Book Reviews, Creature Feature, Guest Blog, wildlife

Africa’s Wild Dogs: A Survival Story

I’m excited to share something a bit different with you for this blog post! We’re going beyond UK wildlife to look at a beautiful and fascinating but endangered species from further afield. Jocelin Kagan, author of Africa’s Wild Dogs: A Survival Story, is going to introduce us to one of my favourite animals, the wild dog.

Jocelin Kagan’s book Africa’s Wild Dogs: A Survival Story

Africa’s Wild Dogs: A Survival Story, shows my interaction and observations of this charismatic species over the past decade. I have been lucky enough to spend many hours watching packs of these dogs in the wild, following roaming packs, as they hunt and play as nature intended.

African Wild Dogs (Lycaon pictus) are a species that goes by many names including painted wolves, Cape hunting dogs – it doesn’t matter to me – they are beautiful, intelligent, intensely sociable and social animals.

Wild dogs are a quintessential part of Africa, as charismatic and significant as their more famous neighbours —elephants, lions, rhinos and other admired species. They are a species just as worthy of recognition, protection and conservation.

Like so many predators, they have long been persecuted and perceived as vermin by humans. Attitudes toward them are changing, but the IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, lists them as critically endangered. There are now only an estimated 6,600 wild dogs remaining across Africa.

The dogs face a multitude of threats and challenges. Lions and hyenas are the dogs’ natural competition, but climate change, poison and snares add to the conservation challenge. Finally, like all African wildlife, they are losing habitat to fragmentation, encroachment and development.

Established packs are found in just seven countries: Botswana, South Africa, Namibia, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Translocation programmes are working to re-establish populations in former habitats in countries such as Mozambique, Malawi and Gabon.

Pack size can vary, with an average of only ten individuals – this translates to just 660 packs. Every breeding season within an established or newly created pack gives hope for a better future for the dogs. Every successful litter raised is a cause for celebration.

Only one alpha female will breed per pack, and she produces just one litter a year. She can birth anything between five and 20 pups which the entire pack care for and raise. In general, there is a mortality rate of more than 50 per cent among pups. These statistics speak for themselves.

Ultimately, wild dog survival requires reserves that are large enough to be sustainable and to be able to sustain – and recreate – the necessary ecological balance of predator and prey. It also requires a big enough place in human hearts and minds – in our affections and our funding and conservation priorities.

Our appraisal of these predators needs to be taken a further step. We urgently need to appreciate that not only are they swift and skilful, smart and savvy, but important and iconic – worthy of survival.

As understanding grows, attitudes to wild dogs are starting to change, with their popularity growing on safari and in science. From 2015 to 2018, the BBC filmed wild dogs for the series Dynasties, which showed different animal species fighting for survival and the future of their families.

In my book, I have collaborated with six eminent wild dog scientists and researchers, including Nick Murray, to convey how the dog packs form and grow, hunt and migrate. Nick is a passionate advocate for the dogs and writes beautifully about his understanding and appreciation of every individual within the pack.

Painted Wolf Conservancy

When I first came to Zimbabwe’s Mana Pools Heritage Park in 1997, I embarked on a wild dog learning curve.

Collectively there were about 100 dogs living on the Mana Pools floodplain. There was no need for them to go inland. Game was plentiful and the openness of the Zambezi valley afforded them relatively easy hunting.

Mana Pools is a very special area. Unlike other parks, one does not need to be stuck in a vehicle to view the game. There is beauty in leaving the vehicle and walking with the dogs or sitting a respectful distance from them. Getting close enough gives you a completely different experience of the wildlife.

I’ve been following these dogs for 15 years now; they know me and accept me. I have been very lucky with the frequency with which I see the dogs. Not only do I get to see them regularly, I get to know each individual and their distinct characters.

What first struck me was the high level of trust the animals displayed around me. I’d say it was the dogs’ trusting nature that first attracted me to them. I am able to be relaxed with them in a way a human cannot be with any other predator. The dogs are incredibly non-confrontational, and their tolerance of humans is exceptionally high, even around the den site.

And they love to play! Once I was sitting with a pack and I waggled my hat at them. One nipped – it took the hat out of my hand and took off, playing with it. Of course, it outran me. As slow as I was by comparison, it egged me on by staying just ahead of me, before eventually dropping the hat. Walking back, I had 22 wild dogs at my heels all wanting to play ‘hat’.

It is hard to describe the feeling when you spend time on foot, up close and personal with the wild dogs. You can smell them, hear them breathing and watch the dust blow up from the ground after each breath.

When I think how tiny the pups are and how vulnerable they are to lions and even leopards, as well as hyaenas, I have to wonder how they make it in that tough environment. It is a continual battle against the odds to raise a litter and every member of the pack does their share. The cohesiveness of the pack in this struggle to survive is something to admire. Wild dogs are so special. Ironically the one species of which they are curious, non-confrontational, playful and accepting, is the very animal that has brought them to the brink of extinction: humans.”

Nick Murray, Bushlife Support Unit Trust

We have now awoken to the need to protect wild dogs, which begins with building awareness of what we are finding out about this sophisticated animal. 

These elusive, intelligent, charismatic creatures are classified as endangered on the IUCN Red List. We hope that coverage such as this will aid their conservation in the wild. This is ultimately a story of hope, that with increasing understanding, appreciation, research and funding, the dogs will once again roam the African Bushveld in an abundance of bygone days.

Jocelin Kagan is a passionate advocate for wild dogs, she has been tracking and photographing them for many years, and has been involved in international campaigns to raise funds for their conservation.

This article is from her latest book, Africa’s Wild Dogs: A Survival Story, published by Merlin Unwin Books, and is available to order online or can be ordered to your local UK bookshop. All royalties from the sale of this book go to the African Wild Dogs Survival Fund dedicated to protecting the last remaining wild populations.

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