In discussions about the African wildlife, there’s usually a rush to gush about the big five. The talks go on and on about the majesty of the lion, the doggedness of the buffalo, the cunning of the hyena, and the brute strength of the elephant, among others. There, however, exist several animals, equally as interesting if not more, that don’t enjoy the spotlight as much as these iconic beasts. The African wild dog is one of them.
As one who loves animals, I have seen only less than five documentaries my whole life (and that’s taking into consideration my enthusiasm for and interest in wildlife). A lot of people have probably seen less, some nothing at all. They don’t get talked about much, maybe because they do not command the respect that the likes of the roaring majestic beasts, you’ve always admired, do. But trust me, they are special in their own way. Perhaps a number of you will read this article and leave here with a greater sense of admiration for these beasts.
The African wild dog, also known as the hunting dog, Cape hunting dog, painted wolf or painted dog, is a member of the canid family (Canidae). Contrary to what the name may suggest, African wild dogs are not descendants of some subspecies of dogs that became feral at some point in history. They are from a separate species and distinct members of the canid family (with various subspecies unique to different geographical locations in Africa). They are the largest native canids in Africa. Other members of the canid family are the wolves, dogs, coyotes, jackals, and so on. Subspecies of African wild dogs include the Cape wild dog, the West African wild dog, the East African wild dog, Chadian wild dog, and the Somali wild dog. Each of these subspecies exhibit variation in their fur patterns and their sizes, among others.
Below are some facts about African wild dogs that will blow your mind:
Each individual has its distinct fur pattern:
The African wild dog (regardless of the subspecies) has a very slender body covered in patches of orange/yellow/brown, white and black colours. These colours occur in various patterns unique to each individual. These patterns are so distinct and unique to each of them that even humans can tell each dog apart from fair distances, making it easy to study each individual in the wild. No two individuals have the same fur pattern.
They live in closely knit packs with complex relationships:
African wild dogs are highly intelligent and social animals that live in closely-knit packs with complex relationships and possess a range of vocalization, more than the average canid. An alpha male and female, a mating pair, lead each dog pack. The right to birth pups is exclusively theirs. Very, very rarely, will another female apart from the alpha female birth pups. In these cases, the alpha female may kidnap the pups and raise them as hers or perhaps kill them in some cases. A typical pack comprises 10-20 individuals (although packs of almost 100 individuals have been recorded, back when they were still numerous). It included the alpha pair, their siblings and the alphas’ pups. Everyone looks out for each other in a pack. Raising the pups of the alpha female is every adult’s responsibility. This family system is very similar to that of their North American relatives, the wolves.
Hypercarnivores are carnivores that eat only fresh meat. They do not scavenge. As a result, they need to hunt frequently. African wild dogs usually hunt medium-sized ungulates, although, occasionally, they may take on larger prey. Other canids like the bush dog and the dhole fall into the hypercarnivore category. Cheetahs are also hypercarnivores.
Most efficient hunters on land:
Dragonflies may be the most badass hunters on the planet (with a greater than 90% hunting success rate), but no other animal does hunting better than these guys on land. This fact is perhaps the most interesting thing about them, and they owe this to their tremendous stamina, for the most part. If N’golo Kante had a spirit animal, it would be one of these. Every bit of the anatomy of these animals is built to run any prey to exhaustion.
Their slender bodies, the absence of a digit from their paws — the dewclaw (they are the only canids that do not have dewclaws), their large ears (for acute hearing and heat exchange), among other intricate body peculiarities, make them the ultimate, persistent, hunting machines of the African plains. Although they are capable of reaching full speeds of about 44 miles per hour, they often trot at considerably lesser speeds and keep the pace for very long distances. Some wild dogs have been known to run down prey, covering about 3-5km in the process. This hunting technique of theirs is so efficient, that success rates may be as high as 80%, easily beating even the most efficient of the big guys in Africa and beyond. Their prey rarely gets away. As funny as it sounds, you are more likely to survive a lion pride than a pack of African wild dogs. Amazing, right?
The largest litter of the canids:
A litter of African wild dogs can be as large as ten pups, on average. Unlike their other canid counterparts, they give birth to relatively more pups — more than any of them, for the record. These pups are usually cared for by the whole pack. They are typically weaned at about two weeks, after which they start to feed on regurgitated meat scraps from adults that arrive from hunts. Typically, not all the pups survive into adulthood, but a good number of them do (about 50%). These grown-up pups usually stay in the pack, until they decide to start packs of their own.
Do not do the “copulatory lock” ritual:
I am pretty sure scenes of domestic dogs locked end-to-end and facing opposite sides after mating aren’t strange to a lot of us. These weird scenarios can last for almost an hour. And they’re not the “dog” equivalent of “mágùn” as some may have erroneously thought (Like me, for example… A long time ago). The purpose of this “tie” is to boost the chances of fertilization. The truth is, they’re common to all canid species — except the African wild dog. They do not do the copulatory lock ritual after mating.
They are endangered:
Wild dogs are one of the most endangered animals in the world. The African wild dog population has dropped drastically in the last century from about half a million to about five thousand individuals. This drop is due to loss of habitat, conflict with humans and disease. Now, abodes of viable populations have been reduced to reserves in small patches of land in Southern Africa and the Southern part of Eastern Africa. Although efforts have been made to keep these populations stabilized in these reserves, some of these land areas may not keep with the highly nomadic nature of the African wild dogs if their population increases in the long run. The increasing need for land by humans is only going to make things worse. Therefore these bundles of wonders need all the help they can get to stay alive — mass sensitization, grants donated to their cause and favourable government policies, among others. It, therefore, falls on us to take action before we lose one of our most fascinating beasts. — our very own wolves.