The dog’s Latin name means ‘painted wolf’, which refers to the species’ very unusual and beautiful coat. Each individual wild dog has a unique pattern of black, brown, golden, white and yellow fur. They also have very large ears, probably used both to help keep them cool and to communicate whilst hunting. Packs can stay in contact even if they become very spread out by using “hoo” calls which can be heard several kilometers away.
Historically African wild dogs were found throughout sub-Saharan Africa but now they have been lost from at least 25 of the 39 countries they once inhabited. The largest populations remain in southern Africa (especially in northern Botswana, western Zimbabwe, eastern Namibia, and western Zambia) and the southern part of East Africa (especially Tanzania and northern Mozambique).
African wild dogs have a very unusual social system which is the opposite of most other pack-dwelling animals. All the males are related to each other, and all the females are related to each other, but not to the males. Males remain in the group into which they are born whilst females move to new groups. Only the dominant female and male within the group mate, whilst the other adults help to feed and raise their litters. Litters on average consist of ten pups, but can reach over 20, the largest amongst canids.
Wild dogs hunt for around 3.5 hours a day and most commonly kill and eat medium-sized antelope but also impala, kudu, wildebeest, ostrich and buffalo. The dogs only weigh 20–30 kg but their prey is usually double this and may be as large as 200 kg. Wild dogs also hunt small prey such as hares, lizards and even eggs, but these make a very small contribution to their diet.
African wild dogs live in a range of habitats including short-grass plains, semi-desert, bushy savannahs and upland forest. It was thought that wild dogs were primarily an open plains animal, however more recent studies indicate their numbers are highest in areas of thicker bush. It appears that their current distribution is limited primarily by human activities and the availability of prey, rather than by the loss of a specific habitat type.
Wild dogs live in large packs and roam over large areas. These behavioural traits mean that only the largest areas of suitable habitat and protected areas are able to support them safely without them constantly coming into contact with farmers who live on the outskirts of protected areas. Unfortunately due to increasing habitat fragmentation across their range, there is increased contact with people and domestic animals. This then results in both human-wildlife conflict and the transmission of infectious disease.
Road deaths are an important cause of mortality for both adults and pups. They are also killed through snares and are shot.
Naturally adult wild dogs experience a higher level of annual mortality than other large carnivore species, losing between 20 and 57%. The main cause of natural mortality is predation by lions, although hyenas, crocodiles and leopards are all known to kill wild dogs in some areas.
Conservation priorities for the species include:
- Maintaining and expanding connectivity of habitat available to wild dogs
- Working with local people to reduce deliberate killing of wild dogs
- Improving public perceptions of wild dogs at all levels of society
- Establishing techniques to protect populations from serious infections such as rabies and distemper
Amy Dickman, Tanzania
African wild dog, lion and cheetah
Worldwide continuation grant
Emma Stone, Malawi
African wild dog, African leopard, lion
Small worldwide grant
Bernard Kissui, Tanzania
African wild dog & lion
Small worldwide grant
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