Clever ca­nines

These ca­nine Hou­di­nis, often called painted wolves, may be the most mis­un­der­stood large preda­tors in Africa.

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Contents - By Mark Eveleigh Pho­tos James Gif­ford

Does the elu­sive and colour­ful painted wolf de­serve its bad rep­u­ta­tion?

“Sorry, but there are no painted wolves in this sec­tor of the park at the mo­ment,” said guide Nkosi Ndlovu, when I drove into a camp known as ‘The Hide’ one af­ter­noon. “They range so far afield that you can never tell where they might turn up.” Nkosi was half right. The wolves do in­deed range over vast dis­tances… but by sheer co­in­ci­dence I spent much of that night wide awake while a pack of them squab­bled with a herd of ele­phants right in front of my tent.

Later that evening, a pack of 10 painted wolves bounded up to the water­hole by the camp. The white tips of their tails flashed like bea­cons in the spot­light as even the older ones rolled play­fully with en­dear­ing puppy en­ergy. Dur­ing the past week, I had driven 800km through Hwange Na­tional Park hop­ing for a sight­ing like this. Zim­babwe’s big­gest na­tional park (it mea­sures 14,650 km²) is justly fa­mous for the den­sity of its wildlife – I had seen four leop­ards and no fewer than 22 lions in a sin­gle morn­ing – but, un­til now, the wolves had eluded me.

Painted wolves here typ­i­cally run in packs of around 16 in­di­vid­u­als and I was aware – hav­ing tracked them suc­cess­fully sev­eral times in Kenya and Botswana – that their tracks Nat­u­ral­ists have long been frus­trated and charmed by how eas­ily a painted wolf pack van­ishes with­out trace. shouldn’t be hard to find. But by the time I ar­rived at The Hide, I’d scoured an area the size of Devon with­out even find­ing ca­nine spoor from any­thing larger than a jackal.

A dis­ap­pear­ing act

Painted wolves are most ac­tive at dusk and dawn (though oc­ca­sion­ally hunt dur­ing a full moon), so be­fore first light the next morn­ing Nkosi and I headed out of camp in search of the pack. Within half an hour we’d come across a scrab­ble of tracks where what Nkosi recog­nised as the Makwa Pack had fanned out in the hope of scar­ing prey out of hid­ing. We fol­lowed un­til the tracks dis­ap­peared into a tan­gle of teak trees. The sun was al­ready climb­ing high when we no­ticed an ag­i­tated herd of im­pala. Nkosi ac­cel­er­ated his Land Cruiser but, yet again, the hunters had gone.

I wasn’t sur­prised. Nat­u­ral­ists have long been both frus­trated and charmed by how eas­ily even a large painted wolf pack – which in parts of south­ern Africa have reached up to 50 strong – can van­ish with­out a trace.

Hwange forms part of the Ka­van­goZam­bezi Trans­fron­tier Con­ser­va­tion Area (KAZA), in­cor­po­rat­ing an area about twice the size of Bri­tain. Stretch­ing from western Zim­babwe through Botswana, Zam­bia, Namibia and north into An­gola, KAZA al­lows am­ple space for wolf packs, each of which may roam across more than 1,200km².

For­merly hunted to near-ex­tinc­tion as live­stock killers and per­ceived pests, painted wolves are classed as En­dan­gered by the IUCN and these days face a bar­rage of other threats. Among them are com­pe­ti­tion for ter­ri­tory with ex­pand­ing hu­man pop­u­la­tions,

poach­ers’ snares, ra­bies caught from vil­lage dogs and col­li­sions with traf­fic. While wolves are no longer tar­geted, they’re sus­cep­ti­ble to snares be­cause they cover so much ground and favour the bush pre­ferred by poach­ers.

“Their num­bers have dwin­dled to fewer than 5,000 in all Africa,” says zo­ol­o­gist Nick Mur­ray, who has been col­lect­ing data on painted wolves in Hwange and Mana Pools Na­tional Park since 2005. “Hwange has about 16 packs, with an av­er­age of around 10 wolves in each, while Mana Pools sup­ports about 110 wolves in an area that’s only one-sixth the size of Hwange.” Nick re­calls see­ing a pack of 34 wolves at Mana Pools.

