Taking the plunge – is it worth it?

Sabi Sand | February 2017

People often discuss the topic of predator success rate and how often predators need to eat. There is not really a single definite answer to the question about how often predators eat, and sometimes a rather vague response like “whenever they get the opportunity” might be the safest and most appropriate. For example, if a leopard has stashed a carcass in a tree, it might feed on that carcass three or four times a day, until that food source is finished. It is eating frequently because it has the opportunity to do so. That does not mean, however, that a leopard always eats three or four times a day. There will inevitably be times when that leopard is unsuccessful in its hunting attempts for a few consecutive days, and it might not eat anything substantial at all for those few days.

What is fairly widely accepted, however, is that of the five large species of mammalian carnivores found in this area (hyena, lion, leopard, cheetah and wild dog), the species which has the highest percentage of success in its hunting attempts is the wild dog. The relative success rates of the five super-predators varies significantly, from region to region, season to season, and from one predatory unit to another.

Reasons for wild dogs having such great success in their hunts are multiple, and include the fact that they possess not only great speed, but also far greater stamina than the big cats. They are very intelligent and usually operate in fairly large packs, with pack members working together as a team in running down and pulling down their quarry. Generally speaking, the wild dogs are the most likely of the five to succeed in a hunting attempt.

So what do the prey species do, in order to somehow survive a hunting attempt from a pack of wild dogs? While a herd of impala will quite often watch a leopard or a pride of lions moving through an open clearing, sometimes even following the big cats to keep visual contact with the danger source, when wild dogs are moving into the area, they need to employ a different tactic. They usually leave the area as hastily as they can, sometimes without even giving the alarm snorts that accompany the “predator fascination” that they experience with leopards or lions. Often impalas will resort to a motion pattern known as “stotting,” in which they perform an exaggerated “rocking-horse” type of bounding, often seen in play. While this stotting is commonly simply a game among the members of a herd of impala (and they clearly seem to enjoy it) it could sometimes be a desperate and successful tactic to avoid being caught by the wild dogs. The impalas, though very fast and fit, do not have the speed or stamina to consistently outrun the wild dogs over a long distance. The stotting motion, however, does seem to mesmerise the wild dogs, and many a time I have seen impalas come bounding towards or past my vehicle, with eyes very wide, as they flee from the menacing predators. Although the stotting might not be the fastest type of running that impalas can do, it does seem to be the most effective under these circumstances.

Another tactic which prey animals will sometimes employ when being chased by wild dogs, is to plunge into a large body of water. Three times recently I witnessed, or at least partly witnessed, this behaviour, and all
three were clearly measures of great desperation on the part of the animal being chased. On the first occasion, which was during a morning game drive, five members of a pack of wild dogs chased a large male bushbuck along the banks of the Sand River, just upstream of Ebony Lodge, towards a vehicle crossing point, known as Pios Crossing. This was during the drought, and the overall level of the Sand River was very low. However, there was a fairly deep pool just upstream of Pios Crossing, which had become a very popular spot for a very large number of hippopotami. The wild dogs chased this bushbuck at great speed towards the crossing. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that the bushbuck’s choice of flight (escape) was to run directly towards the crossing, and the dogs were in hot pursuit.

There were many hippos in the pool and to many people’s surprise, the bushbuck, without a moment’s hesitation, plunged directly into the pool, right among all the hippos! Understandably the hippos were quite indignant about having their rest so rudely interrupted in this manner, but the bushbuck was not stopping to do any explaining! The wild dogs stopped suddenly at the water’s edge, quite bewildered, but it was clear that they were not going to leap into the mob of angry hippos. The bushbuck ram, meanwhile, had not slowed down even slightly, and bounded through the confused hippos and out on the other side of the river, making good his escape! I don’t know how much thought went into the bushbuck’s choice of escape, but whatever the case, it worked! My opinion is that the fact that there were so many hippos present probably counted in the bushbuck’s favour.

The second occasion was also during a morning game drive. One of my colleagues gave an update on the radio, that he had just found a large pack of wild dogs close to Joe’s Dam, which is a rather attractive waterhole a short distance to the south of the Singita airstrip. The dogs had chased a male impala into this waterhole, and had now surrounded it. As I was not far from the area, I drove directly to Joe’s Dam to join the sighting, and this is what was happening: the male impala was right in the middle of the water, which was about shoulder-deep on the impala. Several of the adult wild dogs were pacing around, clearly intent on the impala, but not keen to go into the water to try to get him. The wild dog pups, meanwhile, were engaged in games of “tag” with each other, clearly content to entertain themselves while leaving the adults to go about trying to secure the meal. I felt for the impala, which showed tremendous resolve and courage by staying put in the middle of the waterhole. Sometimes the adult wild dogs would seem to be losing interest, and would look to settle in the shade on the banks. When they did this, the impala sometimes made his way towards the shore, at a point furthest from the dogs. The dogs were restless, however, and each time the impala did this, at least one of the dogs would make its way round to be in a position to “meet” the impala and deal with any attempt at escape! It seemed like a little bit of a “stalemate” situation, and my guests were ready to move on, so we left the sighting after an intriguing 45 minutes. The end result was probably fairly predictable, and was witnessed by one of my colleagues and his guests. The impala evidently made the decision to leave its rather unfamiliar “sanctuary” and head for dry land, but as it approached the water’s edge, the waiting dogs pulled it onto land and into thickets, where it was quickly pulled apart and devoured.

The third occasion was at the end of January and was during an afternoon game drive. We were just about to stop for a sundowner break, a stretch of legs and something to drink, when we received news that a
pack of wild dogs had been found at Mhlwareni Dam, east of the central parts of Singita Sabi Sand. Again, they had chased a male impala into this waterhole, and had surrounded it.

The impala was behaving in a fairly similar manner to the one which had been in Joe’s Dam, and the dogs were all around, looking intent. A pair of Egyptian geese added to the drama, paddling around the middle of the water hole, the female honking and the male hissing, neither of them keen to venture close to the edge. As dusk was already upon us, and the impala was seemingly anxious to spend his night on dry land, it became evident that something was bound to happen quite soon.

Indeed, something did happen pretty quickly. The impala made his way towards the dam wall, and when he was only a few meters from the edge, one of the adult dogs plunged right into the water, swam swiftly to the front of the impala, grabbed him by the neck and started to pull him to the edge! It all happened quite swiftly from that point, as the unfortunate impala was dragged under a dense bush between the water and the dam wall, and was devoured at speed. For a while this activity was difficult to see, but later on the carcass was dragged more out into the open and consumed by the hungry pack.

Thinking back on all of these cases, my conclusion is that in each case, the antelope deliberately plunged into the water, hoping in desperation that the wild dogs would be reluctant to follow. It certainly seems true that wild dogs are reluctant to plunge into water, presumably because of a fear of the possibility of crocodiles. In the case of the bushbuck, his tactic worked, but I think the fact that he plunged in among the hippos was what actually worked in his favour. Maybe it was a crazy and desperate decision, but it worked, and he survived. In the case of the two impala rams, however, they probably sealed their own fate to a large extent. By being stationary in the muddy-bottomed waterhole, the impala would have placed themselves in a position of weakness, as they would no longer have had any kind of “head start.” Perhaps if they hadn’t plunged into the water, they would still have been caught, possibly much sooner, so in effect the plunge into the water might have extended their lives by a number of minutes, in reality just delaying the inevitable. Of course, we will never know, but I do have great admiration and respect for both predator and prey – in the wild, it is all about survival!