The African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) goes by many different names, including Cape hunting dog and painted dog. Part of the same biological family as wolves, jackals, and domestic dogs, these superb predators are native to sub-Saharan Africa. They are easily recognized by their brightly mottled fur and oversized ears; but less easy to spot given their dwindling population and status on the IUCN’s endangered list. Their rarity, beauty, and uniquely charismatic behavior make them one of the most sought-after sightings for safari enthusiasts. In this article, we learn a little bit more about these very special African carnivores.
African wild dogs seem slender in comparison with large domestic dogs, and yet they are the largest and most solidly built of all indigenous African canids. The average adult stands between 24 to 30 inches tall at the shoulder, and measures between 28 and 44 inches in length (excluding the tail). African wild dogs tip the scales at between 40 and 79 lb, with females typically being slightly smaller than males. Their coats are covered with irregular patches of black, white, and tan, with patterns differing from one dog to the next. However, almost all wild dogs have dark muzzles and ears, a white tip to the tail, and a characteristic black stripe between the eyes.
Unlike other canids, wild dogs lack a dewclaw. This puts them into their own separate genus, Lycaon, and helps to increase their stride, speed, and stamina. An adult wild dog can reach speeds of up to 41 miles an hour and may last for up to an hour in pursuit of prey. This seemingly small adaptation is therefore a large reason why they are such excellent predators.
African wild dogs are very social animals. They live in packs that typically average between four and nine adults, although much larger groups have been observed. The pack is dominated by an alpha pair, and only the alpha pair are allowed to breed. This is because females give birth to an average of 10 puppies (more than any other canid species), and the pack can only support one litter at a time. The alpha female is pregnant for roughly 70 days and will remain in the den with her pups while the other pack members go out to hunt. They will then sustain the mother and her puppies (once they are weaned) with regurgitated food.
African wild dogs are renowned for their strong bonds and often help to support weak or ill members of the pack by sharing food and protecting them from predators. In the wild, the dogs can live up to 11 years.
Wild dogs differ from other carnivores in a number of ways. The first thing that many people notice when they see them in the wild is that they do not communicate using the barks or growls that one might expect from a canid. Instead, their primary form of communication is a bird-like twittering sound. Unlike lions and many other social carnivores, wild dogs are also unique in that it is the females, not the males, who leave the pack once they become sexually mature. This prevents inbreeding and means that a 3:1 ratio of males to females is normal within the pack. Lastly, wild dogs are special because they allow young dogs (up to around a year old) to feed first on kills.
Wild dogs usually hunt during daylight hours and can travel over 30 miles in a single day in search of suitable prey. This makes their movements hard to predict and is one of the reasons why they are so rarely seen on safari. They primarily target medium-sized antelope like impala or Thomson’s gazelles, but will also attempt to bring down larger prey such as kudu or wildebeest if the opportunity arises. The dogs work as a pack to separate young, old, or injured animals from the herd and then chase them until they are too exhausted to carry on. Because the dogs are not large enough to deliver a fatal bite, larger animals are torn apart while they are still alive and only die from exsanguination.
Pack communication and their incredible stamina give wild dogs one of the highest success rates of any African predator (between 60 and 90 percent). However, they often lose their kill to larger carnivores such as lions or spotted hyenas.
Despite having few natural predators (other than lions, which will kill both adult and juvenile wild dogs to prevent competition for prey), wild dog populations are rapidly declining. This is primarily due to the encroachment of humans on the dogs’ natural habitats. There are several ways in which proximity to humans causes problems for the dogs. Firstly, they are very susceptible to diseases carried by domestic dogs including rabies, parvovirus, and canine distemper. Secondly, farmers often target wild dogs, believing them to be a threat to their livestock. And lastly, wild dogs are often the accidental victim of poachers who set snares for bushmeat.
Distribution & Population
All of these factors mean that while wild dogs were once found across much of sub-Saharan Africa, they are now all but extinct in North, West and Central Africa. The majority live in Southern Africa and the southern areas of East Africa, in open areas of savannah or semi-desert that allow them to give chase to their prey without obstruction. In 2016, it was estimated that there are only 6,600 African wild dogs left in the wild, of which only around 1,400 are actively reproducing. They were listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List in the same year, and are thought to be the second-most endangered carnivore in Africa after the Ethiopian wolf.
Where to See African Wild Dogs
The dogs’ nomadic lifestyle makes them notoriously difficult to spot even in areas where they do occur. However, some game reserves are renowned for their improved chances of wild dog sightings. These include Hwange National Park and Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe; and Selous Game Reserve and Ruaha National Park in Tanzania. In Botswana, Moremi Game Reserve in the Okavango Delta and the Linyati area of Chobe National Park are best for spotting wild dogs. In South Africa, your best chances are in the southern Kruger, in KwaZulu-Natal’s Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park or in Madikwe Game Reserve in the North West Province.