We all have our favourite animals; a species we’re exceptionally fond of for some reason. There are a few of them that have caught my attention at some point of my life.
For instance, I’ve been a cat person ever since I can remember because it is something in my genes, I suppose. I also developed certain affection for caribou and reindeer when I did a little university project on their migration and role in the taiga ecosystem.
The last addition to the selected circle of beloved species is Lycaon pictus, the African Wild Dog.
I had started to volunteer for a German wildlife conservation fund, doing a little research on them at home, and wild dogs got stuck in my head this way – for their stunning looks, for their complex social behaviour, for being misunderstood because of the way they hunt and kill and therefore formerly despised as vermin, for being driven ever closer to the brink of extinction in the wild, and for being the only extant representative of the genus Lycaon.
A few months before I made it back to African Dream Horse Safari, I heard the news and saw the photos saying that there was a pack of wild dogs roaming the Hoedspruit area. I was craving to see them in the wild, so I told them to “keep them there”, yet knowing that this is of course impossible and how lucky one has to be in general to see these animals.
They conduct a pretty much nomadic life, need a very big home range suitable to feed a pack, with a moderate density of other big predators and, most discouraging, they travel far distances even in one day – up to 40 km. Nevertheless, as I was to spend my birthday in South Africa, I tried to make an encounter with them my one and only wish.
Coincidence had it that my birthday fell during a stay at Ponta d’Ouro, Mozambique, instead. So I celebrated it on the beach! I loved it there but there was no chance I’d get my birthday present in time because wild dogs need a totally different habitat. So I satisfied myself with the lovely stray beach dogs there. However, I think I would have cried if Glen and Serena had seen “my” dogs while we were away. But they didn’t see them. Over time, I slowly started to give up hope that the wild dogs would show up for me. Then, almost two weeks after my birthday, my slowly dying hope was answered!
We were on a game drive with Shannon that at first seemed to be one of the very calm ones. Everybody was tired, nobody talked much and we didn’t see much game. Right at the time when we already considered going back to Bushcamp, Shannon got a call on the radio that the wild dogs were on the opposite side of the river bed. While we hurried to get there, I gathered all my mental power to try and reach the dogs in my thoughts with a plea and a silent promise as reward for listening to me: “Please, stay there! Give me the chance to see you – even one short little moment, one glimpse to make my heart jump!! If you do, I promise you to try my best to write my Master thesis on you! I promise.”
When we arrived, Francois, who had spotted the wild dogs, showed us where to look at the other side of the dry river bed. And there they were! A group of ten of them, quite far away but clearly visible, walking over there, disappearing behind trees or bushes every now and then. I was already happy that I was granted to see them at all. We expected them to disappear soon. But things went totally different. After a little while, the pack decided to wander through the river bed and cross it over to our side – right behind the game drive vehicle!! I was so, so happy that I was the one sitting farthest in the back. And I couldn’t believe that we got these amazing predators so, so close. When the whole pack had crossed the river bed and decided to travel along the dirt road, we followed them. And how rewarding trying to find them it was! We accompanied them for an hour, slowing down their pace and speeding up again, jumping around the game drive vehicle, rolling around. Sometimes so close we could have reached out to touch them. I can hardly describe how much this sighting meant to me. I enjoyed every fraction of every single second we were with them even though I should have felt damn cold. Like I occasionally do, I forgot to pack some warm clothes for the time right before and after sunset. But how should I have cared? For a pack of African wild dogs, so much more perfectly described by the term “Painted Wolf” which is also used for this species, I would have frozen the whole night.
Nobody who has ever seen them in the wild can imagine how captivating their presence is. As much as they can be clearly identified as dogs, they are so very different from our domestic dogs. Let alone the elegance of their movements. No gazehound and, I’m tempted to say, not even wolves that are so much more elegant than every domestic dog, can compete with Lycaon pictus. They are quite tall framed canids, sleekly and wirily built, with movements so slender and light-footed that one could think they barely touch the ground even when trotting slowly. When they’re running and jumping over bushes in single, flowing leaps it seems as if every one of their paws was fitted with a spring enabling them to betray gravity. This breathtakingly elegant manner is underlined by their fur painted in fuzzy blotches of black, white and ochre, every single individual wearing its unique pattern like a fingerprint. Even the slightly oversized-looking, round ears don’t break the impersonation of beauty these animals form, that is occasionally examining the human observer through its shiny brown eyes with unmistakable curiosity. In utter disbelief that I was granted my biggest and only real wish, an encounter with the wild dogs, to be fulfilled for such a long time, I had tears in my eyes as long as the pack stayed with us – and was determined to keep my promise.
