THE AFRICAN WILD DOG
The African wild dog is a slender-looking canine about the size of a German shepherd. Its coat is studded with black, white and fawn patches. African wild dogs are more colourful than their East and West African counterparts. Living in packs, it is the most efficient predator in Africa with a success rate of 85%, far higher than that of hyenas, lions and leopards and ahead of the cheetah. Despite its hunting prowess, the wild dog is the most endangered large predator in Africa. Apart from interspecific competition with lions and spotted hyenas which forces it to live on the fringes or outside protected areas, the African wild dog is persecuted by herders for alleged depredations on livestock and by humans because of persistent prejudices that make it an indiscriminate killer of antelopes. However, the wild dog only kills for food.
Once widespread from Senegal to South Africa, with the exception of the Congo Basin and the African equatorial forest, it is now only found in the mesic savannahs of eastern and southern Africa. It has become particularly rare in East Africa and disappeared from the Serengeti in the 1970s before a recent timid return to the private reserves surrounding the National Park. It has almost disappeared from West Africa except perhaps in Senegal.
African wild dog (Moremi, Botswana)
Body length: 84-120 cm
Shoulder height: 75-85 cm
Poids: F= 24 kg; M= 30 kg
African wild dogs from Eastern Africa are smaller with average weight of 20 kg.
Habitat: Wild dogs are found in all savannah ecosystems but also in steppes, semi-deserts, bush, short grass savannahs, tree and woodland savannahs, miombo and even at altitude (Kilimanjaro). It only avoids true deserts like the Sahara and the equatorial rainforest. Some isolated populations however haunt certain mountain forests like the Harena forest in the Bale massif in Ethiopia.
Food: African wild dogs almost always hunt in packs allowing them to take larger prey than their size would suggest. In general, they have a predilection for medium-sized ungulates weighing less than 100 kg such as impalas, gazelles, springboks, reduncas, bushbucks, lechwes, nyalas, kudus, and young and sub-adults of large antelopes such as wildebeest, hartebeest, topis, gemsboks, sables and roans. A sufficiently large and determined pack of African wild dogs is quite capable of taking down large full grown antelopes such as sables, roans, gemsboks, wildebeest, hartebeest, topis, elands and also adult zebras. A pack of African wild dogs in the Serengeti was specialised in hunting adult zebra. In exceptional cases, wild dogs are able to kill a buffalo, especially if it is disabled. When they are alone, which is relatively rare, they will go after small prey such as lagomorphs, rodents, small antelopes such as diks-diks, duikers, steenboks and sunis or even an adult gazelle. A lone wild dog can take on an impala, but not without difficulty. Even in a pack, it takes them a long time to bring down large animals such as adult zebras or wildebeests. This also explains the absolute necessity for wild dogs to live in a pack, as it is very difficult for a small pack of less than five individuals to kill not only prey big enough to feed each member of the clan but also to defend it from lions and especially spotted hyenas that try to steal their prey.
When hunting, African wild dogs advance in the open in stalking stance in the manner of felids. The prey reacts by running away and the dogs follow at a sustained pace to spot an individual that is more vulnerable than the others before giving chase at a higher speed. African wild dogs run down their victims due to their superior endurance. They are able to maintain a speed of 65 km/h for several kilometres, which allows them to catch up with their faster prey in most cases, which also explains their high success rate. Each time the prey swerves to escape from a pursuer, another wild dog blocks its path, which has often led observers to mistakenly think that wild dogs take turns. Once a dog comes within jaws range, it harasses it with bites to the lower abdomen and genitals in an attempt to immobilise it until reinforcements arrive. When dealing with large prey such as adult zebra or wildebeest, a wild dog will sometimes grab the prey by the snout and immobilise it while the other dogs disembowel it. It is the fact that the victim is still alive when it is being eviscerated that has given wild dogs their bad reputation. The death of the prey, which is in a state of catatonic shock, is rapid due to blood loss.
Behaviour and social structure: African wild dogs live in packs comprising two to twenty individuals, although in the past there may have been packs of several dozen individuals. The pack is led by an alpha pair and there is a strict hierarchy between members of the same sex. The alpha male and female decide on the movements of the pack. The hierarchy is maintained by postures and greetings rather than aggression which is rare in wild dog packs. When their status is threatened, the dominant animal uses the posture used in hunting by approaching the subordinate individual in stalking mode in a threatening manner as if it were prey. There is a submission ritual where the lower status animal adopts the posture used by puppies when they beg for food from the adults by licking and nibbling the lip of the dominant animal. Both male and female alphas retain their status almost for life. It is often upon the death of one of them that a lesser ranked dog may move up to alpha status. Rare fights may occur when one animal seeks to rise in the hierarchy by challenging another African wild dog. In this case, both fighters stand on their hind legs and bite each other's neck and head in an attempt to get a decisive grip on the opponent's throat. When one of the opponents succeeds in securing a hold on the other's throat, it will only let go when the defeated dog stops moving. Once released, the defeated animal will adopt a submissive behaviour towards the winner. The alpha pair also has a monopoly on mating. In the event that another female gives birth to a litter of puppies, the puppies are taken away by the alpha female who will prevent the mother of the puppies to approach them.
