A primer on the African wild dog, also called the hunting dog, a rapidly vanishing species in East Africa.
Field studies have shown that the wild dog is a highly intelligent and social animal. Like most predators, it plays an important role in eliminating sick and weak animals, thereby helping maintain a natural balance and ultimately improving prey species. Wild dogs are often inaccurately villainized as butchers.
The African wild dog is long-legged, with massive jaws and very large, bat-like ears. Although it resembles some domestic dogs, it differs in that it has four toes on each foot instead of five. The Latin name for the African wild dog means “painted wolf,” which aptly describes the colorful coat of dark brown, black and yellow patches. The wild dog have bushy tails with white tips that may serve as a flag to keep the pack in contact while hunting.
The African wild dog lives mostly in arid zones and in the savanna. They also are found in woodland and mountain habitats where their prey lives.
The wild dog lives in packs of six to 20. If the pack numbers fall below six, hunting efficiency declines. The dogs have a ceremony that bonds them for a common purpose and initiates each hunt. They start circulating among the other pack members, vocalizing until they get excited and are ready to hunt. They start the hunt in an organized, cooperative manner. When prey is targeted, some of the dogs run close to the animal, while others follow behind, taking over when the leader tired. They can run long distances, at speeds up to about 35 miles per hour.
Of the large carnivores, wild dogs are the most efficient hunters – targeted prey rarely escapes. They tear the flesh until the animal falls, consuming even if it is still alive. This behavior may prejudice people against them, although in reality it may be no worse than the prolonged kills of other carnivores. A remarkable aspect of their hunting is the complete lack of aggression toward each other. Wild dogs have a social hierarchy but unlike many other social animals, there is little obvious intimidation. They have elaborate greeting rituals, accompanied by twittering and whining. Their large range of vocalizations includes a short bark of alarm, a rallying howl and a bell-like contact call that can be heard over long distances.
Why are they in jeopardy?
The wild dog is one of the world’s most endangered mammals. Throughout Africa wild dogs have been shot and poisoned by farmers, hunters and, at one time, by rangers who considered them as bloodthirsty raiders of livestock and dispersers of wild herds. As the numbers of these wild dogs dwindle, they become more mysterious, elusive and enigmatic, reappearing suddenly in places they have not inhabited for months and then vanishing again a few days later. Even though protected in parks and reserves, wild dog populations have declined to the point that packs may no longer be viable. In some areas they are close to extinction.
The largest populations remain in southern Africa and the southern part of East Africa (especially Tanzania and northern Mozambique). Wild dogs are social and gather in packs of around ten individuals, but some packs number more than 40. They are opportunistic predators that hunt medium-sized ruminants, such as gazelles. In a sprint, African wild dogs can reach speeds of more than 44 miles per hour.
Who is protecting them?
There are initiatives to preserve the species and the habitats thanks to effortless work done from organizations and agencies all over the world. These efforts working together should help to enforce existing policies and increase awareness for future projects.
- Painted Dog Conservation in Zimbabwe outside Hwange National Park has the only hospital for injured wild dogs where they are nursed back to health and released again.
- The Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre runs a breeding program to ensure the survival of African wild dogs in South Africa. They are also involved in research projects, education and raising public awareness of the species.
- African Wild Dog Conservancy operates in Kenya to protect African Wild Dogs through research programs, educational programs and by training the local communities.
- Botswana Predator Conservation Trust has been studying the African wild dogs since 1989 to understand their territories and how to limit the conflict with humans.
Why are they important to their ecosystem?
Among the top carnivores, wild dogs are a landscape species requiring large, ecologically diverse areas to survive. Species, like wild dogs, may have a significant impact on the structure and function of ecosystems. Because of habitat requirements and ranging behavior, they are threatened by human disturbance and use of natural landscapes. One of Africa’s most efficient predators, wild dogs may help regulate prey species that in turn play a role in shaping vegetation communities. Securing a future for wild dogs, therefore, is an essential part in stemming the loss of biodiversity and preserving a healthy ecosystem. By working with people living with wild dogs, we hope to help secure their long-term survival.
Contributed by Nikela Volunteer Alisa Wong
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