The Endangered African Painted Dog


Though they are known more readily as the African Wild Dog, there have been efforts to see them renamed. They are currently on the endangered list, but are capable of being seen by intrepid travelers to South Africa who are keen to visit one of many reserves like Madikwe Game Reserve. To see them in their own habitat is astounding and truly life affirming.  Here’s a bit more about one of the least known about or visited creatures that calls South Africa home.

The African Wild Dog is considered endangered as their conservation status, they stand between 65-75cm in height, they weigh from 24-34kg, are around 100cm long from head to beginning of tail, and 145cm including the tail. They have a gestation period lasting 70 days, and enjoy a breeding season from March to June. Their litters can be anywhere from 2 pups to 19 but average around ten pups to a litter.

They’re found ONLY in Africa in the wild, living on the savannas and other areas with little forestation. They are alternately referred to as the Cape hunting dog, African hunting dog, Painted wolf, Painted dog, Spotted dog, Ornate wolf, or Painted hunting dog.  They hunt by sign and are most active during the daytime, though they have been known to hunt by moonlight as well. During the most sweltering parts of the day they’re found beneath shade, resting.

A purely carnivorous creature, the African Painted Dog hunts in packs and specializes in hunting medium sized animals like blue wildebeest, impala, springbok, and other medium to small sized antelope, though they do occasionally take on larger varieties like kudu and zebra. They will pursue in a long and open chase and they cleverly alter their hunting behavior to that of their chosen prey. The season and availability can even determine what time they go out to hunt, whether morning or evening.  They have an 80% success rate when they hunt, and as a very proficient hunter they don’t need to augment their diet too often with things like rodents and birds.

They are known to approach prey within an open area or nearly open to run at a trot, or by sneaking while walking heads held low with their ears back, concentrating solely on the movements of the intended prey, and making every move calculated. They will not run until the prey flees, and have been known to use their pack strength to rush a herd to cause panic and to see which of the herd is slower or more easily captured. The young or infirm are easy catches for this successful hunter.  The alpha male or female leads the hunting pack as the rest follow behind in a line.

They can reach speeds of 65-70km/hr and their long-lasting stamina ensures they outlast their prey. Some chases can cover between 3-5km of ground, and when they’ve overtaken their prey they pull it down by running alongside it and slashing at the rump or shoulder until the rest of the pack catches up. Because they kill it by disemboweling it, they’ve gained a bad reputation as being ferocious, but the process is so swift that it’s not any less humane than a large cat’s bite to the neck. When hunting, the pack members coordinate through vocalizations which sound like something between a hyena and a dog, especially when excited. Their vocalizations can carry up to 3km.

Unlike many other pack animals or those which feed in groups, the dogs let the juveniles eat first, which reduces the risk of the kill being stolen by other predators as the adults guard over the carcass while the smallest members eat first. There is always at least one member of the pack that stays behind to guard the pups, and those who guard the kill while the rest is designated to eat.  Those dogs beg food from the others, who then regurgitate the meat for the dogs who stood guard.  All members of the pack are ensured to receive equal shares even if they are sick or injured.

Their latin name is Lycaon Pictus, for ‘painted wolf’ that can come in red, black, brown, white and yellow variations. The ones found in South Africa tend to be larger than those which have relocated to eastern or western Africa. These dogs are the only members of the canidae family who do not possess dewclaws on their front feet.  They have only four toes on each foot, though it doesn’t slow them down in the slightest.

They are able to reproduce any time of the year much like domesticated dogs, but mating tends to show marked peaks from March until June. Time between births of litters tends to be around 14 months but it can be as short as 6 months if they lose their entire previous litter. The alpha female is the only one allowed to breed, and if another does so, the alpha female will chase her from the pack or kill her, and her pups. The pups are weaned beginning around 2 weeks, and are finished at 10 weeks. When they are 3 months of age they can leave the den to travel short distances with the pack. They only become proficient killing prey around 12-14 months when they can feed themselves. They are able to breed from 12-18 months as well.

Females generally leave their birth pack from 14-30 months of age to join other packs without sexually mature females. Males tend to stay within their birth packs. Females unlike males in most other animal social structures, compete for the access to males who will help raise their pups.  Males can outnumber the females two to one, and have been known to be left behind as pup-sitters while the mother goes out to hunt. It is thought that this evolutionary structure ensured there were not too many litters born than were capable of being supported at any time.

These dogs live and hunt in packs, and enjoy a warm and close social structure. They can have anywhere from 2 dogs to 50, but most only contain about 12 or so. Their territory tends to be around 500km of space, but in areas where food is more scarce like east Africa, it can be as much as 4000km. The pack has one fixed base while they have pups who are too young to run with the pack, and they use scent marking to identify their areas. Even when their territory is breached the intruder is rarely brought to physical fighting, as meetings tend to be either lightly aggressive or friendly, as the intruder is shooed away.

Unlike with wolves, Painted Dogs do not have a hierarchy below the alpha pair. The only deciding factor is submission of all the other dogs in competitive interactions. They communicate using tail position, movement and body posturing. If they are slinking with their tail tucked, they are signaling fear and submissiveness. If they are aggressive they will stand upright and rigid with their tail stuck straight out behind them. When idle or friendly they stand upright with the tail curled over the back.

They have individual male and female hierarchies that only exist if the alpha dies on either side. Instead of a match of aggression, the oldest female is the one chosen and with the males, either the youngest male or the father of the other males is the one chosen. If two packs meet who are led one by a female without a male who is worthy, and one led by a male lacking a sexually mature female, the packs can merge.  Dominance is done without bloodshed, which is also something not shared in common with the wolf.

They have been listed as endangered thanks to human overpopulation, habitat loss and hunting, especially by those who did not understand them, or saw them as a larger threat than was reasonable. They share competition for food with larger carnivores and it has affected their ability to come back from their endangered status. Due to the overcrowding by humans onto the land they have always roamed, they began to target livestock not realizing the difference between human owned food and wild food, and were hunting nearly to extinction. They are also very susceptible to diseases carried by domesticated livestock animals, as well as the occasional rabies, or parvovirus and distemper.

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