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

Daily Mail Weekend Magazine - - DYNASTIES PART TWO -

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

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