Wild dogs are Africa’s most devastating and spectacular hunters. Less than 5000 of them remain in the wild. 🙁
They are critically endangered on the IUCN Red List and their future does not look bright.
They are one of my favourite ever animals, the most evolved and complex of all the canines, and the most beautiful sight on safari.
This article discusses why the African wild dog is endangered, why they need to be saved, and what can be done about their plight.
What is the African wild dog?
Luminous fur moves across the savannah at sunrise. Wild dogs are on the move, hunting in a pack. They communicate silently, splitting up to chase their prey. And they just keep running. These predators showcase incredible stamina and teamwork, enabling them to take down almost any of Africa’s antelopes.
Growing over a meter in height and weighing around 25-30 kgs, African wild dogs are a similar size to medium-sized domestic dogs such as a Labrador. Each has a painted coat of fur, with haphazard markings that are as unique as our fingerprints.
Wild dogs have longer legs than most domestic dogs, with four toes on their front feet and trademark rounded ears. Like other canines they are descendant from wolves. Wild dogs have never been tamed or domesticated and wouldn’t be able to breed with domestic dogs.
The Facts – African wild dogs are critically endangered
It’s believed that wild dogs once roamed across all of Africa. They are adept and adaptable hunters, able to find food in almost all of Africa’s habitats, from savannah to mountains to plains and forest.
However, they are now extinct from North Africa and have disappeared from 25 of the 39 African countries where they previously lived. Wild dogs have enormous home ranges. Research shows their numbers are highest in areas with incredibly low (or non-existent) human populations, plus a relatively low density of lions and hyenas.
They now only survive in a handful of places across sub-Saharan Africa. Their greatest stronghold is the wilderness area around northern Botswana and Zambia, where packs of up to 40 individuals can be seen.
It’s believed that the total wild dog population is between 3000 and 5000 individuals, that’s roughly 600 to 1000 packs. However, exact figures are not known because their population is severely fragmented. What is known is that the African wild dog is the second most endangered carnivore on the planet (after the Egyptian wolf).
Unfortunately, figures are unable to show whether the wild dog population is increasing or decreasing. Almost everyone in Africa’s safari industry believe the numbers are declining and wild dogs are seen far less regularly than 20 years ago.
African wild dogs are critically endangered on the IUCN Red List.
Why is the African wild dog endangered?
The African wild dog is critically endangered due to a variety of factors, notably severe habitat loss and habitat fragmentation, snaring, conflict with humans and conflict with other predators.
Competition with other predators
All Africa’s predators are in competition with each other – leopards vs lions vs wild dogs vs hyenas vs cheetahs. When there is less food available, only the fittest will survive.
Lion prides will kill wild dogs, especially the pups, in order to reduce competition for their own food source. Hyenas successfully scare smaller wild dog packs off a kill.
While they may be Africa’s most successful hunter, wild dogs can’t compete with the strength and size of the big cats. Competition is a fact of life for all predators. For wild dogs, this carnivore competition must be understood in combination with other factors.
Lions and other predators drive wild dogs to the outer reaches of protected areas. Here they are more likely to come in conflict with human populations and livestock. As habitat for Africa’s wildlife declines, it’s those animals on the fringes that are most affected.
Various research has shown that African wild dogs spend most of their time in areas free of lions, locating their dens in areas with the lowest lion density. This is very understandable – lions kill the canines and dominate the food source – but requires a habitat large enough for multiple carnivore species.
These social pack-living animals roam large territories and are continually in competition with other predators. They need space in order to thrive. Such space is becoming harder and harder to find.
Wild dogs need large protected areas. Before colonialists arrived in Africa, they roamed freely across over 80% of the continent.
Wild dogs are mostly nomadic creatures and cover great distances to find their food. This way of living and hunting requires space, meaning wild dog populations can now only thrive in the larger wildernesses and parks.
An important population lives in Kruger National Park, a park that covers almost 20,000 square kilometres. 400-500 dogs can be found here but you need at least a three-night safari to have a chance of encountering them.
