Going to the DogsThe paparazzi were in out in force, with the rapid whirring of their cameras capturing every move the models made.
The models stretched and posed, looked straight into the lens, then feigned disinterest and looked away. Real prima donnas, posing and performing to an electronic soundtrack of clicking shutters.
Then they lost interest, and sloped off into the bushes out of sight for the tourists in their Land Cruiser.
Lycaon pictus are the new top dogs in this fickle world where even animal fashions change in the click of a camera. Wild dogs were shunned a few years ago as vermin and callous killing machines with a particularly grisly way of inflicting death.
Yet now the whole wildlife industry is routing for them, making wild dog conservation all the vogue. Their funny little faces grace the covers of magazines, wine bottles and ceramic sculptures and now they have a book of their own too, In Search of the African Wild Dog.
I ventured into their territory for the launch of this glorious coffee table book by the husband and wife photographer and writing team, Roger and Pat de la Harpe.
Guestimates put Africa’s wild dog population at between 3,000 and 5,500, with only 500 in South Africa. We found ours just over the border in Botswana, where the luxurious Mashatu lodge in Northern Tuli Game Reserve has a pack of its own. Much of the book was shot from this base, and since the alpha female had recently produced another litter the dogs were easy to find at their temporary den. In a few days the pups would be strong enough for the pack to abandon the camp and return to its usual nomadic lifestyle, Roger told us.
I watch as they loll about and roll over, swatting and nuzzling each other. It’s too hot to do anything else, and besides, they’d eaten well from a kill that morning. The pups got their fill too as the adults regurgitated the meat for a second-hand serving.
The dogs kill by chasing their prey until it tires, then leap at its stomach and disembowel it on the run. Watching an impala trip over its own intestines as it quickly bleeds to death isn’t a pretty sight, but it’s much more efficient than the lion’s brutish tactic of suffocating its prey to death.
The book is a winner, even though wild dogs are not to everyone’s taste in the beauty stakes. Their comic satellite ears are endearing, but there’s something primeval about their unwavering stare and the disproportionately huge number of teeth cascading out of their eager mouths.
Wild dogs have had a bad rap for too long, the De La Harpes say, and this book will hopefully boost their public image.
Pat’s writing covers efforts to restore their populations and the difficulties in achieving that. Firstly there’s the lingering perception that they’re brutes, so some farmers still shoot them. Since they have no fixed abode they need vast tracts of land to roam, and fences have diminished their freedom. Rabies and diseases caught from domestic animals have decimated their numbers.
Conservation measures now include collaring some dogs to track their movements and better understand their land needs and social habits. Another intervention is to introduce adults from other areas into different packs, to strengthen a group that is too small to survive and to diversify the gene pool so in-breeding doesn’t turn them all barking mad. Although when they romp around in a particularly fiercesome display and let rip with their surprisingly dainty tweets and twitters, you’d be forgiven for thinking they’ve already gone bonkers.
Pat also covers the history of the dogs, which can trace their ancestors back for millions of years. That explains that primeval glint in their eyes, I reckon. Planet Earth a few million years ago was no place for sissy breeds like the stegosaurus.
Back in modern day Tuli, Mashatu lodge has far more to offer than wild dogs. I found the sight of 100-plus elephants ambling past my vehicle in a pachyderm parade absolutely astonishing. I watched in awe as countless massive beasts plodded by, our vehicle hemmed in against the steep bank they were waddling up. Tuli is elephant territory big time, and driving into a herd of inquisitive elephants that almost put on a show of stick-twisting and dirt stomping was magical.
The elephants were an even more impressive sight than our close encounter with the lions, who were so engrossed in trying to dig up a warthog that they allowed us to park only metres away. Three lionesses and four cubs cast us occasional glances, then returned to the fascinating challenge of flushing out the warthog.
Lion paws aren’t designed for digging, and as I felt their frustration I offered to get a spade out and show them how to do it. These lions looked so placid I think they would have stepped aside and let me in.
I like my wildlife to be a little wilder, quite honestly, and to at least look a little threatening, even if it’s only for the cameras.
A couple of hours later the warthog was unearthed, apparently, and instantly ripped into several different pieces. I guess lions expend their energy on the easiest target, which makes six people in a fast-moving vehicle too taxing to contemplate.
Their attention would have pricked up had some of our more energetic colleagues ridden by on their bicycles at that stage. Back at Mashatu the cyclists admitted to a certain frisson of fear when they heard the lions roar, and their guide told them to carefully and quietly turn around and peddle away.
That night everyone at the lodge was shocked out of sleep by a lion roar, interspersed with the cackling of hyeanas. In the morning a ranger told us the lions had made a kill, and were defending their turf as scavenging hyenas tried to encroach.
Wild dogs are also harried by hyenas from time to time, but Pat points out that they’re not related, so people who tar these painted wolves as scavenging bottom feeders do them a disservice. Hyenas follow the principal of every beast for himself, but wild dogs rely on teamwork to kill, rear the pups and care for each member of the pack. No other animals love their pups as much as wild dogs, Roger says, and although breeding is restricted to the alpha pair, every adult nurtures the pups in one big extended family.
In Search of the African Wild Dog is their 19th book, and their most difficult because of the elusive nature of the dogs and their shrinking populations.
I’m sure it’s true, but as the models roll over and pose for the paparazzi again, you can’t help thinking that sometimes nature is awfully obliging.