The spirit of “Ubuntu” is a philosophy that is on many a South Africans’ lips these days. The philosophy is based on all humans being interdependent irrespective of race, creed or social status. In short it boils down to the thought pattern of “I am because you are”. Few people realise how dependant we are on each other on every level of life and this impacts our survival as a species directly. As our behaviour evolves we can only hope that this mind set is adopted by all. And in many instances we humans can look to nature and gain valuable knowledge.
Most predators in Africa have a “eat or be eaten” outlook to life and this very aggressive outlook often leads to the decimation of a community due to intraspecific competition.
There is however one species that has evolved an exemplary strategy for survival. The African wild dog (Cape hunting dog) is co-operative in almost every aspect of its behaviour, when the pack is under threat the common vision and goal becomes most noticeable. The species is under grave threat but it keeps beating the odds by standing together.
As human populations grow we put pressure on Wild dog’s natural home range and as a result the original home range has been severely fragmented. Wild dogs are often in direct conflict with farmers of small and medium sized livestock and are often shot or poisoned as a result. Sadly even game farmers will eradicate wild dog as they are believed to be able to decimate populations of game in a short space of time.
Unlike most African predators wild dogs do not apply the often tedious and energy and time sapping stalk and pounce approach to hunting. Due to physiological adaptions Wild dogs are able to run any prey species to the ground with unmatched stamina. The pack will approach a herd of antelope select and individual and run it down with a kill rate of over 80% probably the most efficient mammalian predator. Even locating prey is generally done by trotting through the bush high pace until a herd is located. This behaviour often makes Wild dogs impossible to follow through the bush and sightings are often fleeting glimpses. But this behaviour and the generally small size (25kg on average) also contribute to the species endangered status. Dogs often “blindly “run into larger predators such as Lions and Spotted hyena that will kill them to eradicate potential competition as they tend to target the same prey species. There is a definite correlation between Spotted Hyena numbers and Wild Dog populations, as the Spotted hyena is a well-known cleptoparasite(steals food) of wild dogs. Hyena are able to crawl down dens and are thus also a huge threat to wild dog pups. Wild dogs are able to chase hyena off unless totally outnumbered. Thus they station pup minders at the den site whilst the pack goes off to hunt. Upon returning the hunters will regurgitate meat to the pups and the pup minders. The mother fulfils the baby sitting function most of the time but as the pups grow older the mother will join hunts to replenish her body after the toll of the pregnancy and providing for lactating pups.
The introduction of the domestic dog and diseases such as rabies and distemper has also contributed to the dwindling number of dogs. At present the global population is estimated at 5000 in total, thus the prediction is that the species will be extinct in the next few decades.
The above will put into perspective how excited and privileged we are to be able to see these animals on a regular base and study their behaviour.
In 2008 a pack of Wild dogs visited Inyati and was seen surprisingly often. The pack ran into lions and hyena and a few individuals were killed by the larger predators, but probably because of the rich variety of prey the pack stayed relatively localised. This was quite a unique as the average size of a home range in the Kruger Park is 537 square kilometres. The pack numbers plummeted to a mere 3 individuals and we were convinced the now all female pack was doomed.
In late 2009 one pack of four males trotted onto the property, with bated breath we hoped the packs would meet, and to our elation they did. The youngest of the females left her natal pack and hasn’t been seen since. This is quite a unique trait of wild dog as in most species the males that come of age will leave the groups to maintain genetic diversity. The remaining six dogs quickly sorted out a hierarchy and became surprisingly localised on our traversing area. A few months later we noticed not one but two pregnant females. Usually only the alpha female and male breed, the rest of the pack is reproductively supressed to fulfil hunting and pup guarding roles.
The alpha and beta females gave birth to two litters that survived well until the age of about six months when once again Lions and Hyena were responsible for huge pup mortalities. Only one female pup survived and was recruited into the pack.
The pack now seven strong stretched their home range and we all suspected they would disappear into the vast Kruger National Park and only be seen from time to time.
Their absence was short and some of the guides witnessed the alpha pair mating in February 2011. In mid-March the pack was found again and two females were sporting swollen mammary glands. Our excitement grew as the pack started inspecting abandoned termite mounds, searching for a suitable den site.
On a fresh morning in April 2011 the pack was found around a termite mound in the south. The dogs were obviously stressed and the alpha male kept darting into a hole in the mound whilst chirping excitedly.
The alpha and beta females kept a very low profile for a week or two as we decided to give them some privacy at the den by keeping game drive vehicles out for a while. As frustrating as this might be it is important to treat this critically endangered species with utmost caution. After many years of persecuting these animals it I the least we can do.
We decided to go have a look at the den-site in May 2011 and we were treated to our first glimpse of the pups.
A few weeks later the rangers made a horrific discovery, one female dog was found dead close to the den and at least two dead pups at the den-site.
A lioness with a bloodied face was seen the same morning and we presumed the dogs were once again attacked by their old foe.
Our hearts sank and we were convinced that the pups and mother were killed. At such a young age the pups need to lactate and would not survive without a mother.
The following day pups and a lactating female were seen at the den-site! The second female falling pregnant proved to be a valuable bit of insurance. We presume the beta female is the one that survived and she has since proven to be an exceptional mother.
The den-site was a hive of activity over the next few months, as the pups grew stronger they also became very accustomed to our presence and often came very close to the game drive vehicles for a closer look.
A lioness did visit the den-site but the pup sitters must have seen her coming and hid the cubs deep in the den. The co-operative breeding system proved its value in this instant. Even in a relatively small pack, sacrificing a hunter as a baby sitter to ensure the pups’ survival makes perfect survival sense.
The pack has started moving with the pups of late, the pups are now entering the next stage of their development and being taught the laws of the pack by the adults. All we can hope for is that the parents experience is passed on to the pups and they learn to negotiate the larger predators of the Sabi Sand and become productive members of our cherished pack of painted hunters.