The Daily Telegraph - Travel

‘Ruthless killers? They seem simply to be dogs’

Despite their fearsome reputation, the ‘painted wolves’ of Zimbabwe turn out to be strangely familiar, Mike Unwin discovers


‘That’s Whisky,” whispers Nick. “See the double spot on the right shoulder? She’s the alpha female.” Down on my belly in the sand, I watch the animal trot towards us. Mickey-Mouse ears swivel and hazel eyes check us out as she passes 10 yards away. Then she flops down among her companions, who sprawl in the shade of a Natal mahogany tree like a panting pile of tie-dyed scatter cushions. We breathe out.

Whisky is an African wild dog or, as our guide Nick Dyer prefers, an African painted wolf. The latter is a literal translatio­n of the species’ Latin name, Lycaon pictus, and, argues Nick, a more appealing moniker for an animal whose associatio­n with feral mutts has not helped its cause. Others compromise with “painted dog”. Whatever you call them, this most misunderst­ood canine is today one of Africa’s rarest carnivores: just 6,500 or so remain.

I am in Zimbabwe’s Mana Pools National Park. At just 8am, the blistering late dry-season heat has already driven most sensible creatures into the shade. To our right, 150 yards away, impala file down to drink at a fetid pool. A few sound cursory alarm snorts as they clock the dogs, but right now the predators aren’t interested, and the antelope know it.

I have joined an innovative new painted dog safari from African Bush Camps (africanbus­ Ordinarily, such close, on-foot encounters with this rare animal would be unimaginab­le, but this is no ordinary pack. Devotees of Sir David Attenborou­gh may remember the BBC’s 2018 Dynasties episode which followed the fortunes of two rival packs led, respective­ly, by elderly matriarch Tait and her estranged daughter, Blacktip. The 12 individual­s I am watching now hail from the same lineage; indeed, Whisky is Blacktip’s daughter. Habituated to camera-wielding humans, they thus pay scant attention to our intrusion.

We are in expert hands, too. British wildlife photograph­er Nick has been working in Mana Pools for seven years. Co-founder of the Painted Wolf Foundation, he knows the animals intimately. With him is his Zimbabwean colleague Henry Bandure, renowned as one of the Zambezi Valley’s top guides. Henry was the one who found and tracked the dogs for the BBC, even managing to locate their remote den. “It was certainly far from the madding crowd,” he tells me.

It is our first morning and we have been lucky: painted dogs cover huge ranges but Henry had a hunch about this spot, with its precious – if unappetisi­ng – water, and brought us straight here at first light. Bingo! After checking the thickets for stroppy buffalo, he led us quietly to a viewpoint from where we could see the dogs and they, in turn, could get used to us. Now, we have moved closer, into the riverbed. Our cameras are at the ready.

This sedate encounter is the perfect introducti­on. While the dogs doze, with just the odd ear twitch, Nick explains sotto voce how the group comprises mostly Blacktip’s progeny, which dispersed following her death the previous year. Known as the Nyakasanga pack, they currently have no alpha male so are not a viable breeding unit. He fears for their future.

After a while, the pack shifts one by one to a new patch of shade. “That’s Vincent and Gamma,” Nick whispers, as they pass. “And that’s Jamal – she’s one of Blacktip’s.” I enquire about the two inquisitiv­e puppies lolloping in front. “We don’t name the dogs until they are yearlings,” he explains. “Puppies have a high mortality rate: these are the only two left from a litter of five.”

At close quarters, the animals’ combinatio­n of lean physique, gleaming teeth, dark mask and fight-tattered ears seems to embody their “ruthless killer” reputation. Yet, as each in turn settles among its companions, with a sniff, a tail wag and an occasional whimper, they seem also to be simply dogs: sociable, needy, eager to please. It is easy to understand

Each dog comes to life in turn, as though touched by some Disneystyl­e wand

why Nick and Henry – and, indeed, Sir David Attenborou­gh – find them so compelling.

At the time of my visit before the pandemic, Mana Pools held 50-odd painted dogs. However, Hwange National Park, in Zimbabwe’s far northwest, had an estimated 200 and it was here, four days previously, that our safari had started. The wildlife viewing had been spectacula­r, everything from cheetahs to a rare pangolin, but the dogs eluded us. Although Nick spied fresh tracks in the soft Kalahari sand, our only glimpse of the living animals came at the Painted Dog Conservati­on (PDC) centre, where “Peanut” (broken leg) and “Lucky” (mauled by lions) were in rehabilita­tion.

This impressive complex, founded by the non-profit group PDC, cares for injured dogs and educates the local community. Senior guide Maria Njambe, a former roadside basket vendor, showed us around the museum, built using thousands of confiscate­d wire poachers’ snares – deadly to dogs. A series of beautiful painted panels told the story of a dog named Eyespot and her pack. Children attend free PDC camps here. “Some try to repeat grade six just so they can come back again,” explained Maria.

With PDC on the case, it seemed Hwange’s wild dogs were showing an upturn in fortune: local people, supported with boreholes, vaccinatio­ns and other assistance from PDC, had become increasing­ly willing to report poaching. “It’s all about teamwork,” Maria told us, describing how her team and the community work together. “Just like a pack of wild dogs: each and every one of us has a role.”

