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The sight of a 50-strong pack of African wild dogs in action has to be one of the most wonderful and exhilarating spectacles on the vast African savannah. Wild dogs are renowned for their strong family bonds, and anyone lucky enough to witness their interaction with a new litter of pups cannot fail to be struck by their collective devotion. Peaceful and co-operative within their family groups, they look after their young and sick and depend on each other for survival.
Sadly, such encounters are increasingly rare as Africa’s charismatic wild dog is pushed closer and closer to extinction. Remaining populations are being wiped out by indiscriminate destruction of their natural habitat, the spread of diseases such as rabies and canine distemper caught from domestic animals, and persecution by humans who view them as pests.
The wild dog is a ‘flagship’ species. Its presence signals a healthy ecosystem and its conservation goes hand in hand with the survival of innumerable other species and the protection of the wider landscape.
Niassa National Reserve in Mozambique is one of Africa’s best-kept secrets. This pristine and relatively unexplored wilderness is one of the largest protected areas in the entire continent, and is one of the last refuges for African wild dogs – providing a large area of habitat that offers a haven for 450 animals.
Fauna & Flora International (FFI) has been helping our local partner to manage this magnificent reserve for almost a decade. Although we’ve achieved some remarkable successes in Niassa during that time, we still face some tough challenges. Land clashes between humans and large carnivores such as wild dogs and lions can cause tragic and unnecessary losses on both sides.
Pups are born every year, usually between March and June. A litter may contain as many as 16 pups, but early mortality is high. African wild dogs can live for up to 10 years.
African wild dogs need large home ranges. On the Serengeti it is estimated that each pack has a home range of 1,500 km2. An area the size of Greater London, which is home to 7.5 million people, could support only one or two packs of wild dogs.
They once ranged across sub-Saharan Africa, from West to East and down to the tip of South Africa. Today they have almost disappeared in West and Central Africa. Remnant populations are mostly found in southern and southeastern Africa, but groups are fragmented and isolated from one another.
Each family group requires an extremely large territory. As Africa’s last tracts of wilderness are destroyed, wild dogs are forced into areas where they face unfamiliar threats, such as potentially fatal encounters with humans and exposure to the frequently lethal viruses carried by domestic dogs.
Unlike many other animal groups, wild dog packs are predominantly made up of males. Males stay within the pack they were born into, whereas females move on to join new families.
Only very distantly but they do share some characteristics; they are similar in size to a medium-sized domestic dog, and on the whole they are surprisingly non-aggressive – for example they do not fight over food but instead ‘beg’ to indicate their wish to eat.
Wild dogs are carnivores and mainly hunt medium-sized antelope such as gazelle and impala. Their distinctive technique is to hunt cooperatively and exhaust their prey through chase. They are fast runners with impressive levels of endurance, able to run at about 35 miles per hour for 3 miles or more. Adults will allow younger members of the pack to eat before them.
Wild dogs hunt in packs and have developed highly sophisticated social interactions within their groups to secure their prey. It is thought that they ‘talk’ when they hunt; using calls and ‘body language’ to communicate to each other.