According to local predator experts, wild dogs, also known as the African Hunting dog or the Painted dog (due to its beautiful colored skin pattern) are listed as endangered by the IUCN.
There were once about 500,000 wild dogs, but today, the numbers have been drastically reduced to about 7000 free-ranging Wild Dogs left in Africa. They are the rarest carnivore in South Africa and despite being legally protected in many of their current range states; the remnant populations continue to face widespread extinction.
The African wild dog is an endangered species due to habitat loss, poaching and diseases, which are the main threats to its survival. It uses very large territories, so can persist only in large wildlife-protected areas, and it is strongly affected by competition with larger carnivores that rely on the same prey base, particularly the lion and the hyena.
My first sighting of the wild dogs was in 1998 at Kruger National Park in South Africa and subsequently in the National parks of Botswana and Zimbabwe. It was during the recent school vacation of our grandchildren in August 2014, I together with Lilani and our daughter, Dushani, her husband and their four sons visited Kruger NP for seven nights mainly to see the big five and in search for the wild dogs. With my past travel experience to Kruger, I was confident in spotting the big five at the park. But finding the Wild dogs, require pots of luck and search. It is estimated that there are only 400-450 dogs left in this park and finding them in an area equivalent to the size of Sri Lanka was not an easy task.
We spent our first two nights in the south of Kruger at Lower Sabie camp facing the beautiful Sabie River. Thereafter, we drove towards the north of the park and spent the next two nights at Olifants camp overlooking the Olifants river which was the best look-out point of the camps that I have stayed at KNP, The last three nights were at the Satara Rest camp, where the surrounding bush and savannah are well known for its big cats. Also the sightings of Wild dogs are possible in Satara, especially in the early morning hours when they are active in hunting.
During our seven nights stay at Kruger, we managed to see the big five namely; the Lion, Leopard, Rhino, Cape buffalo and Elephant at Satara within an hour’s time. It was thrilling for my grandchildren, who were excited and busy with their cameras.
On our last day at Kruger, we were out of Satara camp by 6am; while driving towards Paul Kruger gate, we sighted a pack of Wild dogs moving towards our direction along the road. The pack of seven dogs were on a hunt for prey. At a running speed of 44 miles per hour, one of them took an impala by surprise from the rear, and supported by the rest of the pack, brought it down and feasted on the animal, by tearing at its flesh with razor sharp teeth.
Generally, the wild dog always feed on a fresh kill. They are highly social animals and are now limited to pack sizes of 30 – 60. However, lately there have not been packs exceeding 30.
After Kruger, we boarded a domestic flight from Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport to Cape Town for four nights with a night in Hermanus; the famous whales city where the sightings of Southern Right Whales at close proximity from land could be observed.
Thereafter, Dushani and her family returned to Sri Lanka from Capetown, while Lilani and I extended our wildlife expedition to Greater Kruger at two private Camps, Kirkman’s and Mala Mala for seven nights followed by four nights at Phinda Private Game Reserve in Kwa Zulu-Natalin in South Africa.
The guide/driver from Kirkman’s who picked us from Skukuza airport gave us exciting bush sightings at Kirkman’s concession which included wild dogs which I did not expect. During the four nights stay at the camp, we had two great sightings of wild dogs. The first was in the morning of 8th September, where a pack of 12 dogs including 7 puppies were feeding on a female Impala on the Sand River and the same pack minus the pups again late evening of the following day.
During the three nights at Mala Mala, once again we had a sighting of a pack of 10 wild dogs, which was a different scenario from the earlier sighting at Kirkman’s. These hunters cover an area of 130 sq km in search of food. The sighting may indicate the end of their ‘den’ time (a hideout where cubs may have been raised). During this time, these animals remain in a certain area before becoming nomadic.
These animals’ den once a year to raise the cubs of the Alfa female. This female could have a litter of about 20 cubs. These predators hunt their prey by relentlessly running after it and tiring it out before making the kill. The African wild dog lives and hunts in large packs. Like most members of the dog family, it is cursorial.
These chases may occur at great speeds of up to 66km/h for 10 to 60 minutes, and over great distances at about 50km/h for 5,6km. Nearly 80 per cent of all wild dog hunts end in a kill, in comparison, the success rate of lions, often viewed as ultimate predators, is only 30 per cent. Members of a pack vocalize to help coordinate their movements.
Its voice is characterized by an unusual chirping or squeaking sound, similar to a bird. Wild dogs frequently kill larger prey by disemboweling, a technique that is rapid but has caused this species to have a negative, ferocious reputation.
While the adult wild dogs can usually outrun the larger predators, lions often will kill as many wild dogs and cubs at the breeding site as they can, but do not eat them. One-to-one, the hyena is much more powerful than the wild dog, but a large group of wild dogs can successfully chase off a small number of hyenas because of their teamwork.
Most of Africa’s national parks are too small for a pack of wild dogs, so the packs expand to the unprotected areas, which tend to be ranch or farmland. Like other carnivores, the African wild dog is sometimes affected by outbreaks of viral diseases such as rabies, distemper, and parvovirus.
Although these diseases are not more pathogenic or virulent for wild dogs, the small size of most wild dog populations makes them vulnerable to local extinction due to diseases or other issues.
On 14th September, We were transported to Phinda GR by air from Mala Mala airstrip. During our four nights stay at Phinda, the sightings of white rhinos were more frequent. We were also fortunate to spot a black rhino with a year-old calf. It was surprising to note that the lions favorite prey in the south of the park were the warthogs, while in the north were the Nyalathat belonging to the antelope family. We witnessed on two occasions a successful chasing of prey. This was due to the small number of bigger prey such as wildebeest and buffalo in the park. Since off road was permitted at the private camps concessions in both Greater Kruger and Phinda, I managed to capture excellent images, especially of the big cats and wild dogs during my expedition into the South African wild.
We spent two nights in Johannesburg before retuning to Sri Lanka. Marievale bird sanctuary was a one-hour drive from the OR Tampo airport, where we spent a few hours engaging in bird photography, especially of the water birds. Thus ended our rare experience in the wilds of Africa.