PDC also has an office in Mana Pools. We pass by in the afternoon on day one, but there is no time to stop: Henry tells us he must “put foot” if we are to get back to the dogs in time for the greeting ceremony. We just make it. A shake of the head from one young male minutes after we arrive indicates the ceremony is about to begin. He stands, stretches, then greets his neighbour, which responds in kind. Each dog comes to life in turn, as though touched by some Disney-style magic wand. Soon the whole pack is reaffirmin­g its bonds in a leaping, wrestling melee, waving white tail flags and twittering ecstatical­ly.

Suddenly, Henry, rifle in hand, is ushering us away. He has spotted an elephant cow and calf ambling towards us along the bank. We retreat as the jumbos approach the water, then return discreetly to watch. The dogs trot provocativ­ely up to the drinkers, which flap their ears and trumpet with increasing annoyance. Eventually the cow’s patience breaks and she charges her tormentors, who slip round to taunt her from the other side.

This grossly uneven game of tag lasts several minutes, dust flying, until the elephants lumber off. But as the dogs regroup, it is clear something has changed: a palpable alertness now grips the pack. Ears cocked, eyes on the treeline, they trot out in single file and are swallowed by the gathering dusk.

Obligingly, the pack hangs around the river bed all week. Every afternoon, we enjoy something new. Sometimes it is play: the dogs haring around in madcap frolics, getting filthy in the evershrink­ing waterhole. At other times, it is serious: a vicious skirmish with hyenas, one brutally savaged by the pack before its companions arrive, then the dogs holding the larger predators at bay until the pups are led to safety.

We also witness the grisly reality of a kill. When a family of warthogs makes the mistake of trotting past just as the greeting ceremony concludes, the pack is on to them immediatel­y. The warthogs bolt for the treeline, tails raised, but the strategy is clear: as the lead dogs give chase, two others break off in an arcing run to the right, aiming to intercept. By the time we catch up in the vehicle, minutes later, the pack is tearing into the leftovers. Two yearlings tussle over the severed head of a hoglet.

Between our daily rendezvous with the dogs, there is plenty of time to explore. Henry, rifle in hand, leads us on the guided walks for which Mana Pools is famous. Gentle riverbank strolls to view wallowing hippos and dazzling carmine bee-eaters take on a pulsequick­ening dimension when we meet buffalo, elephant and, on one occasion, a pride of lionesses hunting. Drives reveal other Mana celebritie­s – including Fred Astaire, one of a handful of bull elephants that have learnt to balance on their hind legs to tear down branches. We wait. Fred performs. We applaud.

Back at Zambezi Expedition­s, our riverbank camp, we scroll through memory cards with Nick as he explains backlighti­ng, panning shots and so on. And we take our downtime beside the picture-perfect Zambezi, watching the river drift by, the kingfisher­s hovering and the thunder clouds building. Will the rains ever come?

Our final morning starts with a question mark. At the riverbed, the dogs are gone. A single lion print in the dust seems ominous: like gangland graffiti, proclaimin­g new ownership. We drive inland, Henry checking out favourite scent-marking spots. The dusty ground reveals leopard prints and civet scat but no sign of dogs. With the heat now intense, we return to camp.

Come afternoon, the dogs are back. Phew! But our relief is short-lived: it seems the pack is one member short. Is this the lions’ doing? The big cats are the dogs’ nemesis, and over the years have claimed many victims from the dynasty. Nick and Henry are puzzled. This time it is with a heavy heart that we watch the greeting ceremony. We have developed a bond with these animals: losing one feels personal.

Our despondenc­y abruptly evaporates as the absentee trots into view. It is Vincent – and he seems fine. Perhaps he was just having some me-time. The pack erupts in frenzied greeting, careering down the river bed and around the bend in a leaping scrum. I notice that Jamal, out in front, has something in her mouth. It is only afterwards, as we check our images, that we realise she is carrying a dove.

Is the bird some kind of sign? So intense has our experience with the dogs been, it is tempting to confer ridiculous meanings; to seek out omens. Lightning flashes along the horizon as we trundle back to camp and soon the first raindrops are thudding into the ground. One thing is certain: life for the Nyakasanka pack will change as surely as the seasons.

Hopefully, the fortunes of Zimbabwe are also set to change. With UK travel restrictio­ns lifted, the country is tentativel­y preparing for an influx of visitors eager to catch up on lost safari time and marvel at the likes of Victoria Falls. I wonder what has happened to the pack since my visit: who is now in charge, who has been born, and who has moved away.

Thankfully, Nick, Henry and the PDC have been out there, on the case. Now, at last, we can return to see for ourselves.

Overseas travel is currently subject to restrictio­ns. See page 5

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 ?? ?? Expert hands: guide and wildlife photograph­er Nick Dyer has worked in Mana Pools for seven years
Expert hands: guide and wildlife photograph­er Nick Dyer has worked in Mana Pools for seven years
 ?? ?? i On track: top guide Henry Bandure, who found the wild dogs featured in the BBC’s 2018 Dynasties series
i On track: top guide Henry Bandure, who found the wild dogs featured in the BBC’s 2018 Dynasties series
 ?? ?? i Drunk with power: lions are the dogs’ nemesis and have claimed many victims from the pack over the years
i Drunk with power: lions are the dogs’ nemesis and have claimed many victims from the pack over the years
 ?? ?? i Really wild: close encounters with the endangered dogs are rare
i Really wild: close encounters with the endangered dogs are rare
 ?? ?? i Good spot: Mike Unwin also saw cheetahs on the six-day safari
i Good spot: Mike Unwin also saw cheetahs on the six-day safari

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