The African Wild Dog, Lycaon pictus also known as the African Hunting Dog, Cape Hunting Dog, or Painted Hunting Dog, is a mammal of the Canidae family, and thus related to the domestic dog. It is the only species in monotypic genus, Lycaon, and the only species in the canid family to lack dewclaws on the forelimbs. They are, as their name indicates, found only in Africa, especially in scrub savanna and other lightly wooded areas. The Latin name of the species means painted wolf and it is characteristic of the species that no two individuals have the same pattern of coat. Individuals can easily be recognized in the basis of coat patterns. The pelage is an irregular pattern of black, yellow, and white. Their coats are sparse in comparison to canids in temperate zones, and the skin is black.
African Wild Dogs hunt in packs. Their main prey varies among populations, but always focuses on medium sized ungulates such as impala. Like most members of the dog family, they are cursorial hunters, meaning that they pursue their prey in a long, open chase, rather than relying on stealth as most members of the cat family. Typically, about 85% of their hunts result in a kill. Members of a pack vocalize to help coordinate their movements. Their voice is characterized by an unusual chirping or squeaking sound, similar to a bird.
After a successful hunt, dogs regurgitate meat for those that remained at the den during the hunt, such as the dominant female and the pups. Occasionally, they will also feed other pack members such as very old dogs that cannot keep up. Wild dogs are endangered, primarily because they use very large territories (and consequently can persist only in large wildlife protected areas) and they are strongly affected by competition with larger carnivores that rely on the same prey base, particularly lions and hyenas. The dogs are also killed by livestock herders and game hunters, though they are typically no more (perhaps less) persecuted than other carnivores that pose more threat to livestock. Like other carnivores, wild dogs are sometimes affected by outbreaks of viral diseases such as rabies, distemper and parvovirus. Although these diseases are not more pathogenic or virulent for wild dogs, the small size of most wild dog populations makes them vulnerable to local extinction due to diseases or other problems.
The current estimate for remaining wild dogs in the wild is approximately 3,000. Of these, the majority live in the two remaining large populations associated with the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania and the population centered in northern Botswana and eastern Namibia. Smaller but apparently secure populations of several hundred individuals are found in Zimbabwe, South Africa (Kruger National Park) and in the Ruaha/Rungwa/Kisigo complex of Tanzania. Isolated populations persist in Zambia, Kenya and Mozambique.
Wild dogs are the most social of all canines. They lick the mouth of an alpha animal, displaying the juvenile behavior that caused adults to regurgitate food. Submission is indicated by exposing their bellies and throats to a dominant dog.
Bonds between pack members are continually reinforced at ‘greeting ceremonies’. Before a hunt, African wild dogs greet each other with leaps,grunts,squeals,tail wagging and morning and late afternoon. When angry or defensive, they produce a deep-throated low growl.
Unfortunately, these greetings place the dogs in danger: any illness in the pack quickly spreads to all members. They are especially vulnerable to diseases carried by domestic dog (e.g., distemper and rabies).
Wild dogs are unlike other large carnivores in that they rarely fight among themselves, either for food or dominance. They will care for old, sick or injured pack members, regurditating food or licking wounds clean.
Pack size varies from 2 to 60 members. It comprises an alpha male and female, their pups from previous years and occasionally their own siblings. Normally, only the alpha pair breed, but when food is plentiful, other females may give birth, too.
After a gestation period of approximately 72 days, a female gives birth to a letter of 6 to 14 pups, generally between April and June. They use the abandoned burrows of warthogs or hyenas as a den.
Pups are the center of attention for the next few months. All of the pack members take part in their care and feeding until they are old enought to hunt. One or two adults stay at the den to protect the pups while the others hunt.
The pack hunts cooperatively. African wild dogs can run almost 40 miles per hour. Their diet includes gazelle, antelope, zebra and warthog. They are extremely efficient hunters and contrary to popular belief, prey is dispatched in seconds rather than minutes. Wild dogs are only carnivorous species to allow their young to feed first. The adults wait until the pups are finished before they will feed. There are fewer than 4,000 African wild dogs left in the wild, perhaps only 2,500. Human hatred and persecution have had the most serious effect. They are shot and poisoned by farmers and ranchers. Road kills and snares take a heavy toll on packs that leave protected areas.
Rabies, introduced by domestic dogs, has caused the extinction of at least one population. Lions kill wild dogs and hyenas steal their food.
Why Save African Wild Dogs?
Among the top carnivores, wild dogs are a landscape species requiring large, ecologically diverse areas to survive. Species, like wild dogs, may have a significant impact on the structure and function of natural ecosystems. Because of habitat requirements and ranging behavior, they are threatened by human disturbance and use of natural landscapes.
One of Africa’s most efficient predators, wild dogs may help regulate prey species that in turn play a role in shaping vegetation communities. Securing a future for wild dogs, therefore, is an essential part in stemming the loss of biodiversity and preserving a healthy ecosystem.