Posted on Tuesday, 4 February 2014
Chris & I had a few days break towards the end of January so we decided to take a short trip to Botswana, where we would spend two days in The Central Kalahari and four days at Duma Tau with Wilderness Safaris in the Linyanti concession in the north east. We had a great two days in the CKGR where we saw lion, cheetah and our first ever leopard in the area. After this short stop we headed for Duma Tau. We were very much hoping to spend some time with wild dogs and the reason we chose Duma Tau is because there are three packs that come through here.
Four days is a very small window but our luck was in. Our guide, Mox, picked us up from the airstrip in the afternoon with the exciting news that the dogs had pulled into the area that morning. One of the most important things with any nature experience is to have the right guide for you. You always want to have a guide with you who is totally in tune with the environment and the animals that you are encountering, as well as a great knowledge of the individual animals you are coming across. We specifically asked for Mox because he thinks like a wild dog and his anticipation of their behaviour is uncanny.
On that first afternoon we came across their tracks in the road and spent a good few hours driving in search of them to no avail. It can be very difficult to find the dogs if they move into the thick mopane veld, which is what they had done. We left the lodge just at sunrise the following morning and just a few kilometres down the road a pack of eighteen wild dogs came trotting towards us. Energy levels soared and the hunt was on.
Wild dogs are our favourite land predator to spend time with. They are always doing something, and that something is usually exciting. The unusual characteristic about wild dogs is that the pups are the most important members of the pack after the alpha male and alpha female. The whole pack works as a unit to ensure the survival of the pups. Once the pups have been protected long enough for them to be weaned off their mother’s milk they get to eat first at kills. This is the exact opposite to lions, where cubs are last on the pecking order. As the pups get older the result is a lot of hungry mouths to feed.
Over the next two days we would see the dogs hunt fifteen times successfully, along with many unsuccessful chases. When we came across them on that first morning they were most definitely in hunting mode. At this time of the year impala fawns are only a few weeks old and unfortunately they are the sardines of the bush, and are absolute cannon fodder for the dogs.
Small to medium herds of impala were scattered in a thirty mile radius around Duma Tau camp and thus the number of hunting opportunities were prolific. The dogs don’t all hunt together, rather they split into small groups or even as individuals, but all hunting for the greater good of the pack. So, if a dog makes a successful kill, it may take a few morsels, but will normally immediately try to locate all the other pack members and bring them to the fresh kill.
This means that while hunting is taking place dogs are scattered everywhere and it is very difficult to keep tabs on all of them. We happened to follow about six of them as they careened through the bush after some impala. After a bit of serious bundu bashing (this means following the dogs in a super duper 4x4 Landrover, and going over and through terrain that you are absolutely certain is not possible!) the dogs energy levels sky rocketed and began trying to jump up a tree. They had come across a young female leopard with her own fresh kill up a small tree. Immediately they began trying to steal the kill whilst the leopard was trying to hold onto it.
The dogs were jumping at least three to four meters high, it was such an incredible sight that I had to pinch myself to make sure I was actually witnessing this rarely seen behaviour. The dogs soon realised that they could not jump high enough and just as quickly as they arrived the command was given to move on... and the impala hunt was back on.
Another highlight of spending time with wild dogs is being able to watch the social interactions between the pack members. The dogs do not bark like domestic dogs do. They use a very high pitched whine that sounds almost machine like. In fact it’s very difficult to emulate or mimic.
Whenever members of the pack congregate back together after being on hunting missions the greetings they give each other is astounding, it’s as if they haven’t seen one another for years! This is usually followed by an intense play session whereby they will chase one another, play fight and occasionally pick up various paraphernalia such as sticks or long pieces of grass and assume a kind of wild dog tag chase! They are also habituated to vehicles so our presence has no effect on them at all and we spent many hours in their company, just watching and enjoying the daily life of the pack. The pups were especially playful and played endless games of chase around termite mounds and even through puddles of rain water.
Another game we became aware of was where one dog would play the “prey” and the other pups would chase it and when caught would pretend to kill it by bringing it down and gently pull at it. Just goes to show how play is used as lessons and also perhaps training.
Although we were always well aware of the reality of the situation, following the dogs while they are on the hunt is truly exhilarating. Mox was an excellent driver and as he followed and anticipated the dogs, the landrover would be wildly bucking and bronking all over the bush. Even so, we never did see the actual catch and kill of an impala, which I am actually grateful for. But, on a number of occasions we arrived just seconds after the impala was killed. Wild dogs have a bad reputation for ripping carcasses apart making them seem like mindless killers, but it is actually very humane and most times the death blow is instant and so fast that the prey is unlikely to feel any pain at all as endorphins flood it’s system. Once the meal begins it lasts literally thirty seconds to a minute, and that is no exaggeration. In fact the best way to describe the feeding event is that the animal is obliterated, it’s that fast. The other amazing thing is that there was no fighting whatsoever among the dogs as they fed side by side, muzzle by muzzle.
This pack was a machine and on one afternoon they made four successful kills. We had just seen them eat a young impala and the dogs were resting near the mopane veld when an unlucky medium sized impala fatefully walked into the area. It saw the dogs and immediately began its evasive hobby horse pronking but one of the adult dogs was too quick and caught the impala.
It was by now just after sunset and as such we headed back to camp. As we were moving back to our rooms Chris spotted an impala crossing through the entrance or parking area of the camp. In the next moment a wild dog exploded out of the bush and an instant kill was made. It was interesting to watch the dog’s immediate response which was to take a few mouthfuls. You could see that he knew he should be calling the rest of the pack but he kept taking a few steps away and then returning for another bite. Eventually the guilt must have gotten too much and he trotted off in search of the pack.
By this time the whole camp had come out to watch the event. It took at least fifteen minutes for the pack to return, and by this time we had heard they had made another kill just before this one, making it four kills in less than ninety minutes. If you can picture a bull in a china shop, you can liken this to the dogs running riot through the bush. In fact they don’t stay too long in any area purely because their prey become too aware of them, which makes them constantly move through their large territories.
There has never been an incident with a wild dog attacking a human, and I can truly say that as we stood a respectful forty meters from the pack of eighteen wild dogs as they fed in the parking lot, they paid us no attention at all. Once the last piece of impala was consumed the pack trotted off down the dusty road and into the darkness. That was the last time we saw them on our trip but what a privilege to have spent that time with them.
In closing I would like to make special mention of a wild dog from this pack who has been named Blondie by the guides. He really stood out as he is almost completely blonde in colour and as soon as we saw him for the first time Mox explained in great delight, “There’s Blondie, he’s a machine!”, and he really is... He seemed to be the bravest and was the most likely dog to approach close to the vehicle. He is also the most successful hunter in the pack and was the one always pushing the limits. The pack did at one point come across a family of warthogs who we saw coming out of their den. It was a mother, two teenagers and a small piglet. Obviously the piglet was of interest but the very protective mother was a force to be reckoned with and the dogs were getting nowhere. Nevertheless, Blondie was the dog that pushed the hardest and came the closest.
I have a particular interest in individual animal’s personalities and I definitely believe that this plays a very important part in any animal’s success or demise. Blondie may not have been the alpha male but he definitely was making a huge contribution to the success of the pack.
A big thank you to Mox for enriching our experience with his knowledge and skill, as well as showing his obvious passion and excitement for an often misunderstood predator.