Wednesday, 1 August 2012

The African Painted Dogs

Following our wonderful stay in Kwando, it was time for us to move on to our next camp. Before I boarded the charter plane, I took one last look at the Linyanti reserve and said to myself, “I’ll definitely return here someday.” 

We were to spend the next few days at Vumbura concession, which is located at the northern edge of the Okavango Delta. The ‘Delta’, often referred to as the ‘Jewel of the Kalahari’, is a huge inland floodplain. It is created as the annual rains falling in the Angolan highlands flow into the panhandle of the Okavango river, which then fans out into an enormous delta; never reaching the sea.

Map of Okavango Delta

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The flight from Kwando to Vumbura was short. Upon arrival at the airstrip, we were greeted by our guide who warmly introduced himself as Sevara. He drove us a few miles to a small jetty, overhanging the Delta. From there, we had to take a boat ride in order to reach our camp.

The channel banks were covered with papyrus plants and reed rafts. Sevara gave me a chilling reminder of how this innocent looking vegetation, floating above the sand bed, was a perfect hiding place for the local crocodiles!

As the boat cruised along the channels, I dipped my finger into the water and said to Bill, “I can’t believe it. We’re actually cruising on the Okavango Delta!” For me, this was a dream come true!

The path leading to our camp.

Once we reached the camp, we quickly dropped our bags, grabbed our essentials and headed straight out to the bush. My camera was on standby and I was ready for another adventure. As we began the game drive, I wondered to myself, “What does Africa have in store for me today?” 

We were sharing our vehicle with an elderly English couple. The nice lady leaned over and whispered to me, “Sevara is brilliant at tracking wild dogs. We have had some amazing sightings.” 

She was right. Sevara certainly did not disappoint us. Within twenty minutes, he had managed to track down a pack of dogs. There they were, resting under the shade of the bushes, taking their afternoon siesta.

As we drove towards them, one of the dogs must have sensed our presence and looked up. Although I couldn’t see its face clearly, I could trace the silhouette of its head with its big round ears; alert like huge satellite dishes.

The African wild dog is an endangered species. Several decades ago, there were upwards of half a million of them roaming through the vast plains of Africa. Nowadays, their numbers have dwindled to fewer than 5,000. Loss of habitat, competition with larger predators for food and epidemic diseases are just a few of the causes for such a drastic decline in their population.

An African wild dog, Lycaon Pictus. They face an uncertain future.

The pack must have numbered around forty dogs, half of which were puppies. Thrilled at discovering such a large pack, we decided to spend the rest of the afternoon with them. Although they were relatively inactive, even the occasional flick of a tail or twitch of an ear was enough to set my heart thumping with excitement.

Eventually, a lone male began to stir from his deep slumber. He let out a huge yawn, stretched himself and trotted over to the rest of the pack members to greet them. 

Pretty soon, they were all nuzzling each other and twittering incessantly. This peculiar greeting ritual is a kick-start to their pre-hunt preparations.

They were excited and ready for the off.

Awake and hungry.

We followed them as they commenced their hunt.

African wild dogs typically hunt twice a day; early in the morning and before sunset. They are formidable predators, even taking down large animals such as Eland. Built for endurance, they are able to chase their prey relentlessly over long distances. Once they have singled out their ‘target’, there is little or no escape; with around 85% of hunts ending in success.

One of the dogs let out an alarm bark. Within seconds, the chase began. Sevara shouted, “Hang on tight!” He started the engine and we took off after the dogs.

We followed them through open plains and thick woodlands. Though we had no idea what they were after, we were just exhilarated to be part of the chase. 

After a few minutes, we caught up with the pack leaders and were greeted by the most extraordinary scene. The dogs were surrounding a tree, baying and causing a general ruckus. I grabbed my binoculars to check out what all of the commotion was about. There it was, a leopard at the top of the tree seeking protection from the menacing dogs! They had seemingly flushed out their fellow predator and pursued it to its precarious position.


Can you spot the leopard?

Realising that the skittish cat would not be coming down anytime soon, the dogs gave up on the situation and decided to search for another 'victim' while there was still enough light to hunt. Once the coast was clear, the leopard scampered down from the tree and disappeared into the thickets. 

“That was certainly a lot of excitement!” I thought to myself. However, I did not realise that there was more to come. 

Having located the dogs once more, we continued to track them closely. The atmosphere was peaceful - for a while. Suddenly, all hell broke loose. The dogs went into hot pursuit again. This time they were after a spotted hyena.

The poor hyena was running for its dear life.

Once again, Severa shouted to us, “Hang on tight!” This time he meant it. We sped through the shallow waters of the floodplain like a torpedo. The spray was billowing out from either side of the vehicle as we hurtled after the chase. 

I had one hand clutched tightly onto my camera and the other onto the vehicle as I hung on for dear life. My adrenalin was pumping. I took a quick glance at Bill. He seemed oblivious to the bumpy ride; too engrossed in the moment.

The dogs soon caught up with the hyena and surrounded it.

Over the course of the next few minutes, they attacked the hyena relentlessly from all directions; snapping and nipping incessantly at its bloodied body.

The hyena mustered all of its strength to defend itself from the vicious pack. Somehow it eventually managed to escape from the dogs’ clutches and made a mad dash towards the woodlands. 

Its fate was not yet over as the dogs continued to pursue it. We managed to capture some of the action on video.


I asked Severa, why would the dogs be chasing leopards and hyenas? He explained how predators, such as lions, leopards, hyenas and the dogs themselves, all compete with each other for food. Given the opportunity, any one of these animals would not hesitate to kill their rivals in order to eliminate competition. 

By this time, it was getting too dark for the dogs to continue hunting. We watched as they decided to call it a day and retreat back to their den with empty stomachs. The day did not belong to them. The puppies would go hungry for the night. 

For our part, we marvelled at what we had witnessed during the day. It dawned on me that wildlife professionals often take weeks or months to document such sightings. We had been privileged enough to experience them during our first day in the Okavango Delta. I said to myself, “What more could I ask for?”


Finn said...

I don't know if I could have watched that chase. I would be up in the tree with the leopard! How long were you in Africa for?

Sam said...

Wow! That must have been really exciting.

I really love how beautiful the wild dogs are.


Lucille said...

Hi Homer,
your Missus truly had a great adventure...
She and Bill were really lucky, it is not common to be able to be present in a real hunt...
Africa really loves them.
I had no idea our african cousins were so strong and skilled, thanks for sharing!
My Missus was quite impressed though... she was so sorry for the Hyena, not that she likes them, and she understands that it is a question of survival, but I believe it needs a bit of getting used to this...
She would probably be vegeterian, well, vegan, if there weren't people preparing meat and fishes for her... She surely would not kill a chicken...
Love Lucille

Bigdogzola said...

Hello Homer's Missus
Wow - super posts..we remember when you went last year and wondered about it. Great photo of the leopard on the tree in the evening silhouette..woweeee super pics and videos. My human spent a few special months in South Africa's Kruger Park on a Game Reserve training/ work experience -so your photos and posts were extra extra special for her...she did a lot of pointing, twittering on and gasping at your photos..
Super African dogs images - and a ride out follwing them...lucky you.. Congratulations on your amazing african (Zola-land!!) adventures..addictive eh? We know those heavy heart beats when a lion looks you straight in the eye...heehee..super..not for the faint-hearted so good on your Missus. Zola xx

Winnie said...

What an adventure. Superb photos very professional.

Love and licks, Winnie

Anonymous said...

Holy Floofin' CRAP! just sayin. no words. none. amazing. ok, just one word. but it hardly seems worthy.