The African wild dog or painted wolf (Lycaon pictus)

Kruger National Park | November 2017

African wild dogs are also known as Cape hunting dogs or painted wolves. The scientific name Lycaon pictus comes from the Greek word lykaios, meaning “wolf-like”, and the word “pictus” is derived from the Latin word, meaning “painted”, and refers to the blotchy black, tan and white markings all over the body.

They are medium sized predators, with a shoulder height of approximately 60-75 cm and a weight of up to 30 kg. They are similar in size to a small German shepherd dog and have beautiful mottled coats, large round ears (like Mickey Mouse) and a bushy tail that usually has a white tip. They are diurnal animals (active during the day) and have black colouration around the eyes in order to reduce glare when running during brightly lit hours. They are mainly active in the mornings and late afternoons and often rest in the shade during the heat of the day.

African wild dogs are said to be the second rarest large carnivores in Africa (the rarest large carnivore in Africa is said to be the Simien wolf, which is found in the highlands of Ethiopia). According to the I.U.C.N (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) it is estimated that there are only 6 600 African wild dogs left in the world (of which only 1 400 are adults). The main reasons for their low numbers are persecution by humans, susceptibility to dog diseases such as rabies and canine distemper, habitat destruction (and corresponding prey number reduction) and being killed by larger predators such as lions and leopards. The biggest populations of these rare creatures occur in northern Botswana and in southern Tanzania. In the Kruger National Park there are said to be only between 350 and 400 African wild dogs. Most of the wild dogs in the Kruger National Park occur in the western half of the park, where the granitic soils allow for large termite heaps, which is often where the dogs make their dens (in old aardvark burrows). We very seldom see African wild dogs on our concession, possibly only two or three times a year.

African wild dogs are extremely interesting animals. They have a strange social system, known as an Alpha-pair breeding system. In this system only one pair of the pack (the Alpha Pair) mate and the youngsters are raised by the whole pack. In most packs the males greatly outnumber females. Packs generally number between 3 and 27 individuals. In Southern Africa wild dogs usually den during the winter months (June / July). In our area the dogs only breed once a year. The Alpha female gives birth to between four and sixteen pups, after a gestation period of almost two and a half months. Female dogs usually disperse from the pack at the end of the second year, after having witnessed the raising of a litter of pups. When numbers in a pack get extremely high small groups of males may also disperse and thus start new packs.

Painted wolves are said to be the most efficient of the large hunters in Africa. It has been estimated that wild dogs are successful for about 85% of their hunts. In comparison, lions are only successful between 20 and 30% of hunts, leopards are successful between 14 and 38% of hunts and cheetahs are successful on an average of 58% of hunts (statistics quoted from BBC Wildlife Magazine). African Wild dogs prey predominantly on small to medium-sized antelope. In the Kruger Park the main prey species is impala, although wild dogs do, on occasion, kill larger antelope up to the size of female kudus and tsessebe. Cape hunting dogs typically chase down their prey. As a pack they often spread out while running through the bush, effectively “beating the bush”, causing the antelope to flee. The dogs then chase after the running antelope and start biting at the flanks and legs, often disembowelling the antelope, which then goes into a state of shock and is rapidly ripped apart by the dogs. The kill generally happens very quickly and the entire carcass is devoured within minutes of it being killed.

Wild dogs are incredibly social animals and are known to care for even the old and sick members of the pack, bringing food to them or regurgitating meat for them after the hunt.

Wild dogs are not considered to be territorial animals (although when two packs meet up there may be aggression between the two) and have extremely large home-ranges.

Painted wolves do not bark like domestic dogs, but rather have a whooping call. This call is usually heard when individuals of a pack are trying to locate other pack members, particularly when they are separated during hunting activities. Wild dogs also give off a high-pitched chittering sound particularly when greeting each other, just before going out hunting and when feeding. They may also give a short growl when surprised by other predators or humans on foot.

These animals are not considered to be particularly dangerous to humans and there have been very few records (if any) of wild dogs attacking people.