The main objective of going to Botswana on my last Africa trip was to witness something that few people will ever see in the wild: the African Hunting Dog in action. The Lagoon Camp in Kwando Reserve in the extreme north of Botswana is one of the absolutely premier places to observe the endangered African Wild Dog (Lycaon pictus).
The African Wild Dog is in trouble; the reasons are many. For a start wild dogs are rare and increasingly under pressure from humans often killed in wire snares set by poachers, or killed by unenlightened game farmers. However, Lions are also one of the major causes of adult wild dog and pup mortality, and the Wild Dog is now the most endangered carnivore in Africa with total numbers estimated at only around 5,000 individuals.
Over a period of 7 days I observed the Wild Dogs 4 times, and the last 2 days I was fortunate so see 2 hunts/kills from the beginning to the end, a unique but bloody experience.
A typical wild dong hunt is preceded by a boisterous rally, which continues until all dogs are ready and prepared for hunting. Once rallied, the pack sets out. Owing to their good stamina wild dogs do not rely on ambush hunting, instead, the pack fans out and pursues at speed. With a top speed of 60 kilometres per hour they are often out-run initially, but over a distance of several kilometres the exhausted prey is run down.
The beautiful and plentiful Impala (Aepyceros melampus) is the preferred prey of African wild dogs and constitute up to 80 per cent of the food of the Wild dogs in Botswana.
Photographing the Wild Dog is easier said than done. The home range of one single pack can exceed the area of Singapore (700 square kilometres), so locating the pack can be a challenge. Once you have found the pack, the immediate problem is to follow them hunting. I had a most experienced guide/driver and a tracker using a South African built ‘Desert Runner” a completely open 4×4, which is the only vehicle that can withstand the punishment of driving off road in these conditions.
My equipment consisted of Nikon D3s, D700, Nikon 600mm VR f/4, 300mm VRII f/2.8, 70-200mm VRII f/2.8 – and a much used beanbag. Lighting conditions were often a challenge, and most images have been taken at 3200 ISO, but some at 6400 ISO.
The pack consisted of one alpha male and female, 9 other non-breeding adults, and 9 youngsters 8 months old. One the first day when we sighted the pack, they were resting, and when dark was setting in, it became obvious that no hunting would take place that afternoon.
On the following day I could see that the pack was much more active, and all the off-spring was also getting excited. For more that half an hour we followed the pack at high speed, me trying to hold on to two camera bodies with 600mm and 300mm lenses, as well as to the seat (one partly successful). As the wild dogs spread out to cover a bigger area, you never know where the kill is going to be, and in this case we arrived late to the murder scene, as literaly there were on some blood, bones, and hide left of the impala.
On the 3rd day late in the afternoon it was soon clear that an other hunt would take place, but again this time, in spite of solid efforts by our guide and driver, I only arrived late at the scene, but we did watch the young offspring chasing each other – one of holding the head of the killed impala as a kind of trophy.
At this time I was getting concerned whether I would get enough quality images of hunding wild dogs, as I had only one more day!
But our guide Bali did not let me down. After a 20 minutes race through the bush, where I was really hanging on to my dear life (and cameras), we arrived just when it all was happening, 3 adult wild dogs were holding down one impala, which mercifully died almost imediately.
The next images are bloody and grusome so if this is not your scene, don’t scroll down any further.
In order not to attract hyenas and lions, the wild dogs are very careful not to puncture the stomach, which could alert these bigger preditors having a keen selse of smell. From start to finish it took the pack exactly 13 minutes to consume the hapless impala and in the end there was only skin and bones left.
Their cooperative hunting is probably the main reason why the Wild Dog is the most efficient hunter in terms of kills to hunting attempts:
Wild dogs 44%
Spotted Hyenas 35%
Have seen one of natures most dramatic event at very close range, was a game changing experience for me, and one that makes you more aware that we are all only a small part of a big universe.
The Desert Runner 4 x 4 is able to take more punishment that most other off-roaders, it is build in South Africa, and must be the most unconfortable vehichle ever devised by man, but it did the job, and I managed to get images that most people have never seen before.
Nothing beats a mud spa at the end of a hard day’s work!
Did you know: the African wild dog’s scientific name ‘Lycaon pictus’ means ‘painted wolf’ and refers to the animals coat of many shades and colours. Each dog can be recognised from its unique patterning.