A GAME OF THRONES IN THE AFRICAN BUSH
Two packs of painted wolves – led by a mother and her daughter – battle for the territory that will keep their pups alive in this action-packed episode. And Tim Oglethorpe went out on location
Abitter battle for territory on the floodplains bordering Zimbabwe’s Zambezi River lies at the heart of the Dynasties documentary about the wild hunting dogs known as painted wolves. And the most startling thing about this feud is that, like some African version of Game Of Thrones, it’s between an alpha female, Tait, and her daughter, Blacktip.
Painted wolves, so-called because of their black, brown and white markings, live in packs headed by an alpha female and alpha male. There used to be half a million of them spread over 39 African countries. But when the Dynasties team started filming, there were just 6,600 painted wolves remaining in their heartlands of east and southern Africa, as human encroachment has led to a loss of their natural habitat, while the erroneous belief they’re a danger to humans has led to them being poisoned and shot.
It’s shrinking territory that triggers the riveting events in this Dynasties episode. Blacktip’s pack, which after several successful breeding seasons has grown to 30-strong – over twice the size of her mother’s – can’t source enough food in its current home. But with the Zambezi River lying to the north, with crocodiles waiting in the shallows; hyenas, another predator, to the south; and human hunting lands to the west, Blacktip has no option but to invade her mother’s far bigger patch to the east. What follows is a vicious confrontation between the two packs.
Although Tait senses Blacktip’s scent on the wind, her pack has little time to react when Blacktip’s family bear down on her. A vicious fight ensues and casualties are high. Blacktip’s wolves are left with gashed necks and flanks, but Tait soon realises the safest course of action is to withdraw. She and her pack are forced to resettle further east into the highly dangerous Lion Pridelands.
For Nick Lyon, the producer who spent four years filming Tait and the other painted wolves for the most intimate and extraordinary documentary ever made about them, the coup was a disaster. The team racked up 585 filming days during 11 visits to Zimbabwe, and learned the unique markings on the sides of every single wolf in the three packs being observed (another daughter of Tait’s, Janet, led a pack on the eastern edge of Zimbabwe’s Mana Pools National Park). That’s 182 flanks on the sides of 91 animals!
But the canny painted wolf can easily disappear within the 2,600 square miles of the park (an area the size of Devon), and the conflict between Tait and her daughter Blacktip meant the star of Nick’s film had simply vanished. ‘There was nothing for it but to search the entire park for Tait’s tracks,’ says Nick. ‘The trackers, Nick Murray and Henry Bandure, spent a month trekking through thick bush infested with tsetse flies and mosquitoes. Then, amazingly, they found Tait’s new den, a two-and-ahalf- hour drive away from her original den.’
The wolves make for fascinating viewing. For instance, when near water they are 100 per cent focused on crocodiles, or the slightest hint of them. The local ones are so large they can swallow a painted wolf whole. Every pool could have one, so Tait’s pack has to be wary. ‘So much of their day is spent staring into the water just to see where the crocodiles are. They stare and stare and stare. They’re fixated on crocodiles,’ says Nick.
Back in Tait’s old territory, Blacktip was starting to enjoy the rewards of victory. Nick and his team captured her and her family performing a highenergy greeting ceremony in which ears are flattened, forequarters lowered and tails curved over the back, along with sniffing, licking and ducking under each other. It’s the prelude to a hunting mission and soon the pack are advancing towards a herd of impalas, the wolves splitting into attack parties of three and four.
Suddenly, an impala bolts, unwittingly firing the starting gun on the carnage that follows. Reaching speeds of 45mph, and with stamina that allows them to maintain that pace over long distances, Blacktip and her pack set their sights on an impala they’ve perceived as weaker than the others. The highly efficient hunter Blacktip lunges and grasps at a back leg and fells it. The hunt is over and the feeding begins.
Meanwhile, Tait has started to flourish in the Lion Pridelands. Four months after moving there, she has given birth to two puppies in a former aardvark burrow. Nick Lyon and his team were on hand to capture the footage, as proud mum Tait emerged from
‘The local crocodiles can swallow a wolf whole’
her den followed by her pups, who’d spent their first three weeks underground. Little bundles of fur unsteady on their feet, they were the epitome of cuteness amid a deadly world.
