "real world" sighting and not some footage from a documentary happening in front of the camera in ideal habitat where everything can be seen perfectly. I tried to upload the videos to YouTube for better quality, but unfortunately it still seems to have lost a lot of the detail from the original (bad) video clips. OK with that out of the way lets get on with it :)

African Wild Dog (Wildehond - Lycaon pictus) in Kruger National Park

The pack was first encountered at 6:25am on 1 Jan 2008, near Skukuza in the Kruger National Park. Over here in South Africa, Kruger is the last "strong"-hold of these incredible animals. You are looking at the rarest carnivore in Southern Africa. There were once estimated to be over 500 000 in 39 countries throughout Africa, with packs 100 or more strong not uncommon! This pack was one of the largest in the park at the time and numbered only about 20.

Today there are about 5 000 (that is 1%) animals left throughout Africa, most of which are in only a handful of large protected areas. The South African population is balancing on a knife edge, with the only viable population occurring in Kruger National Park, and even there their numbers aren't what it should be. There are only about 450 left in the entire country, some people have more Facebook friends than that...

Video: Wild Dog pack on the move

The pack was moving down the road towards a T-junction. All the while getting more and more serious as they went along. In the video clip it appears as if one of the older dogs are "scolding" a careless youngster that absentmindedly drifted into the open. The pack trots off with renewed purpose.

The 11 youngsters were by now old enough to join on the hunt, although the adults still took the lead.
An alpha female usually has around 10 pups at a time, but it can range from 2-19!

As we got closer to the T-junction they started to cut the corner and we lost them in the vegetation. We decided to carry on and turn at the T-junction to see whether we can spot them again.

Video: Wild Dog pack hunting, unfortunately the footage isn't very clear

The video clip opens with the adult dogs emerging from where they cut the corner of the T-junction. They spotted some Impala across the road and the adults started the hunt, fanning out along the road and studying the herd of Impala a short distance away amongst the trees. The video quality isn't that great, but the small patch of red pixels amongst the trees are some Impala.

The rest of the pack then emerges from the grass. I absolutely love this scene! The youngsters join in, but soon get bored and lose some of the tension and intent they had moments before. Luckily the adult dogs are taking care of things. I think some adult dogs passed behind us to flank the Impala and drive the hunt from behind towards the rest of the fanned out pack.

Suddenly the Impala herd burst into panic and the adult dog closest to the car darts off after them. The white tails of the dogs really help to keep track of them in the video.

At first the youngsters seemed to have been caught snoozing and are late to join the hunt. They came running after the adult, popping up to look over the grass to find the action, but then the action finds them. An Impala darts past them, pursued by some adult dogs, towards the other adults that fanned out earlier across the road. Most of the youngsters then join the chase, but some darted off in the other direction.

They pulled down their prey where the fanned out adults where waiting. The pack briefly called to let the rest of the pack know that they have made a kill. Except for these chirping calls right after the kill, the whole affair was very silent, not even the Impala wasted their time calling, they just ran.

During the hunt individual antelope would suddenly appear running over the road in panic, both in front of and behind the car, sometimes pursued by a lone Wild Dog. There were no alarm calls or attempts to spot the predator ambushing them. This was not an ambush, it was a trap, and they knew it. The Impala knew these were Wild Dog chasing them and some Impala were going to die.

I believe there are hunting roles in the pack, some give chase disrupting the herd, some try to direct the antelope towards the others and some fan out to ambush antelope chased towards them. The dogs definitely keep an eye and ear on one another. The Wild Dogs could often be seen rearing up to lift their heads over the tall grass before darting off in a new direction. I'm sure the fact that all Wild Dog have unique colour patterns helps. They also all have a black nose and white tail, making it much easier to see in what direction a dog is running.

Not all of the pack came towards the first kill, and it soon became clear why. The youngsters that split off earlier managed to bring down a second Impala, with the help of some of the other adults. Wild Dog truly are one of the most successful large predators on the planet. The combination of intelligence, team work and endurance seems to pay off with 80% or more of their hunts ending in a kill, a much better success rate than Lion or Leopards.

It only took 11 minutes from the moment the chase started to the point when the two carcasses were consumed! Afterwards some individuals decided to carry off legs and bones to chew on at leisure.

Wild Dog have to work fast to prevent the larger Lion or Spotted Hyena from taking over their kills. While a large pack can stand up to any Lion pride, a smaller pack can't and Lion will actively try to kill as many animals as they can, especially pups at the breeding den.

Notice the large ears, black muzzles and white tails which all Wild Dogs have

My heart always hoes out to the African Wild Dog. Not only is it our rarest carnivore, but they face a modern world so different to what they where born and bred for that their future can only bring harder times.

Wild Dogs exhibit some peculiar behaviour that makes them difficult to protect in small fenced in areas. They were born to roam a continent, and very few protected areas remain that are big enough to support them. As it stands Kruger might be barely large enough to sustain its dwindling population. There are estimated to be only 370 animals left in Kruger. (Their unique colour patterns makes them easy to count.) For a long time they were killed on sight, even in Kruger.

Maybe part of the problem is with their name. The name has never seemed to match the animal, and even today many variations are floating around, most containing combinations of Hunting, Painted, Wild, Dog and Wolf. Based on those names you won't be blamed to think they are just some kind of wild domestic dog, but that would be a very wrong assumption to make. You might get away with calling an American Grey Wolf a wild domestic dog, they are at least part of the same genus, heck they are even the same species. While the African Wild Dog is still part of the Canidae (dog) family, they are an entirely different beast and is grouped into their own genus. In fact they are the only living species in that genus, so they definitely are not dogs, nor wolves, nor jackals, nor foxes, etc.

Wild Dog tend to wonder over huge territories in search of prey. Because of this roaming tendency they seem to either escape from fenced parks, or learn to drive antelope into the fences for an easy kill. This makes it very difficult to protect a single pack in a small reserve. On the other hand Lion, for example, pose no such problem and can be fairly easily introduced into smaller reserves.

I will always have a special place in my heart for these gems of an age now past. They have been polished to shine in a wild Africa, what will the future hold for them? I often find myself wondering whether the Wild Dog can survive in today's world of protected patches. They were shaped for a world without fences. To roam in packs, 40 or more strong, over the face of South Africa. Striking fear into the hearts of medium to large sized antelope wherever they go.

They have complex social structures designed for a survival of large packs in large open spaces. I don't recall ever hearing about it, since little is know of the Trekbok migrations of old, but I wonder what part they might have played in hunting the huge herds of Springbok that used to crisscross the heart of South Africa, or the large herds of antelope roaming the South African veld. I sometimes fear that, like the well know example of the American Passenger Pigeon, Wild Dog populations won't be able to recover if their population falls below a certain level. Large populations need very large areas of wilderness, something that just doesn't exists any more in large enough quantities, anywhere on earth, even Africa.

Ah, nothing better than lazing around with a full belly

We were the only ones to witness the hunt, but about an hour later we found the pack again, this time they were lazing around on the side of the road to the delight of other visitors to the park.

Video: Wild Dog youngsters checking out my car

May we always be fortunate enough to have these magnificent animals with us. The world is changing, and a lot of what was good has been lost. Some might think we have more now, but I wonder whether the price we are paying is worth it. If you are ever lucky enough to see a Wild Dog in the wild, try to spare a though a time gone by and an uncertain future ahead, for such is life.


  1. Good to hear from you again Henry. This was one of your best posts. Great photos, very informative. Go Wild Dogs!

  2. Thanks John, it's great knowing there are still some long time readers out there :)