On a cold mist morning on a recent safari we came across a Hunting Dog den. In 1820 these animals were originally named Hyaena picta – the painted hyaena. When it was realized that they are not Hyaenas they were reclassified as Lycaon pictus. In Greek mythology Lycaon was a peasant who was transformed by the god Zeus, into a wolf and so these beautiful colourful animals are now often referred to as “The Painted Wolves”.
This is a more descriptive name for these tenacious hunters than the original Cape Hunting Dog or Cape Wild Dog. Sadly they are no longer found anywhere in the Northern, Western or Eastern Cape, although historically they were found close to Cape Town and as recently as a century ago they were still seen in the Addo region of The Eastern Cape.
All african wildlife has been decimated but these beautiful creatures were singled-out for particular attention and it is a miracle that any of them still remain. In recent history their distribution and numbers have been spectacularly reduced. This is partly because they require enormous range and with the expansion of human population they have lost much of their range and have been exposed to diseases carried by domestic dogs. But until relatively recently they were persecuted even in protected areas, because of the anthropomorphic misperception that the “painted wolves” were wanton killers and reduced the viability of their prey population! Here is a quote from 1914: “Let us consider for a while that abomination – that blot upon the many wild things . . . the murderous wild dog . . . It will be an excellent day for African game and its preservation when means can be devised to give practical effect to some well thought out scheme for this unnecessary creature’s complete extermination” (Maugham 1914).
The truth of the matter is that these highly social animals are extremely efficient hunters and their victims are dispatched quickly. In fact I once saw a small pack kill and completely consume an adult Impala ram in the space of 14 minutes. In contrast I also once watched a pride of lion bring down a buffalo, which one of them took 15 minutes to kill – while it was being fed upon by the other members of the pride.
They are highly cooperative and all members of the pack cooperate in hunting as well as in raising of the young. On this trip we were very fortunate to see very young pups playing around the den. Unfortunately the light was very poor, but here is what I managed to capture . . .
Their mother left them in the care of other members of the pack and went out on an early morning hunt, but was clearly concerned about their wellbeing and continuously turned to listen for sound from the den, and eventually abandoned the hunt to the others and returned to her pups.
It was a thrill and privilege to see such a large pack of “painted wolves” successfully raising the next generation.