Their emergence was also a filmmaker’s dream. ‘The pups were so small and their heads so disproportionately large that whenever they stopped walking, they would teeter over their front legs like a see-saw,’ laughs Nick. Ox, the pups’ father, was first to go over and sniff them – this was his first litter, Tait’s eighth – while the pack formed an orderly queue to come and see, smell and fuss over the new arrivals.
Soon it was time for the pups to take a nap back in the den and Tait positioned herself so she could still see the entrance to the den while enjoying the breeze and the shade of a large acacia tree. But she was soon off hunting again.
Leaving behind her two new pups, Tait set off across the grassland accompanied by the other adults in the pack. But as Nick captured her departure on film, he soon realised something truly extraordinary was happening. Apart from the pups, all the wolves had gone hunting, which meant the three humans in attendance near the den – Nick, tracker Henry and cameraman Warwick Sloss – had been left in sole charge of the babies. ‘It took a while for it to dawn on us,’ says Nick. ‘But the trust between us and Tait’s pack had reached such a level that they felt able to leave us with their offspring. So we babysat for them, and even had to shoo the pups back into their den. We only left when Tait and the others came back.’
Eventually, the conflict between Tait and her daughter reignited. Blacktip, who initially appeared to have no idea where her mother had gone, picked up scent marks from Tait’s pack and decided to go off in pursuit. As they trekked deeper into the Lion Pridelands they encountered a troop of baboons, one of whom paid with its life as the two species clashed. Blacktip and her followers raced on through the moonless night, not realising they were being trailed by a pack of hyenas, who started to summon help with their eerie whooping calls, eventually forming a 15- strong group. When Blacktip realised the danger she was in, she decided attack was the best form of defence and turned on the hyenas.
Low- light and infrared camera specialist Justine Evans captured the ensuing fight, which resulted in the death of one of Blackt ip’s pups. Seemingly grief- stricken, the painted wolves milled around, reluctant to leave without the lost pup, eventually having to do so with their heads down and tails between their legs, marching in silence.
Eventually, Blacktip came so close to her mother’s new home that Tait could smell her daughter on the breeze. But then another, more dangerous, animal intervened. ‘We sud-
denly noticed a lion creeping towards Blacktip and her pack through some long grass,’ says cameraman Barrie Britton. ‘ We then saw more lions behind and realised the dogs had no idea they were there.’
Only at the last minute did the painted wolves realise what was going on. A gruff bark was the signal to scatter, causing confusion among the lions, before the most unlikely of allies further helped Blacktip’s cause. A buffalo suddenly charged through the trees, distracting the lions. When it fell momentarily, the lions were on it in a flash – a more substantial meal than the one they were expecting.
But the encounter with the lions was the last straw for Blacktip, and she decided to call off her hunt for Tait. Once they’d made up their minds to go, the wolves barely looked back as they raced through
the night without stopping, covering some 15 miles.
The war between mother and daughter was over, and it was time for Tait’s pack to reclaim their old territory. But Tait didn’t join them, she was too old and slow and was killed, with her companion Ox beside her, in the Lion Pridelands. But the story doesn’t end there, for a new generation of leaders must continue the bloodline. After weeks of eerie calls echoing round the park as the pack decided on its new leader, eventually Tait’s youngest daughter, Tammy, emerged as the new alpha female.
Nick Lyon hopes his documentary will change the image of these relatively unknown creatures. ‘What shines through is their love for each other within the pack,’ he says. ‘They’re the most caring carnivores I’ve ever worked with. They’re much smaller than the likes of lions, yet they survive by exhibiting tight family bonds in a very tough world. People often regard them as grizzly predators but they’re not. I hope this documentary reveals a new side to a misunderstood and much-maligned creature.’
‘The wolf left the film crew in sole charge of its pups’
The painted wolf is one of the world’s most endangered carnivores
Tiny wolf pups emerge from their den. Right: adults prepare to attack their prey. Below: elephants keep a wary eye on Blacktip’s pack