Facts About African Wild Dogs: Attractive and Endangered Animals
The African Wild Dog
African wild dogs are lean, long-legged, and attractive animals that live in sub-Saharan Africa. They have a mottled coat and are sometimes known as painted dogs or as Cape hunting dogs. The animals have a colourful and unique appearance. They live in packs and are very social. They are completely carnivorous and hunt cooperatively for their prey. Unfortunately, the African wild dog is an endangered species.
The scientific name of the animal is Lycaon pictus. It's the only living member of the Lycaon genus. As its common name suggests, it belongs to the dog family, or the Canidae, like the domestic dog and the wolves and coyotes of North America. These animals look very different from an African wild dog, however, and they belong to a different genus. Lycaon pictus is sometimes referred to as a canid after the name of its family.
No two wild dogs are marked exactly the same.— African Wildlife Foundation
Physical Features of the Animal
The coat of an African wild dog contains beautiful splotches of white, grey, black, brown, tan, and yellow hair. Each animal has a distinctive coat pattern. The tip of the tail is always white, however. The hair is generally short but is longer around the neck. The animal's muzzle is black. A black stripe extends up the face from the muzzle. The erect ears are large and are usually rounded. They are often described as “bat-like”.
African wild dogs are 24 to 30 inches in height, measured from the ground to the shoulder, and weigh between 37 and 80 pounds. Males are usually larger than females. The animals have long and thin legs. They are the only members of their family without dewclaws and have four toes on each foot. Other members of the family Canidae have four toes on each hind foot but five toes on each forefoot. Four of the toes on a forefoot touch the ground, while one—the dewclaw—is higher up and doesn't touch the ground.
African wild dogs are generally found south of the Sahara. A group in southern Africa appears to be the largest one. The animals live in grassland, savanna, highland forest, and semi-desert habitats.
Social Life in the Pack
African wild dogs live in packs that usually contain 6 to 20 animals. In general, only the alpha male and female (the dominant animals) breed. All of the animals play a role in the pack's daily life, however.
The animals exhibit intricate greeting rituals. They touch noses, lick each other, and chirp, whine, and squeal as they interact. This interaction is often seen right before a hunt. As the animals circulate in the pack before they start their hunt, they greet their companions, wag their tails, run, leap, and become more and more excited.
Although African wild dogs are fierce hunters, they show no or very little aggression towards other members of their pack, even when they're eating their prey. Some researchers have observed that when youngsters are involved in a hunt, the adults let them feed on the prey first. Researchers have also observed the animals feeding old, sick, or injured members of their pack.
African wild dogs feed peacefully after a hunt, and all members share in the feast.— Wildlife Conservation Society
The animals generally hunt at dawn and dusk. Their usual prey is antelope such as gazelles. They also attack larger prey such as young zebras, wildebeest, and warthogs as well as smaller animals like rodents and birds. The mottled colouring of the animals confuses their prey. Their large ears provide excellent hearing and also help to cool the animals down.
African wild dogs run at speeds of up to 35 miles an hour. Occasionally, they reach 40 miles an hour. They can run for a long time without tiring. The animals communicate during a hunt with high-pitched chirping sounds. They also emit a call that travels long distances in order to keep in touch with their companions. They have been observed hunting in relays, with the lead animal changing during the hunt.
It’s estimated that wild dog hunts end in success 70 to 90 percent of the time. This is a very high success rate compared to that of lions, who are believed to successfully obtain prey in only 30 to 40 percent of their attempts.
African wild dogs have a strong bite and bring down their prey quickly. They kill by disemboweling large prey rather than by grabbing the neck and suffocating it, as lions do. Their method of killing other animals has been seen as especially cruel by some people and has given the canid a bad reputation. Some researchers say that it's actually a quicker way to kill the prey than the suffocation method.
African Wild Dog Behaviour in Captivity
An attractive and interesting as African wild dogs are, it's important to remember that they are wild animals, even when they are kept in captivity. A sad incident in the UK in 2020 reminds us of this fact.
A pack of wild dogs lives at the West Midlands Safari Park. Storm Ciara was a fierce event that damaged the animals' compound and caused major problems in other areas of the country. The wild dogs escaped from their enclosure through a damaged gate and entered a neighbouring compound that contained Barbary sheep and Persian fallow deer. The pack of canids killed ten sheep and six deer.
