Hunting With a Most Endangered Hunter

(Per-Gunnar Ostby/Getty Images)

The African Painted Wolf Sets an Example of Accommodation

Nature's Edge Notebook - African Avatars #1

Observation, analysis, reflection, new questions

LINYANTI, Botswana - Near Duma Tau camp, start of the rainy season.

Even when they're sleeping you can feel their teamwork - they exude it in all they do.

The pile of fur we glimpsed through our binoculars was a sleek jumble of six or eight African painted wolves - a.k.a. the African wild dog - lying just 10 yards away in the dappled shade under the low-hanging scrub trees.

Peering in through openings in the brush, we could make out sleepy snouts resting on furry backs, a yawn here, a twitching paw there, as they took an afternoon nap all flopped down together on the ground after their latest kill - pups imitating their elders in this, as in all things, and trying their best to lie still and snooze while also entangled in the communal bundle.

A few sentinels had spaced themselves out around the edge of the sleepy mound for an outlook of 360 degrees, heads up and watchful.  The one nearest to us, just five yards away, lay in classic dog pose - chest to the ground, forelimbs parallel out front, neck up, ears perked and searching.

The painted wolf is striking to look at: a brindled riot of bold blotches and wide swirling strokes in black, white and beige - no two alike, as if an abstract expressionist were exploring infinite variations on a theme.

It is one of the world's most efficient hunters - 80 percent of its hunts end in a kill - but it's also one of the most endangered.

Not that long ago, it ranged throughout Africa south of the Sahara, but in recent decades its numbers have plummeted due to human development and habitat destruction, diseases including distemper and rabies, probably caught from domestic dogs, and angry cattle farmers who shoot them or plant poisoned meat.

It is now reported gone from 25 of the 39 countries it once roamed. Only an estimated 3,000 to 5,500 are left in the wild across the entire continent.

The African wild dog has been red-listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which provides details on its plight, nature and efforts to save it on the IUCN website.

A few disconnected patches scattered across the map of Africa show its remaining ranges. The largest covers Northern Botswana, home to about 800 individuals - including this 16-member pack we've come across a quarter mile south of the Linyanti river.

Here, they live the wild, peaceful and wide-ranging hunting life they've evolved over hundreds of thousands of years.

But lately there has been one remarkable adaptation - or rather, adjustment; it's something too recent for natural selection to have allowed it, so it must be due somehow to the wild dogs' mental and emotional flexibility.

Step back another 10 yards from the idyllic scene of napping dogs described above and you'll see three large open Land Rovers parked amid the bushes and pointed straight at them, a few humans seated in each and filling the air with the clicking of cameras and subdued but not whispered conversation about our rare luck at this sighting.

These scarce creatures are hard to find for even the most experienced wildlife guides.

The wild dogs seem oblivious to us as they rest. Their sentinels seem to look through the big Land Rovers, or around them, alert for other sounds.

"Habituated, not tamed," is how our guide, Bobby Rakaru, put it on the drive in from the tiny wilderness airstrip to the Duma Tau safari camp.

It's an acquired attribute we've seen in most of the big animal species here - even the one most dangerous by far to humans, the hippopotamus, noted for its nasty and often aggressive disposition, with many human deaths to its name.

From our open Land Rover, down by the river, we watched two huge male hippos, half submerged only ten yards away, in grunting mortal combat, the lip of one split wide open in a long gash, in an ancient struggle for mating rights with two female onlookers that was far more important to all of them than our presence.

(Bill Blakemore/ABC)

On a nearby sandy knoll we later parked for half an hour alongside two other land Rovers and only five yards from a pair of lions lying amid the scrub, exhausted between bouts of mating. The male never even lifted his head to acknowledge us; the female did, barely - her eyes mostly shut in some quiet afternoon reverie.

