What better animal to start off my series on lesser known or misunderstood species than the African wild dog, Lycaon pictus. Sure I could have chosen obscure species such as baboon spiders, tamanduas, or cuscus; or even discussed the ecological significance of species often found repulsive like dung beetles, mice, snakes or rats. But with recent events in the U.S. that have brought wild dogs into the spotlight as vicious killers, and the history of hatred towards them, it seemed right to start here.

Even though wild dogs have an exceptionally efficient reproductive system they have been in a state of decline for several decades. This decline is the result of several factors. Flooding of dens during rainy seasons and high competition with hyenas are believed to play a minor role in the decline. Disease and humans are the thought to be the leading causes. Wild dogs are highly susceptible to canine diseases, especially those related to domestic canines such as distemper. Human persecution is probably as devastating to these canids as diseases have been. As astonishing as this may seem, as late as the 1960s the shooting of wild dogs was a common practice within African national parks (Estes 2012).

This hatred for wild dogs, also known as painted dogs or cape hunting dogs, is similar to that faced by wolves here in the U.S. Many find the way they bring down prey to be repulsive as prey is chased until completely exhausted and then killed by tearing out the entrails. Gruesome as this may be it provides no grounds for the slaughter of these amazing animals. Haters of wild dogs often try to justify their prejudice by stating that wild dogs force prey species to abandon an area completely. While it may be true that game species usually move away from an area that dogs are currently hunting in or become “flighty”, wild dogs never stay in an area long enough to cause permanent damage. One study in Ngorongoro observed that after a pack had hunted on a daily basis for a year none of the herbivores in the crater had emigrated (Estes 2012).

Painted dogs are actually amazing creatures with a highly complex social structure. The average pack contains 10 dogs, although there have been packs of 20 and even 40 individuals. Only the alpha male and female of the pack will breed with there pack mates helping to raise the pups (Estes 2012). If a subordinate female does breed the alpha will often kill the subordinate’s pups. The alphas can be easily identified as they are the only ones in the pack to urine mark. Except for the area immediately around a den, they do not defend any territory within their home ranges. One of the most unusual aspects of their social structure is the emigration of their young. Unlike most species, the males will stay in their natal pack and females will be the ones to emigrate. Somehow the sex ratio is also skewed towards males, probably as a mechanism to boost the strength of the pack, as there are usually 2 or 3 males born compared to every 1 female born.

The cape hunting dog, as the name would imply, is an extremely efficient predator. In Ngorongoro, one pack was successful on 85% of its hunts. Although the dogs will occasionally scavenge they prefer fresh meat from their own kills. It was believed that the dogs hunted prey by chasing in relays, one leads until it gets tired at which point  a fresh dog will resume the chase. However this is not exactly true. The dogs, although slower than their common prey, simply have greater endurance than most prey species and will run them into exhaustion. The relay theory could have come from the habit of prey to zigzag or make a large loop at which point one of the lagging dogs would cut it off and assume the lead (Estes 2012).

Pups or weaker members of the pack are cared for by all pack mates. Typically the dogs will gorge themselves on a kill then regurgitate part of it for the young or weaker members.Young pups will often become aggressive with adults who do not regurgitate for them as quickly as the pup would like, and when old enough to follow the hunting pack the pups will even use the same aggressive begging to run adults off the carcass. However this privilege seems to end once the pups are yearlings and fully capable of keeping up with the hunt.

The African wild dog is not some vile creature to be hated and persecuted. Yes their hunting tactics may be considered gruesome by some, but this is no reason to hate them. Like the wolf they are an integral part of the ecosystem. God and evolution designed them for a specific ecological niche and somehow they and their prey species have been able to thrive for thousands of years without man and his “infinite wisdom”.

Like the saga of the wolf, man has been the leading contributor to the decline of wild dogs. In actuality the history of the wolf would be a great path to follow for the recovery of the dogs. Wolves were rightly put under protection to allow their populations to rebound (Preservation). Then, although controversial to some, wolf management was returned to the state wildlife agencies to manage (Conservation).  Preservation only works for a short term recovery but to maintain healthy populations and ecosystems we must transition from preservation back into conservation. There will come a day that the dogs, like wolves in America, need to be managed through limited harvest (hunting preferably to culling) in order to keep them from over-populating and degrading their own environment. This final step is absolutely critical. In a perfect world where all species had enough space it would not be. However, a growing human population in conjunction with limited habitat means that hands on management is necessary. If we can institute this plan, once populations have recovered to a stable point, we can help to ensure future generations can enjoy this magnificent species.


R.D. Estes. 2012. The Behavior Guide to African Mammals Including Hoofed Mammals, Carnivores and Primates.   The University of California Press.

Photos by Joshua Jones at De Wildt Cheetah Centre and Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilation Centre, South Africa.