Africa Guide
Guide to Africa

Safari, So Good: Botswana's Wild Dogs

Written by Steve Brynes - The Safari Advisor

Experts believe that fewer than 5,000 African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus, commonly known also as the Cape hunting dog or the painted hunting dog) currently exist in the wild, and their range has declined from 33 to 15 countries. Typically living in packs of 2 to 30 individuals led by a dominant male and female, the largest populations now exist in Botswana, Zimbabwe and Tanzania. Northern Botswana supports approximately 700 to 800 wild dogs, one of only four populations containing more than an estimated 250 to 300 dogs in the whole of Africa. The Okavango Delta, where our camp (Sandibe Safari Lodge) was located, and surrounding areas support healthy populations of all African large carnivores and the wild dog population of northern Botswana is the largest remaining unprotected African wild dog population on the continent. Story by Steve Brynes


Botswana's African Wild Dogs
Botswana's African Wild Dogs

The radio call came in about 5:30, an hour before sundown. Sage, our driver and guide, turned to us and, with an obvious excited edge to his voice, said, "Another car has sighted the impala running. They are being hunted, perhaps by wild dogs. Let's try to find them." Hearing this, Carlos, our tracker, moved from his foldable seat on the front bumper into the 4x4 landrover, a precaution he followed whenever we neared predators. And our hearts beat faster at the prospect of seeing one of the African continent's most endangered animals.

A half hour later, after innumerable bounces and jostles as we rode over Botswana's rutted, sandy roads or through the tall grasslands that marked the end of the rainy season (late March), we broke out onto the middle of Chitabe airstrip. Sage turned around once again and apologized, "I'm sorry. We have seen nothing; perhaps now, before it becomes too dark, is a good time to stop for a drink and a snack."

As Sage repositioned the vehicle to the end of the dirt airstrip I tried to reassure my wife, "Don't be disheartened. This is Africa and animals, even elephants and giraffes, can almost miraculously appear and disappear in the blink of an eye. You just never know when you'll have a great sighting."

While Sage prepared our safari "tea," Carlos checked a nearby bush and pronounced it safe for personal use, the cue my wife and I had waited for. As my wife paced back and forth assessing the covering power of the bush from every angle, I began to tend to nature. No sooner had I begun than I spotted a pack of dogs gliding ghost-like across the airstrip in the fading daylight. Thrilled to near carelessness, I jumped from the bush yelling to Sage, "Dogs, dogs!" all the while zipping up. (Safari tip: Zip first, then jump from bush to alert guides.)

Sage instructed us to return to the vehicle immediately so we could try to follow the dogs. As we dashed back, my wife trailed, lamenting, "But I didn't get to go!" A clear case of you snooze you lose, safari style.

No sooner had we piled into the landrover than Sage sped headlong into the tall grass, more in an attempt to intersect with the pack than to follow it. Within 2 minutes, Sage brought the vehicle to a stop, pointed about 20 feet to our left and whispered with a mixture of subdued pride and reverence, "There are the wild dogs with their kill."

African Wild Dog pack on a kill
African Wild Dog pack on a kill

We had come upon a pack of seven dogs that had taken down an impala. About the size of a German shepherd, the dogs have long legs, large ears and mottled fur of browns, black and white. Two aspects of the dogs' behavior became immediately apparent. First, they ate at a remarkable speed, the carcass disappearing rapidly as we watched. Second, this was no feeding frenzy, but rather an organized and well defined scene, characteristic of the dogs' feeding style. We noticed that upon completing their meal, the first two dogs to eat immediately left the impala to set up a perimeter some 10 feet away, on guard for hyenas that were sure to arrive.

Indeed, when the pack finished and departed, we noticed hyenas skulking in the heavy dusk towards the kill spot. Sage moved our vehicle and from a short distance, we soon could hear the crunching of bones as the scavengers went to work.

At about 5 pm of the following evening's game ride, with the sun still fairly strong, we discovered a second pack of four dogs lying helter-skelter in the thick grass under several trees. Other than occasionally lifting their heads to peer curiously at us intruders, the dogs laid still, conserving energy for the upcoming hunt. Finally, thirty minutes later, the alpha female arose, nuzzled each pack member onto its feet, and then led the pack off at speed.

Sage was unable to track the smaller pack and at about 6:00, he stopped for our evening tea. As we stretched our legs and enjoyed the spectacular African sunset, with breathtakingly colorful displays both in the western and eastern (from reflection) skies, a herd of impala tore across the plain about 200 yards from us. Some five minutes later we saw the pack of seven dogs from the previous evening appear out of heavy grass.

The pack fanned out and, surprisingly, moved deliberately and inexorably straight for us. Someone mentioned that in recorded history, there were no confirmed reports of wild dogs attacking humans. I couldn't help remembering Bill Murray's line from "Caddyshack" and thought, "At least we've got that going for us." Sage must have had similar thoughts, because, as the lead dog got to within 15-20 feet of us, he suggested, "They are just curious about us, but you may want to consider climbing into the car."

Just then the group edged around us and, as it did so, a noise in the grass behind them, probably caused by a Springhare (rabbit), prompted the pack to yelp and scatter. The tension broke, we laughed, a bit nervously really, and Sage explained that dogs, when startled, run first and investigate later.

African Wild Dog
African Wild Dog

At dinner that night, Sandibe's visitors and staff were abuzz over the wild dog sightings. The manager of the camp marveled, "You just don't understand. We go very, very long periods without seeing a pack. If people told me they'd seen two packs and a kill in the space of two days, I would have a hard time believing it. Even when we encounter a pack, we don't expect to see them the following day because they move so quickly and cover vast amounts of territory. Consider yourselves extremely lucky."

In fact, we knew we were fortunate. Once, African wild dogs numbered in the hundreds of thousands and were common in virtually every environment in southern Africa except rain forests and deserts. But human encroachment has drastically reduced their range and their numbers. They have been widely regarded as pests; consequently, they've been poisoned, shot, and trapped in many areas. Perhaps their most serious threat, though, is introduced diseases. Burgeoning human populations have brought the African wild dogs into frequent contact with domestic dogs, many of which carry canine distemper, parvovirus and rabies. These diseases are ravaging the wild packs.

That final night at Sandibe we counted our lucky stars. And under the pitch Botswanan sky, with the Southern Cross and the Milky Way ablaze, it added up to immeasurable good fortune.

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