Every year, around July-September, African wild dogs should be denning. Meaning the alpha female chooses a den site she likes and will have pups. During this time wild dog sightings always go up, as they need to stay local to the den to feed the alpha female and eventually also the pups. Please note that “local” can mean a 20 km or more radius of the den.
This July-September sightings have been good. There is a pack known as the “Lukodet” pack that is denning between Mandavu and Detema, and these are the dogs we have seen the most as our areas of main operation fall into their den radius.
Yesterday morning we got a radio call that they were hunting at Mandavu dam. My guests and I decided to go for it and try to see them. Sadly in the morning we failed, but got word later in the day that they had been spotted below the dam wall. I told my guests this could be our best chance.
It took us forty minutes to get there and we arrived just as they were rousing to go and hunt again. The African wild dogs walked out from the trees they had slept under and passed by the car as we arrived, just in time! Within minutes they chased some warthogs but the hogs made it to a culvert under the road and ducked underground.
The dogs then trotted down the road and up onto the side behind Mandavu dam. We watched as they moved off slowly out of sight. All we had to track their progress was the hooded vultures we could see flying from tree to tree. These vultures will follow wild dogs when they are hunting, as they know how successful they are. We drove down the road watching the vultures at distance, then parked to watch and listen.
After about ten minutes a couple of impala come running across the road at speed. A sure sign the dogs are on the hunt in the vicinity. Not long after this, while I’m talking to my guests about African wild dogs in general, I suddenly hear it. The high pitch twittering wild dogs make when they have made a kill.
I listen briefly to get a direction, then I hear the grunt of a lion and the alarm barks of the dogs. With that I tell my guests the wild dogs have killed, and a lion has come in.
“Get out”, I shout. “We’re going in on foot.”
All my guests look at me like I’m mad.
“Out everybody, quick, we’re going in!”
We jump out and I give a quick safety briefing. We’re moving in. I can hear the dogs alarm barking and the lion growling. We cover about two hundred metres and I can hear we are close now.
I slow down and start scanning hard. Ten more metres and I can see the dogs now, all looking in one direction alarm barking.
A few more steps and I see the lioness.
She is broadside to us and facing the wild dogs, growling that deep guttural growl only a lion can do.
I point out the dogs and lioness to my guests. We wait and watch, neither dogs or lioness have seen us.
We move forward slowly. The wild dogs see us but are more interested in the lioness. The lioness is now starting to feed on the stolen kill while glancing and rumbling at the dogs.
Then the lioness sees us, she stamps her front feet and let’s out a loud grunt, tail whipping from side to side.
I quickly tell my guests not to move if she charges.
She starts to feed again.
Slowly we move round. She is feeding and glancing at us and the African wild dogs while rumbling away. We move into a great position where we can see the lioness and the wild dogs clearly.
We are twenty metres from the lioness and dogs now. I tell my guests to all sit and take this in. Minutes pass, the lioness starts to relax with our presence. She stops rumbling and is concentrating on feeding, every now and then looking at us with a flick of her tail.
The African wild dogs are still trying to intimidate her and get her to move by alarm barking and darting forward. She is not buying it and knows the dogs won’t follow through.
We sit, watching this amazing encounter.
I have a huge smile on my face.
We are on foot twenty metres away from a lioness and fifteen painted dogs.
Two jackals trot in from behind the lioness, attracted by all the commotion. I turn to my tracker and tell him to watch behind us carefully as the commotion will call in other predators.
As if on cue, a hyena appears. It looks at us briefly but is more interested in the lioness and wild dogs. It moves back and forth in a semi circle, just ten metres from us, assessing the situation. The hyena then turns and moves towards us, while I tell everyone to keep still and enjoy the moment.
It comes to about six or seven metres from us and just stands and looks at us.
My grin is now MASSIVE. We have fifteen African wild dogs, a lioness, two jackals and hyena within a twenty metres radius of us, and we are on foot!
The hyena now turns and moves closer to the lioness to get a better look. It growls at the lioness, but knows it can’t move the lioness on its own. We sit and watch as the lioness, who is now taking no notice of us, feeds.
The wild dogs have resigned themselves to the fact that their kill is gone and start to sit or lie down. They just watch the cat, occasionally growling, while the hyena is moving back and forth and the jackals are now lying down also watching.
We sit for half an hour, privileged to be a part of this amazing encounter.
The light is starting to fade so sadly I have to call it a day. I tell my guests to slowly get up and stay on the outside of me as we move out the way we came in. We get back to the car and everyone is buzzing with adrenaline and excitement.
This is Zimbabwe.
This is walking safari.