Feared, loathed, hated, and hunted, the African wild dog has only the most cursory kinship to its domesticated cousin. Closer to the wolf, and also known as “the painted dog,” this canid has just four toes—other dogs have five—uses vocalization to build relationships, and exists in a rare harmony that is daily threatened.
Now numbering at under 50,000 individuals, painted dogs were once slaughtered wholesale in service to the once-common notion that the animals killed for sport, targeted humans, and even practiced cannibalism among themselves. This lore has since been put to rest as conservationists have come to better understand the habits and traits of this unique species.
Pack structure is a unique aspect of painted dog culture. Just as a single bee cannot exist without his fellows in the hive, so, too, do these animals depend upon the greater unit for success. While packs may have up to 20 animals, the basic group is usually just six, centered around a male and female alpha couple; the other animals either do not mate or are all male. Pups are communally raised and animals consume extra food in order to regurgitate it later for the newly weaned. They hunt in dawn and dusk’s cool and under the fullness of a bright moon. They are said to sound like songbirds in the morning as they vocalize within the pack as a way to establish intimacy among members. If an individual gets separated from the pack, they have sophisticated strategies for discovery and recovery of that animal.
Ancient and extraordinary, painted dogs must share a habitat with farmers and ranchers, with poachers and hunters, many of whom share the same daily goal: to kill and eat a lovely yummy antelope or other mid-sized mammal. Researchers have tagged and radio-clipped as many individuals as they can as fast as they can, trying to track and tell the story of these unique creatures before they are all gone.
Help with tracking and camera equipment is of paramount need. So is educational outreach to help villagers and other locals discount the old stories of yore and see ways to coexist with this rare dog, one that will never curl up on the hearth, fetch slippers, or roll over on command. It has so much more to do with its day.