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