In other parts of Africa habitat loss means less space and food for predators. Wild dogs are pushed to the margins and eventually are unable to sustain themselves.
Like many of Africa’s endangered species, habitat loss appears to be irreversible. Roads and human settlements slice through natural migratory routes. A rapid increase in population has meant more land is needed for both living and farming. There isn’t enough space for everything.
Habitat fragmentation is when a large continuous habitat is broken into smaller patches due to habitat loss. For example, building a road through a national park requires only a tiny percentage of the land.
But it fragments the habitat and prevents wildlife from moving freely. This is devastating for wild dogs as they need to move across large areas.
It’s no surprise that the largest wild dog population can be found in northern Botswana and Zambia. This area is part of what will soon be known as Kavango-Zambezi (Kaza) Transfrontier Conservation Area, the largest conservation area on the planet. When fully created it will cover five countries and be a similar size to Italy.
Kavango-Zambezi is a success story. Fragmented habitats are being pieced back together through international cooperation. In most of the rest of Africa the fragments are growing smaller and more numerous. This has a devastating impact on animals with a large natural range, among them wild dogs and elephants.
Conflict with humans
Over the last century, most habitat loss has been caused by farming. Fertile areas are turned to farmland – some will say that is a necessity given Africa’s growing population. It’s bad news for wild dogs because it’s their territory, on the fringes, that becomes farmland.
When wild dogs get too close to livestock they are shot or poisoned by farmers. This is a story that’s rumbled on with different animals for the last 200 years.
Hippos and rhinos were shot abundantly because they grazed on crops. Virtually any wild animal coming into contact with a farm is considered a threat to profits, so whether baboon or wild dog they usually take a bullet.
Illegal (and legal) snaring
Despite their beautiful coats, wild dogs are not usually in the sight of hunters or poachers. Hunters are usually setting snares to catch antelope, in many cases for bush meat but also for trophies.
Wild dogs hunt antelope. And they get caught in the snares left by hunters. This is terrible for any animal but especially so for the canine hunters. Packs don’t leave anyone behind. They go searching for the missing individual and get themselves caught in snares as well.
Hunters typically lay several snares in the same area. So an entire pack of wild dogs can be lost due to this.
Another byproduct of the human-carnivore conflict is disease. Again, by traveling such large distances, wild dogs have a greater chance of coming into contact with diseases such as rabies.
Research shows that larger wild dog populations have a chance of recovering from outbreaks of disease, as they have greater habitat they can move to. However, small populations, where there is just a handful of packs, have been lost to epidemic disease.
When only one or two packs remain in a certain place it doesn’t take much for them to be wiped out.
Why should we be saving the African wild dog?
Africa’s best hunter
Although they can look cute, these are vicious animals. They can mix it with the big cats and hold their own on the savannah. In fact, wild dogs have the highest hunting success rate of all the big predators (85% successful kills).
It’s all down to their incredible teamwork, allowing them to kill big wildebeest and even zebra. They typically hunt antelopes that range from 15 to 150 kgs, with kudu, bushbuck, impala, and Thomson’s gazelle considered their favourite meals.
Hunting depends on sight, usually in the early morning or early evening, but also when the plains are illuminated by a bright moon.
Africa’s best teamwork
The pack hunts as a disciplined single unit. It’s a fearsome sight to witness, perhaps the greatest of all encounters you could have on an African safari. What makes them so special is that the prey know they are coming.
Big cats must creep up stealthily until they are in short striking range. However, antelope see wild dog packs from a kilometer away. They hear them from four kilometers away. The pack howls loudly during a pre-hunt ritual, individuals greeting each other in an elaborate ceremony of noise and tail wagging.
Silently they depart. The pack fans out, roaming the savannah for antelope. When a herd has been identified the leader will select a target, through a series of signs and calls. Ideally they target a young female and look to isolate it from the herd.