The canids were returned to their compound after the event and were unharmed by the incident. The death of the sheep and deer was sad, but the wild dog pack was behaving naturally according to their hunting instincts.
Reproduction and Life Stages
The gestation period of an African wild dog is about two and a half months. The litter usually contains between ten and sixteen babies, but some may die. The babies are born in an underground den and have black coats with white spots. When they are very young and need their mother's full time attention, other members of the pack regurgitate food to feed the mother in the den.
The pups open their eyes about thirteen days after birth. Weaning happens when they are about eleven weeks old. Once the youngsters are weaned, other members of the pack—both males and females—help to feed them. The adults regurgitate food to give to the babies. When the adults in the pack leave to hunt for food, a few stay behind as babysitters for the pups. Unless there are puppies to take care of, the pack doesn’t stay in one place for very long. The pack lives a nomadic life except in the few months needed to raise the young.
Males pups generally stay with the pack in which they were born, but all of the females leave to join another pack when they are around two years old. The emigrating females generally stay together as they search for a group of unrelated males to join. The successful union of the females and males forms a new pack. Occasionally, the male pups leave their natal pack as well. African wild dogs generally live between nine and eleven years but have lived for as long as thirteen years in captivity.
When opposite-sex groups join, they undergo what has been termed a "trial courtship" that may or may not result in the formation of a stable reproductive unit.— African Wild Dog Conservancy
According to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), the last population assessment of African wild dogs was carried out in 2012. The assessment estimated that there were 6,600 adults at that time. Only 1,409 of this number were classified as mature. The researchers defined "adult" individuals as those aged one or older and "mature" individuals as those that reproduced in the season in which the count was completed.
The estimate of the number of mature individuals was challenging. Normally, only the alpha male and female in a pack reproduce. The other adults in the pack are capable of reproduction but are generally reproductively suppressed. Sometimes subordinate members of the pack do mate and have pups, however. In addition, since helpers take care of the babies (a behaviour known as cooperative breeding), it's sometimes hard to know who the parents are.
Threats to Survival
A major problem for African wild dogs today is habitat fragmentation. The animals were once distributed over a much wider area and their population was continuous over this area. Now they are found in isolated populations, which reduces genetic mixing. Mixing of genes helps to maintain a healthy population.
Another problem is that wild dogs are being shot, poisoned, and trapped by farmers who want to protect their animals. Although the canids have attacked unprotected farm animals in some areas, researchers say that they are often falsely assumed to be the culprit when farm animals are killed.
Poaching is also a problem for the species. They are caught in snares set for other animals, which are illegally trapped for meat. Some wild dogs are killed by road traffic or by lions.
An additional challenge for the species is the introduction of diseases carried by domestic dogs into the wild dog packs. These diseases include rabies and distemper. Since African wild dogs are such social animals and greet each other by licking, if even one animal is infected by disease the infection will quickly spread through the whole pack.
It's hard to create a fence that's foolproof against African wild dog attacks on livestock. One researcher has discovered that urine obtained from another pack is a deterrent to the animals, however. Artificial scent marking may be useful as a repellent in the future.
Conservation of the Animals
Conservation organizations are studying African wild dogs, working to preserve the population, and trying to educate the public about ways to protect livestock. In addition, they are training local people to monitor and protect the animal's population. Anti-poaching, rehabilitation, and re-introduction projects are underway.
Conservationists are also trying to increase the amount of land available for wild dogs. When the animals are confined to a small area, it may be harder to find suitable prey. There is also a higher chance that they will come into conflict with humans or pick up diseases from domestic or feral dogs.
The latest population estimate is higher than the 1997 one, which suggested that only 3000 to 5500 animals exist. The most recent survey may indicate that the population is growing, but it may simply reflect the fact that the 2012 assessment was more accurate than the 1997 one. African wild dogs are still classified as endangered. Conservation efforts are therefore very important. Hopefully, the efforts will be successful and this unique and very interesting animal will survive for a long time to come.
- Lycaon pictus information from the World Wildlife Fund
- Facts about the African wild dog from National Geographic
- Information about the animal from the African Wild Dog Foundation
- Saving Africa's wild dogs with urine from the ScienceDaily news service
- Storm Ciara and the canids at the West Midlands Safari Park from The Guardian newspaper
- Lycaon pictus entry on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2011 Linda Crampton