Getting to know painted wolves

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P1130882Niamh Sacramento introduces us to one of Africa’s lesser-known animals as she follows the trail of wild dogs from the Niassa Reserve in Mozambique to a den in Botswana

Safari jeeps of excited humans often fixate on the Big Five (elephant, buffalo, lion, rhino and leopard), usually unaware of the term’s hunting origins. No one forgets the first time they see grazing giraffe, wandering warthogs (increased popularity thanks to Disney), graceful gazelle, humphing hippos and the zany-patterned zebras. Initially, I was happy to witness a tick-list of animals, only later becoming interested in less popular wildlife. At the start of this trip, I wasn’t even entirely sure what a ‘wild dog’ was.

This changed after a visit to Niassa Reserve in northern Mozambique. With poor road access and limited facilities for tourists interested in photographic safaris (as opposed to hunting), Niassa is a rarely visited wilderness. Exploring in the dense bush, we found the animals skittish around cars and saw very little wildlife. The landscape and challenging 4WD tracks more than compensated for this, however, so we returned to camp at dusk, satisfied. Suddenly Giles spotted movement. Three pairs of shadowy, Mickey Mouse ears protruded like flags from the long grass, marking the position of the wild dogs. Our first glimpse and a rare treat; when once they were so abundant (numbering approximately half a million), now there are less than 7000 in Africa.

Back at the camp, conservationists were excited to hear about our sighting and enthusiastically taught us about wild dogs, which they preferred to call painted dogs or painted wolves, owing to their attractive mottled white, black and brown coat. Each one has a unique distinctive pattern and, although this doesn’t change with time, the honey brown colour develops after birth.

Our second sighting of came months later in South Luangwa, Zambia. Towards midday, after hours in the car, we were tired, hot and hungry. Rounding a bend in the road, two appeared before us. Surprised, we fumbled to grab our camera. Failing to achieve the perfect shot, our only trophy was a handful of photos showing their rumps as they scurried into the bush!

In the past, farmers and rangers saw hunting painted dogs as a form of pest control. Even today, poaching with open snares is a threat to the population. Packs mourn the death of each dog and the death of even one can have a detrimental effect on the pack. We were honoured to meet three members of the PDC (Painted Dog Conservation) in Zimbabwe who inspired us with their tireless efforts to help conserve and strengthen the Painted Dog population. They explained that along with poaching and diseases, such as rabies and distemper, traffic accidents are responsible for the death of many dogs. To raise awareness, signs have been erected along the main road near Hwange, entreating drivers to reduce their speed. Also on this road, the PDC has established the Interpretive Hall – a facility that I cannot recommend highly enough. Telling the story of a pup’s life, the exhibit is an accessible, interesting and entertaining method of educating locals and tourists alike. I’ll be honest – everything I know about painted dogs comes from this display and from chatting to the PDC members. If you’re visiting Hwange, be sure to pop in!

By the time we reached Botswana, I was a painted dog enthusiast. As pack animals, they look after one another, caring for the sick and elderly. Unlike lions, which may fight over a kill, wild dogs devour their prey quickly, later sharing food with the rest of the pack by regurgitation. Pups are always fed first.

In Botswana we discovered the location of a den. Three adults lay in the shade, babysitting their nieces and nephews who played nearby. Only the dominant male and female breed, while the aunts and uncles help to care for their sibling’s offspring. Watching the 10 pups play, I was struck by how similar their behaviour was to domestic puppies. A dull black and white, they lack the startling beauty of the adults. In a flurry of excitement, three more adults appeared, allowing us to witness a joyful reunion. Pups bounced between the adults, eventually settling to suckle their mother. She didn’t look well. Her fantastic coat clung to her ribs; her tail was dirty and limp. After feeding, the pups settled, rising occasionally to annoy the resting adults. Enchanted by the pups, we spent a surreal day observing the pack.

From a state of complete ignorance, our informal education, delivered by a group of dedicated conservationists, opened our eyes and hearts to Painted Dogs and was awarded with a truly intimate encounter. Lion, leopard and cheetah are all wonderful, but I’ve learnt that I’m more of a dog person.

To read more of Niamh’s amazing road trip throughout southern Africa, click here: http://travelafricamag.com/category/blogs/driving-southern-africa.

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