Words Trevor Carnaby, pics Chad Cocking
The sixth photographic census of wild dogs will be conducted in Kruger National Park from August 2014 to April 2015, along with the fourth for cheetahs. Wild dogs are the rarest of the park’s large carnivores, their low densities and wide-ranging behaviour making them particularly difficult to count. Which is where you can help.
Visitors are requested to submit detailed sighting information of wild dogs in Kruger along with full body and side profile photos, which researchers use to identify individuals from their unique coat patterns. In the 2009 census data was collected from 8 458 photographs and 441 sightings. Email sightings to [email protected] Project updates are regularly posted on Twitter @KNPWildDogs.
The Kruger National Park has the only viable population of wild dogs in South Africa and is a stronghold for wild dog conservation on the continent. There is currently no other protected area of sufficient size to sustain another viable population in the country. The south of the park has higher densities of wild dogs than the north.
Despite the irregular blotchy colouring, which looks like they are cross-breed domesticated dogs, wild dogs are a naturally evolved wild species that has maintained its current form for at least a few hundred thousand years. The misguided belief that they are feral has led to their persecution and, until recently, they were treated as vermin. These long-limbed hunters richly deserve recognition as a vital link in the ecosystem. They keep small-to-medium-sized antelope populations in check and in a healthy state by methodically removing inferior individuals.
Dogs are generally more efficient predators than cats. They grab small prey and give the so-called death-shake, violently shaking the small animal with rapid side-to-side movements of the head. This usually breaks the neck or back of the creature. Larger prey is run to exhaustion and taking it down involves a different tactic. One dog sometimes holds onto the snout or lips and twists, forcing the animal’s head down and effectively limiting its defence. This tactic is especially useful when horns are involved. The prey is quickly disembowelled and dies from shock and blood loss. Death is usually quick and hopefully numbed by adrenaline. Wild dogs probably have the highest success rate of all large African carnivores.
Although wild dogs have excellent night vision, they do not often hunt in the dark, because darkness is not conducive to their hunting technique of running prey down. Moonlit nights are sometimes an exception. Obstacles at night are a serious risk and they would also face stiff competition from hyenas, lions and possibly leopards. They do sometimes trail the big cats, particularly leopards, in an effort to snatch an easy meal in the form of scraps. But in general they prefer to procure fresh kills, tending to steer clear of carrion, anxious to avoid potential enemies.
Their very fast metabolism makes it necessary to feed often, sometimes more than once a day. Wild dogs can finish a carcass within minutes. This is probably an adaptation that gives other predators less time to steal the kill and also ensures enough food is consumed to feed the other members of the pack at the den. When you think about it, carrying food in the stomach is a guaranteed way of getting it back to the den without it being stolen.
When they get back to the den there is much excitement as the pups jump up against the adult dogs, whimpering and nipping at their lips and mouths. This is the signal to regurgitate some of the food from the kill, which is eagerly snapped up by the puppies, then by the other dogs. During the rest of the year all members of the pack are highly mobile and nomadic, and regurgitation on demand occurs for individuals who were on the hunt but got little or no food. This specialised behaviour ensures survival of all members. For wild dogs, survival depends on pack strength rather than individual strength.
Hearing The big ears of wild dogs indicate the importance of hearing, not only for communication and the detection of predators, but also for finding food. The position and movement of the big, conspicuous ears communicate mood and intent between members of the species.
Patches Wild dogs have darkish bodies with a lot of black and a highly visible white contrasting patch at the end of the tail. This allows the cubs to see the beacon clearly. White is generally a warning signal in the wild and causes animals to become alert. Like most predators, they also have black or white markings at the back of the ears that act as following mechanisms and can be manipulated for visual expression.
Emigration The pack breaks up once the maximum number of individuals that can survive without stress in a given habitat is reached. As conditions fluctuate, stable sub-units split and merge. Sometimes younger individuals leave the social unit to seek breeding opportunities, either of their own accord or because they are pushed out. In the case of the African wild dog, it is the female who leaves in the hope of breeding opportunities.
Dens Wild dogs den down for about three months of every year, the alpha female having up to 16 pups. ‘Minders’ are often left on guard at dens to ensure the safety of the pups. Alarm calls by the adults alert youngsters to danger when they are exploring outside the den. They react by immediately dashing below ground.
Extracted from Beat About the Bush: Mammals by Trevor Carnaby. Jacana, 2012.
Source: Wild Magazine