They hunt in family groups over great distances, chasing mostly impala, kudu and duiker until the prey tires and can be caught.
Hence they have earned a well-deserved reputation for being efficient, indefatigable hunters who will disembowel prey in a matter of minutes, before lions or hyenas get a chance to move in.
Yet, less known about them is the fact that the sick and wounded, together with the young members of the pack, are looked after, fed on regurgitated food and nursed back to health.
Painted hunting dogs, so named for their individual and elaborate skin markings, were some of the most maligned predators.
What is known about them now is that they are very social animals living in large packs numbering up to 40. There is usually one breeding female in each pack, which gives birth to a litter of up to 10 pups at a time that the whole pack takes turns in looking after.
The dogs used to be a common feature of wilderness. But with the advent of European colonization, they were branded vermin and mercilessly persecuted, to the extent of being eradicated from national parks. Their numbers were reduced from some 500,000 to a mere 2,000 to 3,000. Now they are an endangered species.
Protecting Painted Hunting Dogs
Between 1956 and 1961, about 2,700 painted hunting dogs were killed for a bounty paid by the government to protect livestock. And those were just the recorded deaths.
This kind of slaughter went on throughout the world where previously the dogs had been sighted even on the snows of Mt. Kilimanjaro and often wandered into the Sahara Desert.
The total for Africa now stands at about 3,000. That was after poachers moved in. The Muslim country Tanzania has about 800 dogs.
At the forefront of the species’ survival is zoologist Greg Rasmussen, whose Painted Dog Research Project has existed since 1989.
Rasmussen and his team have been quite successful in allaying ranchers’ concerns about the dogs and also bringing about a high level of awareness within the population.
Monitoring with the help of radio collars and translocation has brought the dogs in areas where they hadn’t been seen in decades.
The project has three main focus areas: identifying through research the problems facing painted hunting dogs, disseminating information regarding the problems facing this species and actively reducing known causes of mortality and preventing those that are looming.
A considerable percentage of fatalities are caused by motor vehicles as the dogs – moving in packs – frequently fall victim to road accidents, especially when they move in and out of game reserves.
Thus, apart from erecting road signs warning motorists of the dogs’ crossing points, Rasmussen has developed a special collar for the dogs with reflective strips and a stainless steel plate that makes it easier for motorists to see them in the dark, and also protects the dogs’ windpipe should they get caught in snares.
Transfrontier Parks: Lost Hope?
The results of extensive tests on improved survival of dogs wearing the collars have shown that the protectively collared dogs had significantly higher survival chances than the rest.
However, given that each pack needs about 750 square kilometers in order to thrive, the dogs’ future is far from secured since this exceeds what most game reserves can provide.
Some experts say the only long-term solution to the problem is the creation of transfrontier parks that will give wild dogs enough room to roam.
Not only would this minimize habitat loss to humans, it would also prevent inbreeding, a phenomenon that bodes ill for the survival of the species.
A proposed Transfrontier Park, has been thrown in doubt due to the reported occupation of the game reserve by land-hungry poor peasants.
For Rasmussen’s study packs, however, the problem has been less academic. Poaching, fuelled by chaotic land reform programs, has led to the demise of three out of five study packs, or over 30 dogs, in 18 months.
Since February 2000, scores of European farmers have been pushed off their land as the government sought to redress colonial land imbalances in an unplanned populist program driven more by the ruling party’s fear of losing power than a desire for genuine reform.
In many instances, government-supported war veterans of liberation struggle have moved in, sharing the land among them.
Other farms have been partitioned for “new farmers”- blacks – many of whom are content with being absentee landlords or are still trying to find their feet.
Wildlife In Danger
“We need an indication of who should live here and who shouldn’t,” Rasmussen says, part of his study area consisting of several ranches within which game can roam, but now without careful policing. “A lot of people have moved in merely to collect wildlife.”
Apparently, the wild dogs aren’t the only wild animals falling victim to poaching. Rasmussen notes that 16 members of his project’s anti-poaching unit are removing 1,000 snares a month and fear that in six months they will have no jobs since the game might be wiped out by then.
“Now everyone has left the ranches, the poachers are having a free lunch,” he says. “Most of the poaching is for selling meat and nothing else. There is absolutely no control.”
He bemoans the fact that reputation of having the best wild dog program has suffered a major setback.
Yet, to stem the tide, Ben Kaschula of the Commercial Farmers Union, which represents mainly while landowners, says the rule of law has to return to the farms. “If poaching were to cease, the game would recover given time.”
For the endangered painted wild dogs, there might be no third chance.
- ‘Poachers Run Riot at Conservancy’, The Chronicle, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, July 14, 2003.
- Painted Hunting Dog Research Project fact sheets.
- Tafi Murinzi, ‘Africa’s Wild Dogs Face Extinction’, July 1997, Daily Mail and Guardian, Johannesburg, South Africa.
This article was first published in 2006 and is currently republished for its importance.