Wild about Wild Dogs

Posted by on Apr 20, 2013 in Articles

Wild about Wild dogsThere’s a distinct crispness in the early morning Botswana air. Wrapped-up in my layers of warmth, I peer over the door at a sandy patch beyond. There’s no movement, no noise, just the warm rays of the morning sun, as it climbs up into the expansive sky, illuminating the dapples around deserted hole. The quietness is shattered by the cry of the odd fish eagle and grunt from a nearby hippo pod. A white-headed vulture lands on a tree and focuses on the hole below.  Apart from that, the sandy hole remains calm. 

Wild dog pack usually comprises a dominant pair, the alpha male and female, together with subordinate adults and sub-adults from previous years’ litters. Generally, only the alpha pair breeds, and the rest of the pack contributes to their raising of the offspring. This involves defending and seeing off intruders, keeping the den clean to avoid odours that might attract other predators and helping to feed the alpha female during her confinement. This morning, the injured alpha female is at the den but lying out of sight.

The location of the current Selinda packs den site is unusual one. Normally, as the pregnant female nears full term, the pack seeks a suitable den site – sometimes one they used in previous years. (The norm is a discarded termite mound that has been adapted by either an aardvark or other burrowing animal) However, just prior to giving birth the female injured her left fore-leg. Could this be the reason for her odd choice of den?  A single hole in a vast flood plain without much cover? Could the carefully chosen sandy, soft type burrow be that the female was under immense pressure to find a suitable den which was both comfortable for the pups and her injured leg?

Time passes and I’m about to nod off when I’m alerted by the heavy flapping – the vultures takes off and disappears through the tree line. “A good sign”, I mutter to Dux, my friend and private guide. “I bet you those dogs have just made a kill”. 

Most days, it’s typical for a pack to hunt both at first light and last light, particularly while they are raising pups.  Assuming they have made a kill, dogs will consume quickly and carry the meat back to feed the pups and other pack members that did not participate in the hunt. And it’s this event I am pinning my hopes on.

And as if on cue a subordinate dog returns.  Her blood soaked face and neck evidence of a successful hunt. A frenzy of activity ensues and within seconds, the hole comes alive and nine bundles of yelping joy come barrelling out of their hiding place. Yelping and squealing the pups mob the returning hunters, begging for meat to be regurgitated by licking and nipping at their mouths. The excitement is intense and not restricted alone to the pups as they begin to feed the mother as well.  Perpetually hungry, wild dog pups are weaned on meat that has been eaten at kills and is regurgitated on demand. Its part and parcel and a very important role of growing up. The sense of communal responsibility makes wild dogs amongst the most social of all large carnivores, even more so than lions which are feared by wild dogs as they kill their pups.

Today, wild dogs are an Endangered species and the north-eastern region of Botswana has one of the largest populations of wild dogs and is one of the best places to view them. Most wild dog pups are born in winter, between May and June when herbivore prey tends to congregate at waterholes.  It’s an excellent time for wild dog viewing, the bush is dry and thinning out and the pack should remain in the same location for up to three months. Born blind in a den below the ground, they underground remain for the first four weeks of life. When the pups are about four weeks old, they emerge into the real world and are slowly weaned, a process that involves every member of the pack.

Today, dog dens are a rarity. To encounter first-hand the fun and amusement provided by wild dogs outside a den is a privilege. Constantly on the go, pups chase, tackle and wrestle each other outside of the den. The pack is the cornerstone of wild dog society and play reinforces important bonds between its members. The constant social contact and interaction serves to reinforce ties between pack members, something that, given the importance of the pack in wild dog society, is vital for their success, both as individuals and as a species.

So absorbed am I in this phenomenal event, I’m unaware of the vulture who’s returned, casually sitting overhead eyeing precariously for any left overs. Soon the pack retreats to the shade where they will spend the rest of the day relaxing. It’s time to give them their space and we leave the den. Another magical day in Africa  and Selinda Reserve.

So if you are in for an exhilarating game viewing experience, join me in August 2013 at Selinda Reserve for a once-in-a-life time wild dog encounter.

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