The power of a pack

Sabi Sand | October 2020

It was a rather cool midweek spring morning. I didn’t have guests and so decided to go scouting to give a helping hand to the few guides who were heading out that morning. Some decided to work the western parts of the property while others headed to the southern central parts. I decided to cross north over the Sand River to try and expand the search area. I spent the better part of the morning working in the north without any real luck in finding something for our guests to see. I had just decided to start heading back towards our prominent river crossing when a call from one of our neighbours broke over the radio, announcing that a pack of African wild dogs, or as I prefer to call them, painted wolves, were making their way to our side. I was a fair distance from where they were heading but decided to turn in that direction as this would indeed be a sighting worth establishing for the other guides and their guests.

I meandered my way across the property for a good 10 minutes, constantly thinking about the pack’s movements and where I could potentially locate them. Coming up over a marula and bushwillow crest towards a large dam, the distinct shades of charcoal black and brilliant whites, mingled with the warm shades of chestnut, came into view on the opposite side of the dam. It was the seven pups of the Othawa Pack who were joyfully playing in and around the water’s edge, chasing the local Egyptian geese pair and harassing the very vocal blacksmith lapwings. The adults had left the pups to enjoy the dam while they went off to fulfil the important task of hunting and later providing food for the pups. However, unbeknown to the pups was the presence of a clan of five spotted hyenas standing only 20 m away watching the pups go about their playful activities. This spelt immediate danger for the pups as they would be of absolutely no match to even a single hyena, let alone five. Uncharacteristically though the hyenas kept their distance, probably unsure as to whether the adults were present or not.

This was a smart move on their part as five minutes later the first of the adult painted wolves appeared on the opposite side of the dam. Soon there were eight of the twelve adults and they paused for a moment, watching the pups play before one noticed the lingering hyenas. The hyenas noticed the arrival of the adults at the same time and it was if they knew they were now in serious trouble as they instantly turned and ran like their lives depended on it. In turning back towards the direction of the adult painted wolves all that I saw was flashes of colouration as they launched themselves past the vehicle towards the fleeing hyenas. It was one of those moments where you would’ve missed it if you blinked. In an instant the pack had cornered an adult male hyena and launched a full-on attack. The sounds were absolutely incredible. Distressed, defensive yelps and squeals mixed with the high pitched, frenzied chattering of the pack sent shivers down my spine. The attack went on for a few minutes before the pack were satisfied that their message had been delivered.

The hyena was left with rather serious wounds and the pack returned to the pups a stronger group. The adults then proceeded to regurgitate the remains of a successful kill for the pups and some proceeded to join the pups in playing in the water. Watching these animals work as a unit to ensure the safety of their young really tugged on my own human emotions. It is a sighting I’ll never forget.