Dogs of awe: They’re the most successful hunters in Africa, yet their kindness to each other is an example to us all. Seeing them in the wild is a sensational safari experience . . .
- You’re unlikely to see African wild dogs in most traditional safari places
- Wild dogs are deeply social animals with strict rules of how to behave
- Simon Barnes crossed paths with a hunting pack in South Luangwa National Park
Caring and sharing: Wild dogs form a social, close-knit family
The best way to find them? Don’t look. They are not a prize to be had by mere looking: they come and they go as they please.
All you can do is hang out in the right sort of place — and then, well, you might just get lucky. You might just find yourself in the company of the wonderfully exotic and yet gloriously homely African wild dog.
Safari companies tend not to make a big deal about wild dogs. They daren’t. That’s because in most traditional safari places you’re not very likely to see one.
Go to the right places and lions, elephants and buffaloes are more or less guaranteed. Leopards are harder, being nocturnal and brilliant at hiding, but with a bit of luck and a decent guide, you might well find one.
Rhino are much persecuted, but can be found in certain places. Sure, you need luck with all of them — they’re wild, they’re not supposed to be tame — but the so-called Big Five are by no means impossible to find.
But wild dogs, well, you need special luck for them. The companies don’t often offer wild dog safaris, because they’d have too many disappointed clients.
On the other hand, if you go out hoping to find lions and leopards and so forth . . . well, let’s just say this. You are in the places where wild dogs live. You are breathing the same air as them. And maybe, just maybe . . .
I was in Zambia, co-leading a trip to the Luangwa Valley. We had just made the short flight from South Luangwa National Park to North Luangwa National Park, where there are only 500 visitors a year.
Crossing paths with a hunting pack in South Luangwa National Park in Zambia
And we were going for a morning walk. The idea was to drive from Mwaleshi bush camp to a spot where we could make a pleasant walk back to camp.
We had heard lions roaring in the night, heard the great noise that fills the bush and your soul at the same time — but it wasn’t a lion day at all. And we didn’t get much of a walk either.
We were just about to park and set off on that walk when Davis Ng’uni, the scout who kept us safe on all our walks, saw the dogs at long range and we drove on them to see what they were up to: and what they were up to was breakfast.
They had pulled down a buffalo calf just a few minutes earlier and what was left was shrinking fast. Dogs are rapid eaters; they have to be with lions and hyenas eager to steal from them.
Dogs are different from lions on a kill; lions have all the time in the world, they snarl savagely at each other for the best bits, and will occasionally offer each other a face-full of claw.
Beauties of the savannah: A Bateleur Eagle
These dogs were playing mad tug-of-war with the carcass, but a close look showed that they weren’t competing: they were co-operating. They were helping each other to pull the thing apart, so that each dog might have a decent and more convenient meal.
I counted six adults, and what a joyous, gloriously and exuberantly doggy feast it was. Wild dogs — sometimes called cape hunting dogs, or painted dogs or painted wolves — are not all that closely related to the doggy on your sofa; you’d guess that from those big, round radar-tracker ears and that fancy tri-coloured coat: like a fingerprint, every wild dog has a different pattern of black, white and gold.
But every nuance of their body-language is doggy and this merry old romp around a meal was as joyous as the 101 Dalmatians’ reunion with the lost dogs.
Wild dogs are deeply social animals with strict rules of how to behave — unlike lions who seem to make up their social life as they go along. And so, after the romp and the feast had continued for a quarter of an hour or so, there was a sharp bark and then one — no, two — no, three of them cantered away, leaving three behind. This was baffling.
If there was a lion or a hyena they’d all have gone, either to run away or to confront. Why this split? Had they spotted some other item of easy prey?
You know when you watch a musical and the hero and the heroine have got together at last and everything is resolved — and then, only then, everything suddenly gets even better than you imagined it ever could be and everyone in the cast is singing and dancing and your heart is singing and dancing with them?
Well, it was like that. Because the three absent dogs came romping back — and they were not alone. They brought — count them! — eight puppies.
Wild dogs are so civilised they will often let the pups eat first. Members of the pack often go back to the den and, on having their chops licked by the hungry and loving pups, will regurgitate a nice warm meal of fresh meat for them. But these pups were perhaps eight months old and able to do the biting and chewing for themselves,
And so the entire kill was handed over to them: and there, with eight white feather-tails waving merrily at the sky, the puppies got stuck in.
I just wanted to leave the vehicle and walk out among them (which, of course, I did not) and give them great big pats of shared happiness, for that morning the dogs’ happiness was mine, and — unless you happened to be a buffalo calf — God was in his heaven and all was right with the world.
In wild dog society only the top pair, the alpha male and female, breed, and the pack-members, all closely related, share the task of bringing-up.
They Grey-crowned Crane
It’s all done with great goodwill and relaxed sharing. They are the most effective hunters in Africa, perhaps in the world, with a success rate of around 90 per cent in their hunts, compared with lions’ 30 per cent.
You have a chance of finding them in most of the national parks where you take a traditional safari in open savannah country: that’s most well-known places in eastern and southern Africa. There was a time when they were persecuted, and people shot them on sight, seeing them as vermin.
Wild dogs have also suffered from the destruction of their habitat outside the national parks. They can catch diseases from the feral dogs that surround many African villages. They are also hard to see because they have enormous home ranges: you get only a few dogs to endless square miles of Africa.
What’s more, they don’t often stay in the same place for long. There is a fine word in Zambian English that is perfect for wild dogs: movious.
Wild dogs are hard to see because they are too movious.
So you don’t often go on safari to see dogs. But if you go to the places where there are lions and elephants — and keep your eyes open and hope to be lucky . . .
I have been travelling to Africa for 30 years, returning again and again, and I have seen dogs seven times: in South Africa, in Zimbabwe and five times in Zambia. You are supposed to go to Africa to see the Big Five: lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo, rhino.
But the savannahs of Africa hold a great deal more than that — and sometimes, when you are lucky, it appears before you — and romps.
Ethiopian Airlines (ethiopianairlines.com) fly from London to Lusaka, via Addis Ababa, from £587 return. Wildlife Worldwide (wildlifeworldwide.com) can organise an 11-day safari in the Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park from £5,395pp. More information at southluangwa.com.
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