Only eight days later, that experience should be even excelled. We were on a game drive with Shannon again and had already seen some game. Suddenly, Becky shouted “Wild Dogs!” My heart jumped when I heard it. Three of them were lying close to each other in the grass behind a big branch. If they hadn’t lifted their heads right when we were driving past, nobody could have possibly seen them. Some other members of the pack were a bit further away, chilling and playing a bit in the bushes. The sun was already low enough to shine a beautiful golden light on them so I was delighted to watch them and take photos in so much better light conditions. As they were only lying around or playing with each other, Hannah kept on saying “Do something exciting! Do something exciting!” Slowly, our three-coloured stars became more and more active, playing, jumping around and finally, quite abruptly, got going. As excited as they were, it was clear that they were… UP FOR A HUNT!
I have to admit that I was much less excited than everyone else around me, just loving to see everything that happened but yet enjoying the feeling that it wasn’t impossible to see these amazing animals even more than once. First, the dogs chased the buffalo herd we had seen earlier at the waterhole. Buffalos are way too big to be a suitable prey for wild dogs. They only took the opportunity to warm up a bit. Hearing the thunder of the hooves stamping through the bush and the diffuse mass of more than a hundred massive bodies between the trees and bushes hurrying away from us was breathtaking. We followed the dogs further and suddenly saw three wildebeest running past. The second chase to see for us! And shortly afterwards, one of the wildebeest got chased again. But nothing of this actually already looked like a real hunt. So the dogs continued their pursuit for prey further along the dirt road parallel to the fence. They moved with such a speedy pace that it was sometimes hard to keep up with them. Fortunately, the white tips of their bushy tails shone through the shrubs like signal flags, making it so much easier to find them again when we lost sight of all of them in the fading light. Finally, we got at least a short sequence of a real hunt. A poor little steenbok broke through the bushes at full speed, running for its life, a wild dog in pursuit, shooting like a bullet through the grass and flying over bushes in elegant bow-shaped jumps. I got a very blurry photo of the short moment for that the hunt continued on the road until the little antelope disappeared into the bush again. And so did the wild dogs. Our time with them ended there without seeing them catch any prey. But again, we had spent a full hour together – and we had seen them chase animals four times!
The next day, we had even more wild dog experiences. When we were about to leave for our game drive in the morning, they decided it was time to show up right at Bushcamp. They just came for a drink to the waterhole, busy drinking and running around and moving on soon. We jumped on the game drive vehicle with Glen to try and find them again. And we did. After chasing a jackal on the way just for fun, they settled right next to and on a road. We could approach them as close as a few metres without making them feel uncomfortable and so we got another chance to be with them. They were lying on the road, some others were walking around and finally all of them started playing right next to the game drive vehicle. It must be such a blessing to see even more of their complex social behaviour. They relate so close to each other within a pack that even old and injured animals are taken care of and even “only” seeing them play joyfully like puppies for such a short time makes one want to see so much more. But their fat bellies clearly told us that they had some successful hunt the previous day or that morning (wild dogs usually hunt at daylight because they mainly rely on their vision) and that they consequently would take a rest now instead of picking up any activities. Therefore, we left them alone when they moved on after a while.
In the afternoon, Andrea and I were alone in the kitchen. I was busy with my back turned to the waterhole, when Andrea said: “Look, they come only for you!” When I turned around, the whole pack was bopping around the waterhole again! Against Andrea’s advice, I walked speedily to my room to get my camera and to tell anyone I saw that the wild dogs were back. The dogs gazed at me with a certain interest while I was moving, but not scared or nervous at all. When I came back, they already started to move on into the bush. Those of us that had come to watch stood on the path between the kitchen and the bungalows and watched them – like the dogs watched us while they were striding or trotting by, stopping every few steps to satisfy their curiosity about what was happening around them. One of them stopped right in front of Hannah and me, maybe 15 metres away, examining us carefully and even slowly taking a few steps towards us, stretching his neck and gently moving his head up and down to have a bit of a closer look. How thrilling to get examined by a member of the species you love with just the exact same interest you watch them with! It didn’t make me nervous at all because both parties kept a safe distance and the dog didn’t show any display of aggression. He was only curious and gave me another little gift paying as good as full attention to me for this so very short moment. The last present they had to give to me, as it proved.
When Glen came back home and we told him that the wild dogs had been at Bushcamp again, he explained that he had seen them as well on his way home. They were busy moving through the fence to another reserve. They had come to say goodbye to me – only five days before it was my turn to say goodbye to South Africa with a very, very sad heart! Seeing wild dogs in the wild is not only special but has the dimension of a “once in a lifetime” experience – especially seeing them as often as we did. I already mentioned their nomadic lifestyle, knowing that there are approximately 2,500 of them left in the wild helps to understand this fact even better. To me, it is truly magical that they fulfilled my wish, over-fulfilled it even. I would have kept my promise even for a faint little glimpse of three-coloured coat. But now, there is no way I will not try and write my Master Thesis on a wild dog-related topic. It is as simple as that: I’m in love. Deeply, truly, completely.
Ask me once about Lycaon pictus, this so unique member of the canid family.
Witness how my too-often-so-serious countenance brightens up to pure, warm affection and you’ll know that it’s proof enough of what I just have to do.
It’s more than about time to try and help them to survive anyway.
Written by Julia (Germany)