Trailing the Elusive African Wild Dog

August 27, 2015 Updated: August 27, 2015

We stopped in our tracks and counted the dogs. Ten. Fifteen. Over twenty, someone shouted. The pack sprinted through the woods, snarling and howling. They galloped at well over 45 kilometres an hour, a blur of black and tan fur that dappled the space between jackalberry and sausage trees. White-tipped tails swung behind them like feathery pompoms. 

I scrambled for my camera, but they were gone before I could focus.

Name Dihoro, our guide, revved the engine, and sped in the direction the dogs were headed. His Land Cruiser grunted and groaned over tall pampas grass, thorny scrub, and dry, mopane woodlands. We barrelled over saplings and ducked under leafy branches that swung thru our open game drive vehicle. Dihoro plowed through a marshy pool that swelled from the Land Cruiser’s weight. Water skimmed the top of the doors. What if we get stuck, I wondered.

There was a mutual cooperation and sharing among these predators I hadn’t expected. 

We were on a photo safari in the private Linyanti Wildlife Reserve in Botswana, a landlocked country in southern Africa. Feeder rivers from Angola’s highlands, 1,000 miles north, and shifting fault lines have sliced channels, carved lagoons, and cracked open grassland marshes in a futile quest to empty into the ocean. The result: a region of riverine forests and unusual watercourses located northeast of the iconic Okavango Delta.

‘It’s Rare to See Them’

Late April rains had made everything lush green. Even the sand sparkled like emeralds. A warm breeze carried the pleasant scent of muddy waters, bark, and wild sage. It’s no wonder big game and predators thrive here. I longed to see elephants, hippos, leopards, and lions. 

But it was the African wild dogs that Dihoro was eager to show us. 

“They’re highly intelligent and very social,” he said, speeding past photogenic giraffes, baboons, and springbok. “Fewer than 7,000 left. They’re close to extinction in some areas. It’s rare to see them even where they are known to roam.”

Had I really travelled over 8,000 miles just to see some scruffy-looking dogs? When I was growing up, my family had an open-door policy toward mangy, orphaned animals that found their way to us. We adopted a series of feral cats, parakeets, bunnies, chicks, an abused mutt, and a shy, sweet-tempered, white German Shepherd. Before long, they all transformed into adored pets. 

But this pack of dogs I had just seen looked programmed to kill whatever crossed their path. I realized I needed my wild animals to at least appear as if they could be warm and cuddly. 

While human encroachment on the African wild dog habitat has been the leading cause of their dwindling numbers, Dihoro explained, they have also been shot and poisoned for raiding farm animals. Oftentimes, however, the real culprits were hyenas or lions.

Dihoro navigated around a bend and we spotted a lone dog on the road in front of us. From a distance, he resembled a domestic dog. Up close, he looked like the painted wolf of his Latin name translation, Lycaon pictus—colourful coat, massive jaws, a pair of large, satellite-dish ears, an inquisitive gaze. 

We noticed a thick paste of mud coating his long legs. He stared far off to the left, and then swivelled right, snout pointed skyward, as if tuning in to surrounding smells and sounds. His face and chest were smeared with fresh blood. 

“He’s probably taken down an animal and is trying to gather the other pack members to feed on it,” Dihoro whispered.

He ran off. We followed.

The Gory Stuff

I braced myself for the inevitable. African wild dogs are known to disembowel their victims, tearing out the organs while they’re still alive and standing, further alienating them from human affection. The pack devours the kill and consumes it in minutes, partly to prevent freeloaders like hyenas from stealing it. I hoped that by the time we found the dogs the gory stuff would be over.

I was on safari to remind myself I was once a child with a passion for animals, but grown-up ambitions had steered me on the daily office routine. For decades, I chose to live, work and even vacation in some of the world’s great cities. My relationship with nature had devolved into swatting mosquitos on summer evenings.

But as time sprints forward, I prefer to loosen my boundaries. I travel farther now, and to more remote places. Wandering off to the ends of the world, observing the secret lives of wildlife, particularly those considered endangered, offers me a sense of adventure and a renewed belief in the majesty of life.

The sound of yapping and yelping dogs pierced the morning silence. Dihoro maneuvered the Land Cruiser slowly around a thicket, and a frenzy of flying fur and gnashing teeth flashed into view. A dozen or so dogs hunched over an impala carcass, tearing off the last shreds of meat from its rib cage. 

Some of the smaller dogs were diving between the bigger ones to access the feast. Off to the side, a couple of older dogs regurgitated their meals into the mouths of whining pups. There was a mutual cooperation and sharing among these predators I hadn’t expected. 

In their enthusiasm, they shuffled the remains of the antelope against the Land Cruiser’s wheels. Every now and then a dog would glance up into the vehicle, panting, with the mania that comes from hunger not yet satisfied. One of them locked eyes with mine. No interest whatsoever.

When they were done, all that remained of the impala were its head—eyes wide open—horns, and a grisly skeleton. The dogs finally quieted down, sated. 

I pulled out my notebook and jotted “African wild dogs” on my list of endangered animals I deeply care about.

Giannella M. Garrett writes about travel and culture and is working on her first children’s book.