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Dog Day

A remarkable day with Africa’s painted dogs

We had heard hallowed whispers of them being around recently, and were hopeful that it was just a matter of time before they showed themselves to us!

We could only be hopeful, as the pack denned earlier than usual this year. The puppies were already approaching seven months of age, meaning that the pack’s ability to move long distances was greatly enhanced, lessening our chances of a sighting. We couldn’t have anticipated what we were about to be treated to.

On day 3 of our safari at our exclusive use lodge in the Sabi Sands, whilst viewing a large herd of Buffalo, we caught a fleeting glimpse of a single Wild Dog running across the road 300 meters away from us, before it disappeared into the bush.

The wooded savannah that covers much of the Sabi Sands can be almost impenetrable in areas, which would make keeping up with wild dogs on the hunt a challenge, to say the least. With this in mind we drove as quickly as we could to the spot where we had last seen the dog, but saw no sign of it. Knowing the amount of ground a Wild Dog can cover far more effortlessly than we ever could, we chose to stay on the road and see if it had perhaps moved towards a nearby waterhole, reckoning that the chance of potential prey such as Impala would be higher there.

Already a full kilometre from where it was first seen and only a few minutes later, we arrived at the dam, expecting the dog to still be on its way to us and hoping that we had anticipated its movements correctly. Astoundingly however, the dog was already there when we arrived. Even better news for us was that it had been joined by two other pack members. We now had a great chance of seeing some social behaviour and, if we were lucky, watching them hunt!

After milling around the dam for a few minutes, as if deciding in which direction to head, the trio – two females and one male – set off into the bush towards the centre of our conservancy.

Their behaviour indicated that they were on a scent trail. The importance of scent, which plays such a small role in our lives today, certainly is vital to these tenacious canids’ daily survival. Their noses were pressed to the ground as they trotted haphazardly through the bush, often returning to the same point to reconnect or re-evaluate the scent. We were slightly stumped when almost five minutes were spent at a particular log which they sniffed at, rubbed themselves against and urinated close to. On first appearance, there was no apparent sign of any other animal that had passed through the area. Remember this log, as it was to make another appearance later on.

After sniffing the log one last time all three trotted off into the bush with single-minded purpose. As they weaved through the woodland they passed up the chance to hunt a number of herds of Impala. They would stop to inspect, but, perhaps just as driven by the scent of the unknown as we were by what was unfolding, they carried on.

After 45 minutes and several kilometres, an opportunity came along which was tempting enough to distract the dogs from their important mission: a steenbok.

All three dogs tore off into the bush in pursuit of this dwarf antelope, quickly leaving us in their dust. A couple of hundred meters and a minute or two later, we had caught up with them and just the front half of the steenbok remained. Bellies filled, it was straight back to business, as they hurried down the road, stopping numerous times to urinate, defecate and roll in the grass repeatedly.

It was at one of these frolics that we noticed the tell-tale signs of the wild dogs’ arch rivals. A pile of snow white droppings and some stalks of dry grass with black resin like paste revealed the presence of Spotted Hyena, making it clear that these three dogs were defiantly trying to plaster their scent and wipe out anything that smelt remotely like their foe- a territorial patrol of some sort!

We had now been following the dogs for an hour and half, but they continued westwards at the same urgent intensity, as if nothing was going to stop them, the females leading the way.

Suddenly, the male stopped dead in his tracks, letting out a characteristic “yelp”. The two leading dogs stopped, turned around without hesitation and re-joined the male, before they started backtracking at great speed along the route which they had come.

Stopping only for a few seconds to re-mark their scent, they ran tirelessly past where they had killed the steenbok, straight back to that fallen log. There, they once more scent marked before returning to the exact same spot where we had first seen the single dog crossing the road! The 6km outbound journey had taken one and a half hours, whereas the journey back had taken just 15 minutes – an excellent display of the distance and speed Wild Dogs are able to notch up in such short time.

We were greeted with 13 other pack members waiting patiently for their trusted scouts to return. After a lovable greeting ritual between the intrepid trio and the pack, they all started moving toward the nearby waterhole. Surprisingly, no meat was regurgitated for the rest of the group, which is more often than not the case when members return from a hunt, making the jaunt that we just witnessed even more puzzling.

At the waterhole, the energetic sub-adult pups took to chasing each another around in circles for nearly an hour, first around the water, but soon the water became too much of a temptation and the small stream feeding the waterhole became a hive of activity (not sure what this sentence means as the piece doesn’t say that the dogs drank, swam or interacted with the water in any way?)

Like playful children, they frolicked around bushes and termite mounds, while some embarked on a game of hide and seek, finding cover behind and even under our vehicles. Needless to say, we grabbed the rare opportunity to capture close-up photographs of these beautiful, critically endangered painted dogs.

It was interesting, and slightly human in some ways, that the Alpha male and female assumed their most important duty, standing sentinel on raised ground, watching for possible threats to the care-free puppies.

After a sighting that lasted more than three and a half hours, we returned to camp, to take stock of the amazing moments we had just spent with one of the most endangered animals on our continent, an animal that could so easily disappear from the landscape, like many before it, were it not for the tireless efforts of those who look after the last of Africa’s wild places.