African wild dogs: the painted carnivore

African wild dogs: the painted carnivore

Writing and photos by Annie DuPre, Bushwise Copywriter, currently pursuing her master’s in conservation studying African wild dogs on Kruger’s western boundary. 

It’s denning season for African wild dogs in South Africa. Not far from our Bushwise campuses, in the Greater Kruger National Park, little colourful pups are starting to emerge from their dens. This is a significant time for this species, particularly as there are just 550 left in South Africa.

Wild dog puppies huddle together to keep warm on a cool morning in Kruger.

Wild dogs, also called painted wolves, are one of the most endangered carnivores on the continent, second only to the Ethiopian wolf. Once widespread throughout Africa, they are now found in fewer than half of the countries where they once roamed. The global population is estimated at just 6,600 individuals (adults and yearlings). 

Wild dog pups show interest in a sound nearby. Pups are often left alone with one or two adults while the others forage.

When is the wild dog denning season?

The wild dog denning season in South Africa overlaps with the dry season, usually between mid-June to mid-September. During this period wild dogs give birth in dens, typically within excavated aardvark burrows in termite mounds. There are of course exceptions to every rule in the animal world. For example, in 2021 a pack waited until October to den in Balule Nature Reserve

Three wild dog pups play with grass after the adults have fed them. Playing is an important part of learning life skills for developing pups.

Why are wild dogs endangered?

Causes of mortality of wild dogs include direct persecution, habitat loss, disease, low prey availability and predation (such as by lions). With such low numbers, conservation of this iconic species is essential. Every individual counts, contributes to genetic diversity and helps sustain local populations. 

One female wild dog in Kruger truly understood this assignment, once giving birth to a record 21 pups in one litter!

A wild dog stands on a road in Kruger, with tourist vehicles parked behind it. Kruger is a great place to look for wild dogs.

One of the greatest causes of mortality for wild dog pups is predation by lions. Wild dogs are medium-sized carnivores at just 18-28kg, while lions can weigh up to 190kg. The reason lions kill wild dogs is still being studied, but most likely has to do with predator competition. At the Kempiana campus, Bushwise students witnessed an interaction between these two species, which shows just how intimidating lions can be to wild dogs.

Alt text: Three adult wild dogs on alert, looking together towards something off to the left side of the image.

Lions pose such a high risk to wild dogs that they are avoided whenever possible. During the denning season, wild dogs search for den sites far from areas of high lion density. This often means they must travel greater distances to find food. 

A wild dog wearing a collar looks over two of its pack mates in Kruger National Park.

What is being done to protect wild dogs?

Protected areas often buttress human settlements and agricultural lands. Humans and animals do coexist peacefully in many areas, but there are still conflicts. Wild dogs are highly prone to getting stuck in snares set for bushmeat poaching, which can be lethal. 

To combat this, organisations like Wildlife ACT and the Endangered Wildlife Trust monitor the movement of wild dogs using radio collars and telemetry. This conservation and scientific research will help us better understand wild dog movements, dynamics and threats.

A wild dog playfully bites the ear of its pack mate who is lying down. Wild dogs are highly social animals that care for their pack mates.

Wild dogs are also extremely resilient. Their social bonds mean they will care for their sick and injured, even nursing them back to health from the brink. Many incredible stories have been documented showing wild dogs feeding injured adults that have had snares removed from their legs, waist or even neck. Through care provided by their pack mates, these dogs can survive apparently lethal injuries. 

 A wild dog puppy plays with a stick. Even wild dogs sometimes just act like dogs!

In the past, a wild dog sighting in a game reserve might not have attracted much interest. This is changing as more and more people mark this species as a “must see” on safari. The Endangered Wildlife Trust works with tourists to monitor the wild dog population. By submitting their photos of individual dogs, visitors can help contribute to the wild dog (and cheetah) census each year. Citizen scientists play an important role in conservation efforts this way.

A wild dog with a monitoring collar, which is used to follow pack movement, identify individuals, and help conservation efforts.

Bushwise students have been extremely lucky to see wild dogs on some courses. Both our Mahlahla and Kempiana campuses are adjacent to wild dog home ranges. Seeing wild dogs is always a special experience, especially considering their rarity.

A wild dog stretches after a good nap. Wild dogs are most active in cooler parts of the day and evening.

There is so much to say about wild dogs, that a simple blog post is never enough! We love studying this incredible species at Bushwise – especially when we can see them in person. On Bushwise courses we discuss endangered species, their role in the ecosystem, and what conservationists are doing to protect them. 

Are you passionate about wild dogs or other wildlife? Field guides play a very important role in educating the public on these critical issues. Apply today to join a Bushwise course and find out how you too can make a difference in protecting these incredible animals.