(Bill Blakemore/ABC)

And everywhere our Land Rover explored through the bush, we saw  beautiful beige impala - so tasty to lion and wild dog, and thus terrified of them - standing quietly and watching us as we drove past only a few yards away, or at most skipping only a few steps back.

(Bill Blakemore/ABC)

Often, we'd see the impala suddenly ignore us as 10 or 20 pairs of ears instantly turned in perfect unison toward some natural sound or alarm cry of far greater concern than our vehicle.

(In areas of Africa where humans are still permitted to hunt, animals are said to be notably less blasé about humans and their Land Rovers.)

The next afternoon, we experienced an acceptance of our presence even more remarkable.

The same wild dogs let us come along on their hunt.

Three Land Rovers full of humans, plus a 4×4 pickup with two researchers studying the wild dogs' behavior, were all grinding gears and jouncing around as we swerved through the brush trying to keep up with the chase.

The wild dogs arrayed themselves out wide to form a broad front as they swept quickly through little clearings and hidden thickets to flush out their next meal - perhaps some poor hapless impala or, more often - and as in this case - a baby impala.

"They will rip a baby impala apart in just a few seconds," our guide Bobby told us.

Walkie-talkies crackled between the guides furiously working their steering wheels to negotiate off-road around fallen trees and scratchy bushes while relaying to each other news of each direction the dogs were suddenly taking - which little track or hillock - there to the east - no, to the north… "They've got a baby impala!" - and a few moments later we roared around a large bush to see one dog still ripping off bits of flesh from a severed limb and wolfing them down.

Their teamwork is breathtaking, like a very big and highly attuned basketball team in high speed (they can hit 40 miles an hour) as they close in.  During the hunt, they communicate through strange chirps and tweets (still undeciphered by scientists) coordinating attacks that can also bring down full grown zebras and other large mammals. Sometimes they even fell the enormous and fleet African ostrich, despite its deadly kicks.

We see proof of what Bobby told us: that the entire pack travels together, the young and the old and infirm following along behind but soon catching up; and that all are fed, food regurgitated later for the pups and others who couldn't get to the kill soon enough.

Soon we were watching another happy post-kill rest period, a couple of limping adults catching up.

Then the young arrived and started playing - mock wrestling and horsing around.

One pup plays the prey and falls on the ground where five others close in and play-bite its neck and sides. Then they tire of that and invent some other game of tag or chase-and-feint…

The resting adults look on, perhaps remembering when they were that young and their parents had just led them through the brush on the exciting hunt for the day's meal.

They have to take the whole pack with them each time they hunt. Sometimes a chase takes them far away, and the only home they have is each other.

Scientists can still only speculate about how the African wild dog manages to coordinate its attacks, about the links between verbal and visual cues and other signals used in the intuitive flow of the dogs' livelihood.

It even seems possible the dogs knew that their prey in the example we witnessed - the impala - were also habituated to our human and Land Rover presence, and factored that in.

It's hard, after you've followed close in such a hunt, not to feel that the dogs aren't somehow smarter than we humans.  And of course they are, somehow.

Not only do they not seem to mind our clumsy loud presence in the chase, they may even incorporate it into their tactics, perhaps using an advancing Land Rover as a blocker, just as a human athlete might, counting on it to help broaden or solidify the sweeping front as it develops another play.

We watch as they lie around, resting and playing … and seeming to ignore us completely, no eye contact with us at all.

An hour later, sun slipping toward the horizon, they're suddenly up again, trotting quickly now on another hunt and spreading out wide, communicating somehow, the old and infirm following close behind, and the young racing to keep up, to watch from the bushes and see how it's done - as do we for a while, until impending darkness sends us back towards the comforts and security of camp, leaving them to head on into the open night.

Why do they let us join their hunt?  They have little choice. It's their only living, and they must keep hunting or die.

But it seems they can accommodate us when we shoot only with cameras, give them the room they need, and take care not to interfere with their loving family care and their stunning mysterious teamwork.

They let us watch, at least, and learn - like their own young.