The Madikwe Private Game Reserve is the fifth largest game reserve in South Africa and one of the best ecological conservation areas. Madikwe is set against the Botswana border, near the Kalahari Desert and a little way from the commercial town of Zeerust, which acts as the link between South Africa and Botswana. The malaria-free reserve is home to the Big 5, which consists of elephant, rhino, leopard, buffalo and lion. Although the Big 5 will ensure a fascinating sight and wonderful safari photographs, the true highlight of visiting Madikwe is their thriving African wild dog population. These tough, and cute, animals have had a lot to overcome since their introduction to the reserve, and have since become an unofficial mascot of Madikwe. They are playful, highly intelligent and unique in both looks and characteristics, and observing their day-to-day interactions are one of the stand-out moments to experience in the reserve. The Latin name for wild dogs is Lycaon Pictus, which translates to Painted Wolf, an apt name for these colourful spotted animals. From their intimate social structure, to their excellent hunting skills, meet The Wild Dogs of Madikwe.
In the past the African wild dogs roamed the Serengeti, with packs reaching over 100. Today, that number is much less, and an estimated 5000 dogs are left in the world, most in southern and eastern Africa. The decline in most part is due to urbanisation, farmers who view them as a threat to their livestock, illegal snare traps, as well as diseases spread from domestic dogs which then spread rapidly throughout the pack. Madikwe has taken steps to help this highly endangered species by introducing a pack to the game reserve in 1994. The pack of six was originally from a breeding programme set in the Kruger National Park. They did not have an easy time at first, but have since grown, and new packs have been introduced from different reserves. The founding pack, known as ‘The Collection’ were greatly affected by lion attacks and disease, but overcame these tragedies and began breeding and thriving under close supervision of the conservationists and ecologists at Madikwe. It has been a long road for the wild dogs, but now Madikwe has a few established packs in the reserve, that are eager to put on a show for visiting travellers. Packs are not afraid of the safari vehicles and will often play and interact with one another in front of the vehicle, allowing travellers to take some incredible photos. Although still critically endangered, these tough dogs have overcome the worst and have settled quite nicely in the Madikwe bushland.
The wild dogs travel in packs of 10 to 20 members, although the pack can grow much larger than this. The dogs have a defined social structure with a male and female alpha, with the oldest female leading all of the females in the pack and the oldest male leading the rest of the males, although at times a younger male will become an alpha. The male and female alphas are usually the only pair to breed, but breeding between other members has been observed. Female wild dogs are known to leave the pack, something rarely seen in the animal kingdom, as most pack species have males leave and females stay together. The females leave and usually take the place of another female in a different pack that has either left or been forcefully removed. This clever phenomenon prevents interbreeding within packs, allowing for strong and healthy puppies.
The pack is tightly bonded and will take care of one another, with the sick, injured and puppies being fed and looked after. An adult dog will stay behind and watch the pups while the rest of the pack hunts, and on return, the pups will lick the faces of the adult wild dogs who will then regurgitate full chunks of meat for the puppies to feed on. Meanwhile the dog on duty will swap with another dog to feed. The pack communicates with whining sounds, and when a dog has lost sight of its pack it will make an owl-like sound to find its way back. The tightly-knitted pack even practices democracy! A recent study undertaken by the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust found that wild dogs vote to go hunting by sneezing – the wild dogs count sneezes as ballots and will obey the final decision made by the group. The sneezes of the alphas, and higher ranking members of the pack, count more than those of the lower ranking members, but lower ranking members can ‘out sneeze’ the higher ranking ones, therefore changing the decision made by the alphas. The bond shared has a downside though – disease spreads very quickly throughout the pack and it is not uncommon for whole packs to be completely wiped out by one infection. Wild dogs are highly intelligent, loyal and fiercely protective of another, an instinct that makes them ruthless and brilliant hunters.
The wild dogs are one of the best hunters with an 80% success rate – this is even more impressive when you compare it to the 30% success rate of lions, who also hunt in groups. The dogs are able to chase prey over distances, running at a constant speed of 60km an hour. The weaker and older prey will eventually tire and this is when the dogs pounce and together as a pack kill and disembowel the prey. The pack feeds in about 15 minutes before rushing back to the puppies to feed them. Once puppies are old enough for solid food, they will feed first, even before the alphas. Wild dogs are able to take down a buffalo as well as up to three impalas a day. While on the hunt, they communicate with each other using their white bushy tails, which they stick in the air. This also helps the group stick together.
The introduction of the wild dogs to Madikwe is known as Operation Phoenix and the Madikwe Wild Dog Project aims to monitor, protect and study these incredible predators. Madikwe is one of the only reserves in South Africa that is able to hold large groups of wild dogs – although the conservation initiative is one many reserves wish to undertake, there is not a lot of them that can. Wild dogs need a huge space to roam and kill up to three or more times a day with packs able to cause significant damage to game stock. Jaci’s Lodges, a popular accommodation in Madikwe, offers its guests conservation safaris, where the conservation efforts that take place regarding wild dogs, elephants, lions and rhinos can be observed. The conservation safari is led by a wildlife veterinarian, a helicopter pilot, and field rangers. Protecting the wildlife is one of the most important tasks we as the dominant species has, and travellers can help by practicing responsible tourism. Snare traps, which are inhumane and illegal in South Africa, are one of the biggest problems wild dogs face – if one dog gets caught the pack will return to look for its lost member, resulting in more getting caught in other traps. Future generations deserve to see these stunning animals, and Madikwe is doing their part to protect African wildlife from human greed.