The African Wild Dog

Sarah’s inspiration for writing Vusa the African Wild Dog Guardian

On the brink of extinction!

Classroom poster for use in rural southern African schools

African Wild Dogs also known as Painted Dogs or Cape Hunting Dogs are unique to Africa and are not found anywhere else on the planet. They once ranged widely in huge packs throughout sub-Saharan Africa, roaming across 39 countries and numbering hundreds of thousands. Now they are limited to very small populations in a few countries in southern Africa, many of which are declining rapidly. With only around 6 600 individuals left in the wild, they are one of the most endangered species in the whole of southern Africa. Classified as threatened on the IUCN’s Red List, they need our help if they are to escape extinction.

Beautiful, unique, charismatic, social animals

Many people confuse these mottled, big-eared animals for hyenas – but they are completely different creatures. Hyenas are more closely related to cats, whereas African Wild Dogs share a distant common ancestor with jackals, wolves, coyotes and, as their name suggests, domestic dogs, although they cannot breed with domestic dogs. They are a distinct species of their own.

A single pack can vary between two and thirty individuals, but around six is the minimum for a successful hunting and breeding group. Each pack is led by an ‘alpha’ male and ‘alpha’ female, with the female being ‘top dog.’ She will choose where her pack build their den and will excavate it with the help of other pack members, often making use of abandoned dens of other creatures, such as aardvarks. The alpha pair are usually the only ones in the pack to breed. The alpha female carries a litter for 69-72 days gestation, producing 10-11 pups. The pups are weaned at around 5 weeks old and become fully-fledged pack hunters at around 12 – 18 months. Same-sex siblings from one pack will eventually leave to join up with those of the opposite sex from another pack, forming a family of their own.

African Wild Dog puppies

African Wild Dogs are intensely social animals with strong family bonds, spending most of their time together. They have a rich and complex social life. Their first priority is survival of the pack. Pups get the first meal after a kill, ‘aunties’ act as pup-sitters for the litter and if a fellow pack member is sick or injured, their pack rallies round to care for them. They have even been seen mourning lost family members. The species communicates well, something that is related to their strong bonds. They have thin bird like calls and a deep haunting hoo call, distinctly different ear positions, and they also change their body posture to communicate with one another.

Strong Social Bonds – Adult Wild Dogs Playing Together 

African Wild Dogs are one of the most skilful hunters in the bush, hunting swiftly and efficiently, with around an 80% success rate for each hunt. They are ‘crepuscular’ which means that they hunt at dawn and dusk, mainly preying on small to medium-sized antelope such as kudu, impala and duiker. Occasionally they’ve been seen taking on wildebeest, eland and buffalo, although kills of these large animals are rare. An average sized dog needs the equivalent of around 4 kilos of carcass per day, the equivalent of around one impala per day for a 15 strong pack. Although their hunting method of tearing prey apart whilst still alive has been criticised by some, it has been shown that this hunting method in fact minimises the suffering of their prey, and death is very quick.

The Hunt 

Threats to the species

Humans are the greatest threat to their survival

The greatest threat to African Wild Dogs comes from humans. Wild Dogs are injured and killed in snares and road kills every week, and to compound this danger, expanding human settlement reduces suitable habitat for them and also for their natural prey. They are also very susceptible to diseases such as rabies and canine distemper caught from domestic dogs. A disease caught from a domestic dog can permeate an entire group through just one dog and wipe out a whole pack. Identifying and containing disease is crucial, and free vaccination programmes for domestic dogs can go a long way towards protecting the endangered Wild Dogs.

Unfairly, and through no fault of their own, African Wild Dogs do not have the best reputation in Africa. There are many untrue myths surrounding the species, and human ignorance and misinformation is perhaps one of the biggest issues facing the Wild Dog population. Local landowners erroneously believe them to be dangerous, wanton and indiscriminate pack hunters and do their best to exterminate them from the land. And yet, there is no record, real or mythological, of an African Wild Dog ever attacking a human being.