Along a main road outside the Hwange Game Park in Zimbabwe we came across a yellow warning sign with the legend, “PAINTED HUNTING DOG CROSSING.” We were amused. It made a change from signs warning of cattle, elephants and antelope crossing the road but we gave it no further thought until, on our second game drive, we had our first encounter with such a dog.
We had stopped to watch a brown hyena feeding in the grass. Our driver turned the vehicle slightly and drove towards the animal. Suddenly one of us noticed a pair of ears in the grass to the left. Then a bedraggled looking dog with blood on his face sat up to watch us. It was a lone painted hunting dog wearing a collar! Meanwhile the movement of the vehicle had annoyed the hyena. He now got up and dragged his meal away with him. It was a small disemboweled antelope.
Our driver explained that the dog had probably brought down the antelope. Why he was alone, he had no idea but it meant that a passing hyena had chased him from his prey after he had fed on its bowels. The painted hunting dog is one of the lesser-known endangered species. There are only about seven thousand left in the whole of Africa. Of these, 3000 live in the Hwange Park where a research project has been set up to study them more closely. This dog was one whom had been fitted with a collar to monitor its movements.
A result of this study has been the discovery that packs of dogs move in their range in predictable paths. One such path crosses the main road so the dogs were frequently killed by cars at that point. The signs we had seen where a serious warning and had helped to slow the decline of these animals at Hwange.
It was not so long ago that these attractive animals were regarded as vermin not only by cattle farmers but also by game wardens. They normally hunt in packs. The sight of a pack of small dogs disemboweling a still living antelope was more than many people could stomach. So for many years they were destroyed even in game reserves. But today attitudes to these animals have changed. The dogs play as vital a role in the ecosystem as any other living creature.
Later on our trip we learned of a highly successful painted dog-breeding programme outside Pretoria at the de Wildt Cheetah Centre. We visited the centre where they had discovered how to breed cheetahs in captivity and how to successfully return them to the wild. The centre then turned its attention to the endangered hunting dog. Starting with six pairs of dogs from Namibia they were successfully breeding them too. At first, the return of the young dogs to the wild was a problem. Today the return is successful as a result of setting up packs of dogs made up of captive born dogs of one sex and wild dogs of the other sex. The new packs have no problem in hunting and killing prey together.
The coat of the dog is coloured irregularly with blotches of black, white and pale yellow-brown. Each individual dog is marked in a unique way thus its scientific name is Lycaon pictus which means ornamental or painted wolf. Packs of dogs led by a dominant male and female number between five and forty. They hunt together concentrating on prey that is young, sick or old. When the pack is on a hunt, pups, old dogs and their caretakers are left behind and fed by the returning hunters with regurgitated food. Their team work when hunting and their care of each other enables them to survive in their environment if given a chance.
Our sighting of the large rounded darkly coloured ears of the collared dog had introduced us to the problems of an African wild animal seldom encountered by the tourist. Here is another species on the brink of extinction because of our prejudices and lack of knowledge. But the good news is that serious and successful programmes are being made to reverse this.