I’m sure you are aware of how critically endangered these magnificent creatures are, only about 3000 individuals remain in the wild today. They have been on the endangered list for 20 years and are Africa’s most endangered predator! But these Painted Dogs are among the most successful hunters, reaching speeds up to 60 kms a hour, live in packs using teamwork to bring down prey. They are highly intelligent and sociable and have been found to have a hunt success rate of about 70%, whereas lions only have about a 30% success rate. So from these stats you would think that they would be flourishing, but alas us humans have a huge impact on them as we do with the entire planet.
Their Latin name Lycaon Pictus translates literally ‘painted wolf-like animal’ depicting their beautiful blotchy coat as unique as finger prints. Their large round ears are a prominent feature, and usually gives them away when hiding in the long grass. There is evidence that they were widely distributed south of the Sahara Desert but now are restricted to small isolated areas, with the larger packs only found in protected areas of land. They prefer broken woodland, or open savannah grassland, and in Zimbabwe have been known to live in altitudes of up to 1800m.
Packs are made up of a dominant unrelated breeding pair with the other members being their siblings, but they have an inbuilt avoidance of inbreeding to keep the genes strong. This means that all the females may be sisters, but the none of the males are related to the females. When youngsters break away from the pack to form their own, they may take their siblings with them but the breeding pair are usually not related in anyway. These highly sociable creatures hunt together using communication between each other to chase and bring down their prey and then they will quickly tear the prey apart. Painted Dog kills are quick and over in a few minutes, much less suffering than by the other predators who slowly suffocate their prey, and then eat them.
During the breeding season, with the pups being too young to join the hunt, they are left with minders who watch over them. If the pack is successful in a kill, the pack will come back and either bring food back for the pups and minders, or regurgitate food for them. The same is true if there is a cripple or sick among them, the food will be shared with them too. A true family bond.
So why are they endangered you ask? Loss of habitat is a huge problem. A pack of dogs will have a home range of anywhere between 800 to 1000kms squared, which could sustain over 20 individuals, but nowadays the average pack sizes are only about 10 individuals. They need huge areas of land and thus prey to sustain that many pack members, due to this, pack sizes have seen a decrease in size over the last few decades. This then has the knock on effect of having less individuals to hunt together, stay with pups etc.
Diseases like rabies, distemper and parvo spread easily from domestic dogs living on the periphery of protected areas, and with the packs being so sociable and interactive, the diseases spread quickly and disastrously, killing the whole family. Another instance of their sociable nature being a disadvantage, is if one member is caught in a snare, the pack will keep coming back to feed it, thus not roaming far enough for prey or trying to split themselves between a den of pups and a caught individual. Although not usually the intended animal for the snare, because they roam so far, they are often caught up in them. And then we come to human conflict, the Painted Dogs being poisoned or shot by livestock owners because they kill their sheep or chickens. The loss of one individual of a pack has such a huge impact that a pack can collapse due to this one loss.
If you are ever in the Hwange National Park area, the Painted Dog Conservation Project just outside of the park is a must see. They have an incredible display of information and story of a Painted Dogs life in Hwange. They also have a shop where they have talented people who have created beautiful works of art out of collected snare wire.