On the 16th August 2012, at 0030 hours, I arrived at the Harare International Airport in Zimbabwe from Nairobi to continue my second African Safari 2012. On this trip, I was going in search of African Wild Dogs, initially at the Mana Pools National Park (MPNP) located in the north of Zimbabwe, bordering the Zambezi River.
The African Wild Dog, also referred to as the Painted Dog due to its colorfully patchy coat of fur, is a very efficient hunter. They live in packs of 6 to 20, and they hunt as a group and often succeed in apprehending their prey at the first attempt. Although, they were widespread throughout sub-Saharan Africa in the early 20th century, with a pack size of even 100, today only about 3,000 to 5,000 of them remain. Loss of habitat due to human settlements have led to poisoning and shooting of Wild Dogs by farmers to protect their livestock. Trophy hunters have also taken down large numbers of these animals resulting in this severe decline.
I covered the 350 km distance from Harare to MPNP by road. I was met at the entrance to the park by a representative of the Kanga Camp, where I had made reservations and he drove me in his jeep to the property. It took almost another hour on a gravel road to get to the camp site. The camp had six luxury tents, located on a private concession close to the Ruckomechi River, facing the Kanga pan and was surrounded by woodland.
I was welcomed to the camp by the staff there, headed by Andre and Tammy. My first question to them was about the chances of sighting Wild Dogs. Tammy’s answer was very promising; there was a high probability of the Dogs coming to the pan early morning between 6 to 7 am. According to her, there is a Wild Dog den nearby in an unknown location, from which the Dogs came to the pan to drink water once every two to three days. This gave me high hopes of setting eyes on one of the world’s rarest predators. Sometime later, I was introduced to Sean Hind, who will be my guide for the next four days. Sean had more than 10 years of wildlife experience and he is also very fond of Wild Dogs and is a photographer too.
During the afternoon safari in search of the dogs, we came across two female Lions lying under a tree. The sun fell on their faces where they were seated enabling some nice shots to be taken of them. Late in the evening, from the open air dining deck, a Leopard was seen drinking water from the pan. The camp had provided infrared spot lighting on the pan, but it was not possible to take good pictures in that light. The nocturnal Civet and Genet, were also spotted at the pan on the same night.
I was outside my tent by 6 am the next morning hoping the Dogs will come to the pan to drink, but had no luck. After an early breakfast Sean and I decided to go towards the Zambezi River. While Sean was driving, he was checking for fresh pugmarks on the road, which gives a clue as to the whereabouts of the predators that we were in search of. This activity is jokingly referred to as “reading the bush newspaper”! There is very little vehicular traffic at Mana Pools. We met only one other jeep during the hour’s drive to reach the River.
The view of the Zambezi River was quite spectacular with the Zambian border on the opposite side of the river. We could see Hippos in the water from our location. Sean met a friend of his from another camp at the river and found that he had not seen Wild Dogs at the park in the recent past. It seemed my best hope were the dogs at the vicinity of the camp. We saw a pride of Lions in addition to many elephants on our return trip to the Kanga Camp, in time for lunch. The pan was a hive of activity that afternoon with a variety of local residents dropping by for a drink – Elephants, Baboons, antelopes such as Impala and Kudu, and a pair of Fish Eagles, who were constantly on the lookout for food. I decided not to go for an afternoon drive and instead stay at the camp in case the Dogs come to the pan in the late afternoon. Once again a Leopard came to the pan to drink in the late evening but still no sign of the Dogs. At dinner, Andre the manager of the camp, announced that if the Dogs turn up to drink in the morning he will inform us by sounding the drum located at the dining area, which was generally used for calling guests for meals.
The next morning shortly after 6 am, when I was about to get dressed, I heard Andre calling ‘Mahi, Mahi…. Dogs! Dogs!’, since my tent was the closest to the dining deck. At the same time, Andre alarmed the other guests by sounding the drum. When I came out hurriedly with my camera, I was thrilled to see two Wild Dogs drinking water from the further end of the pan. Within minutes, more arrived and the number increased to twelve Painted Dogs. My first picture of them was taken at 6.15 am. They stayed on at the pan for almost 15 minutes, playing around, drinking water and watching the surrounding for a prey. Later they disappeared into the bushes. Sean was of the opinion that they would have gone hunting as they usually hunt early morning or late afternoon before dark. But they do sometimes hunt at night when there is moonlight. Being carnivorous they prefer fresh kills of large or small mammals; favorite being Impala. I was at the pan the whole day and it was busy with wild life. In the late afternoon the pair of resident Fish Eagles caught a Little Sparrow Hawk that came to drink water at the pan.
On the 20th August morning, the Wild Dogs showed up again at the pan to drink water but they came a little later than the previous day, at about 6.45 am. I was the first to spot them and I raised the alarm by sounding the drum at the dining deck. The dogs were at the pan for a few minutes and moved away. I suggested to Sean that we should try and follow them since their behavior indicated that they were ready to hunt. Within minutes we were in the jeep and on our way in pursuit of the Dogs. After about 15 minutes of driving, closely monitoring the pugmarks of the Dogs, we found the pack. We tracked behind them for a while till we reached an open area and there the pack started chasing behind a herd of Impala. My Nikon D4 was at full throttle, clicking at the rate of 12 frames per second to capture the moment. One of the Dogs went after an Impala and disappeared behind some bushes and subsequently, we heard an agonizing cry. Sean guessed that the Dogs had made a kill.
We got off the ieep with Sean carrying a loaded shotgun for our safety and walked around the bush cover, when we saw the alpha female with a kill and the rest of the pack about to enjoy a good meal. She was startled to see us and looked hard at us. At this time, a Hyena appeared but it was chased away by the pack. They finished off the Impala within minutes, only the bones of the dead animal remained after the frenzied feeding. Taking pictures of the Wild Dog feast while seated on the ground, was a thrill. We came back to the camp predicting that they would come to the pan for water after the meal. We were right. Some Elephants who were also drinking from the pan were not amused and they tried to chase the dogs away.
During the rest of that day, two Lions came to drink at the Kanga pan. The activity at the pan increased after dark. That evening we saw three Leopards together, drinking water from the pan. A pride of Lions arrived at the same time and the Leopards made a quiet retreat in to the jungle. It was my last night at the camp and I happened to be the only guest at the camp that night, apart from a pilot who was there to fly me to Victoria Falls in a 4 seater aircraft the next day.
The next morning, we went for a game drive and saw the Wild Dogs again. After breakfast, Sean drove me to the airfield from where I flew to the Victoria Falls airport. During the 2 hour flight, I had the opportunity of enjoying a panoramic view of the great Victoria Falls from the air.
At the Victoria Falls airport, I rented a 4×4 Isuzu double cab that I planned to use for the next 10 days as I continued my safari at Hwange National Park in search of more African Wild Dogs.