The Painted Dog of Africa

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With all the emphasis on rhino and elephant conservation, little public attention has been called to the plight of one of Africa's most endangered species recently – the wild dog (lycaon pinctus). There are less than 5000 wild dogs left in all of Africa, a number which equals that of the black rhino and is half as much as the white rhino. While conservation of these large species is of utmost importance, and cannot be emphasised enough, the wild dog faces a different and even more alarming route to extinction.

While the rhino might be locking horns with international poachers on a daily basis, the wild dog is threatened by the never-ending march of civilisation – trapped in a battle for land with mankind. Habitat loss and conflict with man are the number one threat to wild dogs in Africa.

Wild dogs are not killed for romantic notions of potency or as Big Five trophies – they are murdered by their human neighbours in the daily struggle for survival. With little of their natural wilderness left, wild dogs have turned to livestock as a food source, thereby threatening the livelihood of farmers in the area.

Although most wild dogs are kept in strictly monitored conservation areas today, there is little hope for growing their population without running out of space and bringing them into conflict with other species, such as lion, which pose a massive threat to their survival. Weighing in at about 30kgs, the average wild dog is no match for these powerful territorial predators.

Wild dogs favour the open savannah where they can run after prey without obstruction and they are extremely successful hunters. Team work and stamina contribute to an 80% success rate once a pack of wild dogs has set off in pursuit of a meal, and they may chase their target for up to an hour in the right conditions. They coordinate their hunting efforts with birdlike chirps and squeaks, and usually kill by disembowelling their prey and immobilising it.

Despite this fierce predatory instinct, the African wild dog is a not a particularly aggressive animal. Their pack structure is loosely hierarchical, with an alpha male and female, but these societal tiers are established on submission rather than dominance. Aggressive behaviour between pack members is extremely rare.

Unusually, it is the males who remain with their birth-pack after sexual maturity, while the females move off to greener pastures in search of fresh genes. This presents another challenge, as their dwindling numbers mean that most of them are already related to one another. Usually males outnumber females two to one in any given pack, with only the alpha female able to conceive and raise pups – yet another obstacle to their survival these days, although she can conceive and give birth at any time of the year.

Ironically, nature originally intended this in order to ensure the survival of the species, since too many litters mean too many mouths to feed. In addition, some members of the pack always remain behind to guard the pups during a hunt, so too many litters at once would also mean a substantial reduction in the hunter's ability to bring home the bacon.

There are only about 500 wild dogs left in the region of the Kruger Park, and with their large ranges, they are very seldom seen. However, a bit of luck and the help of a skilled tracker and ranger, it is still possible to admire these colourful creatures during your safari holiday in Mpumalanga.

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Sunday, 19 November 2017