African wild dogs (also known as painted dogs or painted wolves), are the second most endangered carnivore in Africa. In South Africa, there are fewer than 550 remaining in the wild, and only 39 distinct populations left in the whole continent.
Due to their highly endangered status, African wild dogs are the main focal species on our Endangered Wildlife Conservation Programme in Zululand, South Africa – the birthplace of conservation. The project’s intensive monitoring of the wild dogs is done 365 days a year, rain or shine, and they depend on conservation volunteers to assist in the collection of observational data (basically – find the animals, observe and record their behaviour and health, report back).
The project’s ultimate goal is to reintroduce genetically diverse painted dogs successfully back into their historical ranges, and ensure the long-term protection of that local population.
Know your African wild dogs
African wild dog facts:
- The species scientific name Lycaon pictus means ‘painted wolf’. Common names include the African wild dog and African hunting dog.
- Packs of wild dog have both an alpha male and alpha female. This alpha pair is usually the only one that breeds, but the entire pack shares responsibility for protecting the pups, with both males and females babysitting the young.
- The alpha female can give birth to litters of 15 pups or more.
- Wild dogs can run at around 45km/h for 5km, they are the endurance hunters of the natural world.
- They primarily prey on large mammals such as warthogs and antelope, supplementing their diet with rodents, lizards, birds and large insects.
- Unlike other dogs, African wild dogs have four toes instead of five.
African wild dogs are amongst nature’s most efficient hunters, and have an 80% success rate in bringing down their prey, which can include zebra and wildebeest – often 10 times the size of an individual dog. The wild dog pack is extremely close-knit, and uses their harmony to work as a large, well-oiled machine. They build up confidence with group ‘rallies’, where they can be seeing trotting shoulder-to-shoulder, tails held high, jostling and mouthing to each other – rather like footballers before a big game.
The most unfortunate habit that wild dogs have is their killing style. While killing is never pretty to watch, most animal hunters use a choke hold or kill bite, but wild dogs will each, as a pack, grab a piece of their victim and literally tear it apart.
Complex social structure
On the hot plains of Africa, wild dogs live in tight-knit packs of 20-40 animals, with members usually remaining with the same pack for their entire lives. Food is distributed to the youngest pack members first, and sometimes the alpha pair are actually the last dogs to eat. The pack will settle down in one place for several weeks when pups are young, going out to hunt twice a day, bringing food back for the mother and pups to eat.
Female African wild dogs are often larger than males, and many traditional male-female roles in the pack are reversed. Although the pack usually hunts together, when the Alpha female has a young litter, it is usually a small group of adult males that will remain back at the den with her, tending to the many pups, while a hunting party of swift and powerful females set out first thing in the morning, and then again in late afternoon.
In one of the most unique role reversals, small groups of young females wean away from the pack to form a new pack of their own, or join a pack whose females have also left, while the majority of young males stay with the pack their entire lives, dutifully tending to the needs of another male’s puppies.
A figure of speech
The African wild dog is an incredibly vocal animal, emitting squeaks, chirps and hoots reminiscent of many common birds, and make very few of the sounds created by more familiar dog species. They really do not bark at all, and instead of howling in the night, a separated wild dog looking for the pack makes a “hoo” noise which sounds almost exactly like an owl!
While hunting and feeding, the pack chirps and squeals like a flock of small birds, or a noisy pod of dolphins! They also make many cackling noises similar to hyenas.
CHALLENGES FACING WILD DOGS
Wild dogs need massive geographical areas to sustain their populations and genetic diversity. They are constantly on the move, rarely staying in one location for more than a day or two, and this need for roaming space has contributed to their critical status in the wild. There are no preserves left that are really large enough to comfortably contain a pack of African wild dogs, and when they stray out onto farmlands and roadways, they fall prey to car bumpers and farmers bullets.
The causes of African wild dogs’ decline are reasonably well understood and include:
- Extreme sensitivity to habitat fragmentation as a consequence of wide‑ranging behaviour;
- Conflict with livestock and game farmers;
- Accidental killings by snares and road accidents, and
- Rampant spread of infectious diseases.
All of these causes are associated with human encroachment on African wild dog habitat, and are unlikely to be reversible across the majority of the species’ historical range.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
Our Endangered Wildlife Conservation Project conducts intensive endangered species monitoring work in Zululand, South Africa, and conservation volunteers are an integral part of the exciting wildlife work that is being done across the region. Volunteers monitor a range of endangered and threatened species, focusing on the African wild dog, but also including rhino, cheetah, lion, leopard, elephant and vulture. Group sizes are small to allow for in-depth learning, and the hours in the field are long, but your rewards are incredible wildlife sitings, daily observations of iconic species, and the knowledge that you are contributing to conservation research vital to long-term species management.
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