It is this in­cred­i­ble den­sity of painted wolves that brought a BBC cam­era crew to Nick’s base at Vundu Camp, spend­ing the best part of two years film­ing a pack led by a fe­male called Tait for this au­tumn’s land­mark se­ries Dy­nas­ties. “The film­ing gave us a huge op­por­tu­nity to learn more about painted wolf be­hav­iour,” says Nick. “Not only that, but we’ve also recorded this in­for­ma­tion for pos­ter­ity.”

The wild bunch

For­merly known as Cape hunt­ing dogs or African wild dogs, the ca­nines have re­cently been blessed with a more fit­tingly ro­man­tic name: painted wolves. This does jus­tice to their beau­ti­ful daubed mark­ings, unique to in­di­vid­u­als. Per­haps if they’d al­ways been known by this in­fin­itely more at­trac­tive name, hu­man at­ti­tudes to­wards them might have been less em­bit­tered. For years it was al­most uni­ver­sally as­sumed that painted wolves were do­mes­tic dogs gone feral, but they’re the sole sur­viv­ing mem­ber of the genus Ly­caon.

“Painted wolves are cor­rectly re­ferred to as dogs,” Nick says, “but they split from the evo­lu­tion­ary branch from which all other dogs de­scended about three mil­lion years ago. They lack the dew­claw and their den­ti­tion is dif­fer­ent from other dogs.”

While re­searchers are now closer to un­der­stand­ing the lives of painted wolves, count­less mis­con­cep­tions still sur­round these elu­sive preda­tors. I was de­ter­mined to get to the crux of some of these myths so, as I trav­elled from camp to camp, I picked the brains of Hwange’s most ex­pe­ri­enced rangers and guides. As if I was fol­low­ing the most well-de­fined tracks, their tales seemed to bring me closer to the wolves with ev­ery pass­ing day.

“It’s a good time to be in Hwange,” Ty­ron Hurst, head guide at Ne­himba Lodge, had re­as­sured me the day I ar­rived at the park

from Vic­to­ria Falls. “There’s a big painted wolf pack den­ning not so far away. No­body’s man­aged to lo­cate the den just yet, but the dogs will be hav­ing pups any­time now, so they’re less mo­bile than usual and you have a bet­ter chance of see­ing them.”

Ty­ron and I were en­joy­ing a drink be­side the lodge swim­ming pool, which was of­flim­its be­cause a herd of thirsty ele­phants was busy drink­ing it dry. One evening not so long ago, guests had been gath­er­ing for the reg­u­lar evening pachy­derm cock­tail hour when a fe­male kudu dashed into the clear­ing and launched into the pool in a fu­tile ef­fort to evade 11 painted wolves. “The dogs leaped in af­ter her,” Ty­ron re­called. “For a few min­utes, the pool looked like a scene from Jaws.”

A view to a kill

Painted wolves are among the planet’s most suc­cess­ful hunters, with about 80 per cent of chases end­ing in kills. There seems to be a level of ter­ror in­volved in a wolf hunt that pushes their vic­tims to un­usu­ally des­per­ate

Painted wolves are some of the most suc­cess­ful hunters on the planet, with about 80 per cent of chases end­ing in kills.

ex­tremes of eva­sion. As I trav­elled through Hwange, I heard fire­side tales of pan­icked im­pala and kudu dash­ing into camp­fire clear­ings and even crowded lodge din­ing rooms to es­cape their would-be killers.

Even de­fend­ers of the wolves often seem to be scan­dalised by the ap­par­ent bru­tal­ity of a painted wolf hunt. These preda­tors run their prey down mer­ci­lessly, with phe­nom­e­nal stamina, dis­em­bow­elling them with clin­i­cal speed and often feed­ing from the back end be­fore the prey is com­pletely dead.

