There were many different species that I planned to see in South Africa. Seeing some of them was virtually a certainty without even trying. Some required a bit of research, and one in particular required determination and a lot of optimism. Some just couldn’t be planned for and required sheer good fortune. There were certainly a number of species in that category including things like the Aardvark, Caracal, Serval (no, I didn’t see any of them!) and African Wild Dog. Kruger National Park is roughly equivalent in size to Wales or Israel and the whole of South Africa is 1.2 million km². With an estimated 450 Wild Dogs left in the whole of South Africa I didn’t hold high hopes of finding them in 2 weeks, but on the 21st October we were particularly lucky.
We woke that morning in Skukuza Rest Camp but by the end of the day we planned on being in Olifants Rest Camp to the north. As far as wildlife was concerned it had already been quite an eventful morning. After stopping for a rest at Tshockwane we began heading towards Satara. It was only our third full day in South Africa and we’d encountered an African Wild Dog. I have no doubt there were more nearby. They’re pack animals and sleep much of the day in the vicinity of each other. But for now all we could see was one dog falling in and out of sleep but doing very little other than the occasional stretch or repositioning of itself for comfort. It was quite a distance away and frustratingly obscured by branches and twigs, and camouflaged by leaf litter on which it lay on the ground. It was no wonder we couldn’t spot the rest. It was still the middle of the afternoon and blazing hot. The chances that anything more was going to happen were slim, and I had quite a distance to drive before we reached Olifants. Thrilled at having seen an African Wild Dog, albeit rather a poor sighting, I drove further north.
I was driving along the H1-4 when we spotted another Wild Dog! Just like the sighting from earlier that day, this involved a single dog lying under leafless trees, but nevertheless still obscured by branches. It was closer, but still some distance from the road. The difference now was that it was much later in the day, closer to the time when Wild Dogs start to get active, and being just south of the Olifants River we were within 20 minutes or so drive from the rest camp, meaning we could make the most of the situation before being forced to reach camp in time for curfew.
I moved the car to the place that gave the best view of the dog, windows down, engine off and waited. Occasional movements suggested that there might be two dogs where at first I thought there was just one. Much further back there were occasional moments of what appeared to be a lot of activity, too far and too hidden to discern. Eventually the original dog stood up and slowly ambled out of the trees and right towards us. It stopped not very far from the track and lay down in the sun. I was over the moon and fired off tens of near identical photos, unable to believe my luck. A further 35 minutes later and the dog with which it was originally led down with also strolled over towards us and joined the original dog.
That distant commotion that I already mentioned was becoming more frequent and it was now obvious that it was the rest of the pack. What we were seeing was the frenzied motion of a mass of white brushed tails, the rest of the dogs that they were attached to remained invisible at this stage. The second dog to have arrived near to us stood, did some stretches and appeared to be ready for whatever was coming next. Suddenly there was what I can only describe as chaos. The rest of the pack arrived en masse. At first I was unable to visually take in everything that was suddenly happening, and the first thing that struck me was the sound. Things had been quiet so far. Now there was a constant chattering of yips and squeaks as every dog seemed to be simultaneously in communication with the rest. We were quickly surrounded, many dogs now being far too close for my camera to focus, but we were being paid no attention by the pack who were busy playing, play-fighting, reinforcing hierarchies, bonding, etc. Despite the amount of time this experience lasted I didn’t actually count the dogs, but I’d estimate around 20 or so. This was the greeting ceremony of the Wild Dog.
After what must have been a good 20 minutes or so the very noisy and social mood changed very suddenly. I don’t know what the trigger was, but it spread throughout the pack very quickly. Recent studies have found that at least some populations of Wild Dog employ a voting system, with votes being cast by way of a sneeze, in order to decide when/whether to change activity. In the frenzy that was going on around me, and with me trying to capture at least some of it with my camera, I missed this particular ballot if it occurred. However it happened though, the dogs were now silent. Heads dropped low and the whole pack, led by one or two adults, moved purposefully north.
Wherever it was they were headed, it was the track on which I was driving that offered them the path of least resistance, and I was actually able to carefully drive with the pack until we reached the slope leading down to the Olifants. The river was relatively dry compared to the aerial image above. As the dogs moved downhill to the river’s edge, I moved the car onto the bridge for a birds-eye view. The dogs had spotted a group of Waterbuck on a small grassy island in the river. The water between the river bank and the island was only a few feet wide, and could be walked around if the dogs chose to. The adult male Waterbuck positioned themselves between the dogs and the rest of the herd, and a stand-off ensued.
This situation lasted for just a few minutes before a number of the pack started to get restless. The youngsters lost their focus and started playing with each other, and whatever resolve to catch prey that might have existed in the group to begin with was dropping away, one dog at a time. The sun was also dropping away fast, and the camp curfew time was about 5 minutes away, and we were still 15 minutes or so from the camp. With the hunt seemingly over for now, we headed on to Olifants Rest Camp, only a little later than the curfew time!
No more dogs were encountered during the rest of the trip, but the experience we’d had that day was better than anything we could have ever hoped for, and was undoubtedly the mammal highlight of our time in Africa.