Young females emigrate from their natal pack. It is rare for males to emigrate as their chances of being accepted by a new pack are slim. These females are often affiliated and one of them will be dominant over the others. If they meet a group of males, they are likely to be accepted and form a new pack in which the leader of the emigrating females will become the alpha female. With such a complex social structure, wild dogs communicate with each other through a rich vocal repertoire of twittering, howls, growls and barks. African wild dogs roam through large home ranges. They are nomadic, but behave territorially by defending their home range against other packs. Alpha males and females mark their territory with urine and faeces, and this is how they can be recognised. African wild dogs are diurnal like cheetahs in order to avoid competition with the more powerful nocturnal predators such as lions and spotted hyenas.
Breeding behaviour: Only the male and female alphas mate throughout the year. When the alpha female is in heat, another dog (often the alpha male) accompanies her and keeps other males at bay. After a gestation period of 70 days on average, the female gives birth to litters of up to 10 pups. Once they have a litter, wild dogs become temporarily sedentary and establish their territory around the den, the vicinity of which is heavily marked. When they go hunting, one individual remains at the den to watch over the young and defend them from predators. The pups emerge from the burrow after three weeks and are weaned after a month. The adults feed them by regurgitating meat when the young request it. The wild dog that has been watching the cubs and the alpha female are also fed in this way. The dogs leave the den when the pups are 8 to 10 weeks old and are able to follow the adults and accompany them on hunting trips.
Predators and competitors: Lions are probably the greatest threat to adult dogs. Much more powerful, a pride of lions will invariably get the better of a pack of African wild dogs no matter how many are present. One or more dogs can be killed by lions while defending their pups against the big cats. On the other hand, a pack of dogs can effectively defend itself against a lone lion or a pair and put them to flight, provided there are numerous enough. There are occurences of lone lions has being killed by a pack of wild dogs.
Spotted hyenas are more of a competitor and will try to take prey from African wild dogs rather than predate on the,. Hyenas may follow the dogs on a hunt to claim the spoils once the prey is killed. A hyena is more than twice the size of an African wild dog and the power of its jaws is unmatched. Dogs must outnumber hyenas to repel them, which happens relatively frequently. The dogs show great cohesion and coordination when attacked by hyenas, who for their part maintain individual behaviour allowing the dogs to attack each hyena after the other and repel them. To do this, one or two dogs face the hyena and dodge its attacks while others attack its more sensitive rear end. If there are too many hyenas, they usually succeed in taking the prey from the African wild dogs. Even when there are slightlw less numerous than the wild dogs their power and persistence can get the job done. Lone hyenas or pairs, on the other hand, are repelled by a pack of at least four or five dogs, especially when they are a threat to the pups. The dogs will chase the hyena or pair of hyenas relentlessly and bite their hindquarters until they bleed, causing them to lean against a thorn tree to protect themselves from attacks from behind. Although a hyena is more powerful than an adult wild dog, it is rare for a hyena to attack an adult wild dog, but they often try to prey on the pups.
On the other hand, leopards are occasional predators of even adult African wild dogs provided that they are isolated, lost and without support from the pack. A leopard may also steal the prey of a lone African wild dog or a small party of them (no more than three). On the other hand, leopards carefully avoid a large pack of wild dogs and take refuge in the trees when they approach. A pack of wild dogs may scare a leopard away from its prey, or even kill it if it poses a threat to the cubs. The same is true for cheetahs, a pack of wild dogs will be able to scare away a cheetah or even a coalition to steal their prey. There are videos on Youtube where a pack of wild dogs with a dozen individuals manage to put a couple of cheetahs to flight. As for the leopard, a single wild dog will not be able to defeat a cheetah but there are no cases of cheetahs predating on wild dogs, unlike with leopards. However, packs of African wild dogs have been known to kill cheetahs.
Nile crocodiles and African rock pythons are also a danger to both adult and pups. While a pack will be helpless against a large Nile crocodile that attacks one of its members, an African rock python may fall prey to a pack of African wild dogs and will only ambush an isolated dog.
In summary, a pack of wild dogs with a minimum of five members will be able to deal with most large African predators with the exception of lions and hyenas when they are in numbers which is often the case. On the other hand, a lone wild dog, which remains an unusual situation, or even a small pack of two or three wild dogs will face significant hurdles when faced with lions, hyenas and leopards and will fade quite quickly.
Best places to see them: Wild dogs are the most difficult predators to observe. Competition with lions and spotted hyenas often pushes them out of conservatoin areas where they are persecuted by herders. Moreover, their nomadic habits do not facilitate their location. The Selous in Southern Tanzania, the Moremi Game Reserve and the private reserves and Moremi in Botswana are among the best places in Africa to see them, as is Mana Pools Game Reserve in Zimbabwe. The South Luangwa and Kafue National Parks in Zambia also offer good opportunities and to a lesser extent the Kruger Park in South Africa. They have become very rare in Kenya and northern Tanzania. Overall Southern Africa offers much better viewing opportunities than East Africa where it was once so common. It can still be found in the Ruaha and Mikumi in Southern Tanzania with a bit of luck.