AFRICAN WILD DOGS ARE AWESOME HUNTERS

by Whit Gibbons

June 5, 2016

I knew the animals were special when I saw our safari guide take out his cellphone to photograph them. He had never seen this phenomenon himself.

I was in a Jeep with two other people near Kruger National Park in South Africa as we watched a small herd of impalas being chased by African wild dogs trying to catch their day's meal.

Painted hunting dog, another name for this distinctive carnivore, is an apt description considering the mottled coat of black, white and orange. They are the size of healthy Australian shepherd dogs and have white tails, which presumably can serve as a battle flag for those in the rear to follow during a chase.

When we arrived on the scene, a dozen or so of these daytime hunters, which make a living chasing impalas and other antelopes until they drop, had separated and surrounded one of the impalas, presumably the slowest one.

The antelope was high-kicking in defense and, although much larger than a single dog, would soon fall prey to the pack behavior. African wild dogs behave like a superorganism that is the paragon of social cooperation among mammals. A dog pack has an organized hunt, although exactly how they communicate among themselves is not clear.

African wild dogs are a separate evolutionary line from gray wolves, coyotes and domestic dogs. They have fewer teeth and toes and are different enough to be placed in a separate genus. They are listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List as endangered. Once occurring over much of sub-Saharan Africa, only 39 distinct subpopulations remain according to a recent survey. They are believed to be extinct in almost half of the African countries where they once lived.

As with most imperiled species, the major threats to the continued existence of African wild dogs are of human origin, one of the biggest problems being habitat degradation and fragmentation. These pack-hunting, long-distance runners can outlast even antelopes in a chase. But the hunt may cover many miles, thus the dogs need vast undisturbed land areas.

Lions are a major natural source of mortality among African wild dogs. But a more insidious threat arises from the spotted hyena. Hyenas will follow a dog pack that is chasing prey and then move in, robbing the dogs of their kill.

According to one calculation, a loss of only 25 percent of the dogs' food to hyena theft would more than triple their daily hunting time, which approaches the point of being physiologically untenable. Even a small loss of the normal daily food supply for a dog pack would be too costly for them to recover from.

As we watched the unfolding drama, most of the pack were standing around the Jeep watching the attack squad deal with the corralled antelope. Interestingly, wild animals in Africa, including the dogs, completely ignore safari Jeeps and their occupants, as long as no one steps out of the vehicle. No problem with that happening with this Jeep.

Then I noticed the dog farthest back had turned and was looking in the opposite direction. A second dog turned its head, and then a third. Within minutes the remaining pack of two dozen dogs had turned and were facing away from the predator-prey scene.

I looked in the direction they were staring and saw a small phalanx of spotted hyenas headed right toward them. The dogs grouped together, then suddenly, as if a leader said "charge," away they went, white tails trailing conspicuously behind.

A hyena can beat a dog one-on-one but not when an entire pack is working in unison. They dispersed the hyenas, which decided they did not want to take on this well-trained platoon. The dogs eventually returned to a meal of fresh impala.

African wild dogs can deal with hyenas. Unfortunately they are not likely to be as successful in dealing with humans. Unless we step out of the Jeep.

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