We recently celebrated African Wild Dog Day. We now seem to have a Day for many things, but Wild Dogs are particularly deserving. 

Most people who know me think of me as a cat person. It may be because there is always a horde of cats (some mine, some from the neighbourhood) sitting on my garden wall watching the show, or they feature in my posts on Facebook. I’m not sure if the cat magnet is me, soft beds or the food. Probably the latter.

The African Wild Dog (Lycaon pictus) is the second most endangered carnivore in Africa after the Ethiopian Wolf. In South Africa, we have fewer than 550 animals roaming our wild spaces. PHOTO: Bence Máté

So while I admit to being a cat person, I also love dogs, especially African Wild Dogs.

Like most of Africa’s large carnivores, the African Wild Dog (Lycaon pictus) is an endangered species, with very few remaining populations in Africa. Their survival is dependent on the pack and large enough habitat. A wild dog by itself is not that much of a threat to other animals, but there is power in the pack.

The name Lycaon pictus translates roughly to ‘painted wolf’. But the African Wild Dog is neither a wolf nor a dog. 

Wild dogs have the most structured social order of the carnivores, living in packs led by a dominant male and female. All other members of the pack play a subordinate role to the alpha pair. The average litter size for the wild dog is between four and eight puppies. They suckle for the first three months of their lives before being taught to hunt.

The hunt

Wild dogs hunt every day as they require more meat relative to their size than lions do. About 80% of their diet consists of impala, but a large pack can attack bigger game as well. 

Wild dogs are masters of coordinated hunting. A hunt begins at sunrise or sunset when the dogs perform an elaborate greeting ceremony, sniffing and licking each other, wagging their tails and twittering aloud. They make a range of chattering sounds. They are also thought to vote on when to start hunting by sneezing. During the hunt itself, however, they are silent.

Wild dogs can roam over long distances – up to 250 square kilometres – and may travel over 50 km in a single day looking for food. They fan through the bush looking for a herd of antelope – mostly impala. Once they have located a herd, the most vulnerable member is singled out – usually a female or a youngster. 

A subordinate male dog usually starts the hunt by trying to isolate one animal from the rest of the herd. Then the alpha male takes over the lead of the hunt, and a deadly endurance race begins.

Wild dogs are high-stamina hunters, capable of maintaining a 40km/h pace over five kilometres and increasing this to bursts of more than 60km/h for short distances. The pack splits up during the hunt, with some dogs trying to drive the fleeing prey towards the others.

If this fails, they press on with determination, taking it, in turn, to take the lead, nipping at the fleeing victim each time it slows down. They literally run their quarry to exhaustion. Once the animal collapses, the dogs immediately begin feeding, even before their prey has died from loss of blood. This is necessitated by the fact that Wild Dogs have to eat very fast to get as much benefit from their kill as possible before other predators like lions and hyenas are alerted to the food bonanza. The dogs are no match for either hyenas or lions and will often lose their kill to these larger animals.

Wild dogs are restrained and orderly at the kill. The young feed first, followed by the subordinate males and females, with the alpha pair eating at any time. 

If there is not enough food to go round, the hunt begins again.

Subordinate female dogs support nursing females who remain at the den with the pups. They will stuff themselves with food and then go back to the shelter to regurgitate the remains for the mother and her young to eat.

Highly endangered

African Wild Dogs are the second most endangered carnivore in Africa after the Ethiopian Wolf. In South Africa, we have fewer than 550 animals roaming our wild spaces. They need large areas to support themselves and for populations to be genetically diverse and sustainable.

The major reasons why African Wild Dogs are so endangered are reasonably well understood. Because of their need for wide spaces they are extremely sensitive to habitat fragmentation. This brings them into conflict with livestock and game farmers who kill them as vermin. Human encroachment into their habitat also means more road accidents and infectious diseases like Parvo and Distemper caught from domestic dogs. 

African Wild Dogs are particularly susceptible to being caught in the snares set by poachers for bush meat. If one dog gets caught in a trap, the rest of the pack is most likely to go back to find the missing individual. This often leads to other dogs being caught if several snares have been set in the same area. An entire pack can be killed.

Wild Dog conservation 

The best conservation strategy to protect any endangered species is to leave nature to its own devices and give wild animals enough space and suitable habitat to thrive. With our wild areas shrinking and the human population burgeoning, the situation is worsening for African Wild Dogs and many other wildlife species. 

We urgently need to look at establishing new protected areas that can hold these animals sustainably. Despite our magnificent natural environment, only a paltry 8% of the country is legally protected, whereas the world average is 15% -– shamefully, South Africa ranks a very low 144 out of 192 countries.

Fascinating facts 

Wild dogs have only four toes on each foot, lacking the fifth (dewclaw) that other dogs have on the front foot (and sometimes also on the back foot).

Once wild dogs reach maturity, it is the females that leave the pack to seek out other breeding opportunities, while the males stay behind to form the nucleus of the group.

Pups that are old enough to eat solid food are given priority at a kill – even over the dominant pair.

Wild dogs have specially adapted teeth, different to other canids, to enable the rapid shredding of carcasses and therefore lessen the chance of having their meals stolen by other predators.

Wild dog fur differs from other canids – they have stiff bristle-hairs and no underfur. They lose their fur as they age, with very old dogs being almost naked.

About the Author

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Whale Coast Conservation passionately lives by its slogan “Caring for your environment”.

Its small staff and volunteers are dedicated to

  • raising community and visitor awareness of the unique, biodiverse natural resources of the Cape Whale Coast region and
  • to projects that convert awareness into practical actions that lead towards living sustainably.

WCC ensures expert representation in public participation processes that contribute to environmental and developmental policies and legislation.  We monitor regional development; and ensure compliance with legislation and guidelines.

WCC increases general public awareness of sustainability through environmental education, citizen-science research projects, community projects and campaigns.

WCC communicates with its audience through exhibitions, signage, technology demonstrations, workshops, talks, film shows, newsletters and articles.

WCC places emphasis on educating future generations through its Youth Environment Programme (YEP).  YEP is offered to 24 schools in its target area with a total of over 10,000 learners.

WCC facilitates schools’ participation in special events such as Earth Day, Walking for Water, Arbor Day and Coastal Clean-ups.

WCC facilitates educator development programmes to improve the capacity of educators to offer informed environmental content in their lessons across all learning streams.


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