The radio call came in about 5:30, an hour before sundown. Sage, our driver and
guide, turned to us with an obvious excited edge to his voice, and said,
"Another car has sighted the impala running. They are being hunted, perhaps by
wild dogs. Let’s try to find them." Hearing this, Carlos, our tracker, moved
from his foldable seat on the front bumper into the 4×4 landrover, a precaution
he followed whenever we neared predators. Our hearts beat faster at the
prospect of seeing one of Africa’s most endangered
A half hour later, after innumerable bounces and jostles over Botswana’s rutted, sandy roads, through the tall grasslands that
marked the end of the rainy season (late March), we broke out onto the middle of
Chitabe airstrip. Sage turned around once again and apologized, "I’m sorry. We
have seen nothing; perhaps now, before it becomes too dark, is a good time to
stop for a drink and a snack." Sage repositioned the vehicle to the
end of the dirt airstrip; I tried to reassure my wife, "Don’t be disheartened.
This is Africa and animals, even elephants and giraffes, can almost miraculously
appear and disappear in the blink of an eye. You just never know when you’ll
have a great sighting."
While Sage prepared our safari "tea", Carlos
checked a nearby bush and pronounced it safe for personal use, the cue my wife
and I had waited for. As my wife paced back and forth assessing the covering
power of the bush from every angle, I tended to nature. No sooner had I
begun when I spotted a pack of dogs gliding ghost-like across the airstrip in
the fading daylight. Thrilled to near carelessness, I jumped from the bush
yelling, "Dogs, dogs" all the while zipping up. (Safari tip: Zip first,
then jump from bush to alert guides.)
Sage instructed us to return to the
vehicle immediately so we could follow the dogs. As we dashed back, my
wife trailed, lamenting, "But I didn’t get to go," – a clear case of you snooze
you lose, safari style.
No sooner had we piled into the landrover than
Sage sped headlong into the tall grass, more in an attempt to intersect with the
pack than to follow it. Within 2 minutes, he brought the vehicle to a stop,
pointed about 20 feet to our left and whispered with a mixture of subdued pride
and reverence, "There are the wild dogs with their kill."
We had come upon a pack of seven dogs that had taken down an impala. About the
size of a German shepherd, the dogs have long legs, large ears and mottled fur
of browns, black and white. Two aspects of the dogs’ behavior became immediately
apparent. First, they ate at a remarkable speed, the carcass disappearing
rapidly as we watched. Second, this was no feeding frenzy, but rather an
organized and well defined scene, characteristic of the dogs’ feeding style. We
noticed that upon completing their meal, the first two dogs to eat immediately
left the impala to set up a perimeter some 10 feet away, on guard for hyenas
that were sure to arrive.
When the pack finished and departed,
we noticed hyenas skulking in the heavy dusk towards the kill spot. Sage moved
our vehicle. From a short distance, we soon heard the crunching of bones
as the scavengers went to work.
At about 5:00 pm of the following evening’s game ride, with the sun still fairly
strong, we discovered a second pack of four dogs lying helter-skelter in the
thick grass under several trees. Other than occasionally lifting their heads to
peer curiously at us intruders, they were still, conserving energy for the
upcoming hunt. Thirty minutes later, the alpha female arose, nuzzled
each pack member onto its feet, and led the pack off at speed.
We were unable to track the smaller pack. Around 6:00, Sage stopped for our
evening tea. As we stretched our legs and enjoyed the spectacular African
sunset, with breathtakingly colorful displays both in the western and eastern
(from reflection) skies, a herd of impala tore across the plain about 200 yards
from us. Five minutes later we saw the pack of seven dogs from the previous
evening appear out of heavy grass.
The pack fanned out and,
surprisingly, moved deliberately and inexorably straight for us. Someone
mentioned that in recorded history, there were no confirmed reports of wild dogs
attacking humans. I couldn’t help remembering Bill Murray’s line from
"Caddyshack" and thought: At least we’ve got that going for us. Sage must have
had similar thoughts, because as the lead dog got to within 15-20 feet of us,
he suggested, "They are just curious about us, but you may want to consider
climbing into the car."
Just then the group edged around us. As it
did so, a noise in the grass behind them, probably caused by a Springhare
(rabbit), prompted the pack to yelp and scatter. The tension broke, we laughed,
a bit nervously really. Sage explained that dogs, when startled, run first
and investigate later.
At dinner. Sandibe’s visitors and staff were abuzz over the wild dog
sightings. The manager of the camp marveled, "You just don’t understand. We go
very, very long periods without seeing a pack. If people told me they’d seen two
packs and a kill in the space of two days, I would have a hard time believing
it. Even when we encounter a pack, we don’t expect to see them the following day
because they move so quickly and cover vast amounts of territory. Consider
yourselves extremely lucky."
We knew we were fortunate. At one time,
African wild dogs numbered in the hundreds of thousands and were common in
virtually every environment in southern Africa, except rain forests and deserts. Human encroachment has drastically reduced their range and their numbers.
They have been widely regarded as pests; consequently, they’ve been poisoned,
shot and trapped in many areas. Perhaps their most serious threat, though, is
introduced diseases. Burgeoning human populations have brought the African wild
dogs into frequent contact with domestic dogs, many of which carry canine
distemper, parvovirus and rabies. These diseases are ravaging the wild packs.
That final night at Sandibe we counted our lucky stars. Under the
pitch Botswanan sky, with the Southern Cross and the Milky Way ablaze, it added
up to immeasurable good fortune.
Experts believe that fewer than 5,000 African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus,
known also as the Cape hunting dog or the painted hunting dog)
currently exist in the wild, and their range has declined from 33 to 15
countries. Typically living in packs of 2 to 30 individuals led by a dominant
male and female, the largest populations now exist in Botswana, Zimbabwe and
Tanzania. Northern Botswana supports approximately 700 to 800 wild dogs, one of
only four populations containing more than an estimated 250 to 300 dogs in the
whole of Africa. The Okavango Delta, where our camp (Sandibe Safari Lodge) is
located and surrounding areas support healthy populations of all African large
carnivores. The wild dog population of northern Botswana is the largest
remaining unprotected African wild dog population on the continent.