“In Hwange the sub­stan­tial ele­phant pop­u­la­tion has af­fected the habi­tat, mak­ing it un­favourable to im­pala, which is usu­ally the dogs’ pre­ferred prey,” Nick Mur­ray ex­plains. (To put this in per­spec­tive, there are al­most 300 ele­phants for ev­ery painted wolf in Hwange). “In­creas­ingly the dogs are forced to hunt kudu or even wilde­beest, and as these species are much larger the hunt can be ex­tended over sev­eral kilo­me­tres. So often the fi­nal kill is not so clean.”

Per­haps it was wit­ness­ing kills like this – often down­right shock­ing to on­look­ers – that formed the ba­sis of some im­plau­si­ble leg­ends of painted wolf ‘cru­elty’. “A par­tic­u­larly un­pleas­ant char­ac­ter­is­tic,” wrote RM Beres, direc­tor of Uganda Na­tional Parks, in 1956, “is that they will, with­out hes­i­ta­tion, turn upon any mem­ber of the pack that falls by the way through wound or sick­ness and show no re­luc­tance to con­sume their own kind.”

No ev­i­dence has ever come to light to con­firm this claim by Beres. In fact, painted wolves are, if any­thing, al­tru­is­tic. Often they re­gur­gi­tate food to keep a sick or wounded pack mem­ber alive. Like­wise, when a pack’s al­pha fe­male is con­fined to the den with her pups (typ­i­cally only the dom­i­nant pair breed), her mate and the sub­or­di­nate an­i­mals will also de­liver sus­te­nance to her this way.

Painted wolves were once con­sid­ered a li­a­bil­ity to stock­men and ranch­ers, and through­out old Rhode­sia, as Zim­babwe used to be known, bounty hunters were paid for ev­ery wolf tail they brought in. Keen hunter Ernest Hem­ing­way wrote in 1954 about creep­ing up on a pack of sleep­ing painted wolves with a spear: “I had made a very care­ful ap­proach, bare­foot,” he wrote in the pres­ti­gious Look mag­a­zine, “and bagged, or rather killed, one out of the pack of ver­min.”

Even at rest, painted wolves are ex­tremely vig­i­lant, and with their large ears and acute sense of smell it seems un­likely that they would have over­looked the ar­rival of an over­weight Amer­i­can tourist (no doubt lib­er­ally scented with gin). Hem­ing­way’s re­port prob­a­bly il­lus­trates more than any­thing the typ­i­cal scorn with which sa­fari afi­ciona­dos viewed painted wolves dur­ing that pe­riod. Ishenesu Chi­daya owns a small-hold­ing on the out­skirts of Hwange Na­tional Park, in a re­gion that has im­mense prob­lems with hu­man-an­i­mal con­flict. He pro­tects his crops from ele­phants with fires, chilli spray and a clever net­work of ele­phant-deter­rent bee­hives, but he’s had less luck with his

A pack of painted wolves, or wild dogs, in Zim­babwe’s Hwange Na­tional Park wait to hunt in the sun­lit grass. Here, they typ­i­cally hunt in groups of around 16. Their el­e­gant paint-like mark­ings are unique to each pack mem­ber.

Above: lean and rangy, painted wolves have phe­nom­e­nal stamina, roam­ing over hun­dreds of square kilo­me­tres.

Clock­wise from left: two painted wolves are over­shad­owed by some of Hwange’s ele­phants. The pachy­derms out­num­ber the ca­nines by al­most 300 to one; a young puppy finds its speed in the bush; Ty­ron Hurst, head guide at Hwange’s Ne­himba Lodge, leads guests through prime wolf coun­try.

Above left: a painted wolf tack­les an an­te­lope that has been cap­tured in wa­ter. Above: a group en­joys a spot of rough play. Left: the car­ni­vores will often at­tack wilde­beest, but some­times the odds stack up against them. Here, wilde­beest see off a lone wolf that has strayed too close to their herd. With­out back-up, the hunter has to re­treat.

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