Dances with Painted Wolves

Written by William Sonnenberg

The impalas appear out of nowhere. I’m gobsmacked at how fast they move; like missiles from a launcher. Seconds later the dogs appear, seven of them, lithe, lean and quintessentially African.

Painted wolves, from their Latin name Lycaon pictus, better known as African wild dogs, are endangered. Population estimates left in the wilds range from 5000 to 6000 animals. Their decline is ongoing, due to habitat loss and fragmentation, human persecution and disease outbreaks invariably from domestic dogs.

Quickly, I turn around and follow them. A few minutes later I catch up, they’re busily bolting down an impala, but within minutes five hyenas arrive, chase the dogs off their kill and lope off with the spoils.

Grant Beverley, from the EWT (Endangered Wildlife Trust), an expert on wild dogs, tells me that hyenas and wild dogs have a love-hate relationship but seem to get on with their lives alongside one another. Today is obviously a hate day! Unsurprisingly, that isn’t the case with lions - the biggest cause of pup mortality.

One cold winter morning, I find a big buffalo herd on an open grassy area. They have formed a tight phalanx with the bigger bulls facing outwards, a vanguard of defense. Dancing around them is a pack of wild dogs. Feinting, leaping, jumping, the pack hellbent on tormenting the buffaloes. It seemed almost like a game. The buffaloes, a tight-knit mass of massive horns and bodies, don’t break rank. If they had, would the game have become serious? After a while, the dogs lose interest as do the buffaloes. Stalemate.

Grant estimates that there are between 10 - 12 resident packs of dogs within the APNR (Associated Private Nature Reserves), four of these packs in the Timbavati including a super-pack of over 30 dogs. With so few wild dogs left in the world, you realize how vital these private reserves are in affording them the protection and huge ranges they so desperately need to survive - in excess of 500 square kilometers!

We stayed with the pack the whole day. Most of the time they slept. Occasionally changing position or to take a poo or pee break – interestingly, the alpha male and female deposited their business close to the other members of the pack whilst those lower down the pecking order did so some distance away. Later in the afternoon, the pack stirred. Suddenly, as if someone somewhere had flipped a switch, they sprang into action. An elaborate, excited greeting ceremony ensued; accompanied by much chittering, whimpering, genital sniffing, submissive posing, fawning, leaping - incredible to watch. Their excitement was palpable. With no audible call to action, they all moved off. The hunt was on.

Grant says that wild dogs are unique among social carnivores, the females rather than the males leave the natal pack when they are sexually mature and join new packs ensuring genetic diversity. In all the times I’ve watched these painted wolves, they seem pretty orderly and polite to one another. Sure, there’s a pecking order with an alpha male and female, but none of the stuff you see amongst lions who are absolute ruffians by comparison.

All that’s left of the steenbok are a few bones and a piece of skin which the eight pups are playing with. A few eternally optimistic hooded vultures wait forlornly for possible scraps. The pups soon turn their attention onto the vultures. A new game starts up - the pups stalk the vultures. Sometimes the vultures stand their ground and the pups, nonplussed, turn tail. Sometimes the vultures lose their nerve and take off. This game goes on for ages and nobody gets hurt. Eventually, the pups huddle together and drift off to la-la land, although their constant twitching and whimpering suggests that other games are being played. The adult dogs lie a few meters away also fast asleep.

Grant says that the dogs don’t always return to the same den site each year. Denning takes place in the winter months. There’s considerable overlap between the pack “territories”. He says they don’t defend a territory but rather occupy a home range that is not spatially explicit.

One morning I hear the alarm snorts of impalas. Next thing, a pack of eight painted wolves drifts past, paying me scant attention. Silently they vanish into the bush. I’m reminded of the words of Henry Walden,

“In wildness is the preservation of the world.”

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