A subordinate male separates the target, then it’s the pack leader who runs down the prey. The others spread out and position themselves to make an interception if the antelope changes direction. One or two dogs will lag behind so they can grab the prey if it circles around and dodges the leader.
Africa’s best athlete
Cheetahs and lions can run faster. Other African mammals can travel further. But the wild dog is the ultimate athlete, a bit like a decathlete at the Olympics. They just keep running and running!
It’s a misconception that wild dogs run in relays to chase their prey. The pack leader can overtake their target after three to four kilometers, or at least within 30 minutes of starting the chase.
Top speed is 60 km/h, thanks to their long thin legs and lightweight frames. However, they know that a hunt is more a marathon than a sprint. So even when the pack leader gets close enough to strike, they will hold back, forcing their quarry to exert more and more energy.
Wild dogs can maintain a speed of 40 km/h for five kilometers. That’s faster than Usain Bolt does the 100 metre sprint, kept up for 50 times the distance.
They literally run their target to exhaustion. Nipping and tearing at the fleeing victim helps to exhaust it further. Then the rest of the pack hones in and bites away muscle from the rear of the animal. And soon the prey collapses dead.
Africa’s nicest social animal
Lions are brutal. Sick lions are left behind when a pride moves on. When a kill is made the big male dines first, followed by the females, then the other males get the scraps. The dominant male lion will often kill and force out younger males in order to protect his own dominance.
But after wild dogs make a kill the pack’s juveniles are allowed to eat first. In comparison to chaotic and rowdy hyena, wild dogs eat as if at a dinner table. Each waits its turn and if there isn’t enough food for the entire pack they go out hunting again.
A litter of pups can be 8-12 although only half will survive their first year. That’s a lot of work for the mother but she gets a lot of help. Babysitters are on hand and pups are raised by the pack, rather than the mother.
And amazingly, pack members take care of the old and the sick, right up until the day they die! Subordinate females nurse any dog who isn’t weak enough to leave the den, including regurgitating food for them.
Unfortunately this social style comes into conflict with hyena. Wild dogs are highly susceptible to kleptoparasitism, the practice of stealing prey from another animal. The canines won’t risk taking food back to the den as it puts their young at risk from predators. So their dining table is often interrupted.
Interbreeding, not in-breeding
These are smart animals and don’t reproduce within the pack, or with close relatives. Instead, young same-sex groups leave the pack to join with small groups of the opposite sex, thus forming a new pack.
Interestingly, wild dogs will emigrate far away if they come back into the presence of their opposite sex parent.
Wild dogs regulate antelope numbers and increase biodiversity
Wild dogs have a varied diet and can hunt a rich diversity of antelope. Studies have shown that packs will hunt abundant species, therefore helping to preserve the biodiversity of a landscape.
For example, in Kruger they mostly hunt impala. By helping keep the impala population down, more antelope species can share Kruger’s food sources. So not only are wild dogs hunting to feed themselves, they are regulating a landscape’s mammal diversity.
What can be done to save the wild dog?
Stopping habitat fragmentation and reconnecting fragmented habitats is the best way to increase the African wild dog population.
The best thing you can do is to take action. How do you do that? Connect with your wild side and go on an African safari!
By going on safari you can experience the plight of different species, informing yourself of what is happening on the ground. You’ll become a defender of wildlife and later speak up for wildlife.
African safaris also provide much needed funds for conservation. Every piece of land must pay its way and without park fees there would be no national parks and no wild wildlife. Safaris ultimately financially support local communities, so they don’t need to harvest wilderness areas to plant cash crops.
Where can I go see wild dogs?
Not in a zoo that’s for sure! African wild dogs are truly wild. I’d recommend a safari in northern Botswana, around Moremi Game Reserve in the Okavango, Linyanti Private Concession, and Chobe National Park. After the safari you can hop over the border to Victoria Falls.
South Luangwa National Park in Zambia is another excellent place to see wild dogs in the wild.