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This is the first of several posts on African wild dogs, which will include information on this often misunderstood species. Among safari enthusiasts, a wild dog sighting is highly coveted and justifiably so, as this species is one of Africa’s most endangered animals, with less than 5,000 dogs remaining. Northern Botswana has an estimated 700-800 wild dogs and is one of only three populations containing more than 350 adults (the other two being Kruger National Park in South Africa and Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania).
The scientific name of the African wild dog (Lycaon pictus), means “painted wolf”, a reference to their patchwork fur of black, brown and white.
Wild dogs live in permanent packs, with the common size being 5 to 15 adults and yearlings. Within a pack, there is a clear dominance hierarchy among males and another separate hierarchy among the females. Only the dominant female is assured of breeding, though subordinate females do occasionally become pregnant. Reproduction is also largely monopolized by the alpha male, but the pups of a single litter can have more than one father, as in most carnivores.
The non-breeding subordinate dogs of both sexes help to raise the pack’s young, which, as mentioned, are normally produced by the dominant pair. The most important role of the subordinates is to help feed the pups. Wild dog pups begin eating meat at 3-4 weeks of age and are weaned after 5 weeks, but for the first 3 months after the pups are born, they are not strong enough to move with the normally far-ranging pack on a hunt and are confined to a den. Dogs have a high rate of metabolism, which makes it necessary for them to feed often, sometimes more than once per day.
A hunt is always precipitated by a ritualized social greeting frenzy or canine pep rally, with considerable whining and twittering, physical contact, energy, general excitement and sometimes including much play and chasing.
When the pack leaves the den to go hunting, one or more dogs remain behind as a guard or “babysitter”. The alpha female normally guards the pups by herself while the pups are very young, but sometimes another dog (usually a female) will remain with her. As the pups grow older, the mother will begin joining the hunting forays, but an adult or yearling dog always remains behind with the pups. The responsibility of the babysitter appears to be to ensure that the pups remain down the hole should a predator such as a lion approach.
After a successful hunt, wild dog packs can easily finish off an entire adult impala in just a few minutes, an adaptation which reduces the chances of the kill being stolen by another predator. After consuming the kill, the hunting party returns directly to the den to feed the babysitter(s) and pups.
Upon arrival at the den, there is much excitement and commotion, as the pups jump up against the returning adult dogs, whimpering and nipping at their mouths and lips. This is the signal to regurgitate some of the food from the kill, which is eagerly snapped up by the youngsters.
In addition to feeding the pups, non breeding helpers take part in protecting the pups from lions, leopards and spotted hyenas. The combined efforts of the entire pack to look after the pups’ safety and survival is crucial as mortality of pups up to one year of age, mostly from lions, averages more than 60 percent in northern Botswana.
The images shown here are from my December 2008 safari in Botswana’s Okavango Delta.
More info and images in part 2…