Sboniso Blessing Zwane, a wildlife biology research assistant, drives me along bumpy dirt trails through the rugged hills of Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park in South Africa. Rhino mothers and their calves graze alongside zebras; wildebeests, elephants and giraffes mingle on the grasslands; and grizzled Cape buffaloes block the trail, glaring at us before ambling off in their own sweet time. The park, in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa, was once the heartland of the Zulu kingdom and has some of the greatest concentrations of wildlife in Africa. But we pass the animals here with barely a glance. We're on the trail of one of the continent's most endangered carnivores—the wild dog.
Members of the canid family, which includes jackals, wolves and domestic dogs, the wild dog is a distinct species, Lycaon pictus, or "painted wolf." Wild dogs once roamed most of sub-Saharan Africa by the hundreds of thousands, but today there are fewer than 5,000. They're victims of habitat loss, which has both reduced their food supply and put them increasingly at odds with lions and hyenas, their natural enemies. Moreover, people have long slaughtered wild dogs, partly because the animals have been known to attack livestock but also, apparently, because of their fearsome reputation; they kill prey with such bloody ruthlessness that some farmers, I'm told, still refer to the animal as "the Devil's dog." Today wild dogs inhabit less than 50 protected national parks and private game reserves in southern and eastern Africa, where the roughly three million-year-old species is making what amounts to a last stand.
"Wild dogs are much better hunters than even lions and leopards," says Zwane, a Zulu who assists on a wild dog research project run by the Smithsonian Institution's National Zoo, as we bounce along in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi's late afternoon sun. "Once they target prey, it rarely escapes." The claim is arguable—cheetahs, lions, leopards and hyenas are also superb hunters—but, as if to prove Zwane right, a herd of about 30 impala, led by a big buck, dashes past us heading for thick bush, their eyes wide. He beams. Moments later, two of the most extraordinary creatures I have ever seen run by in pursuit of the impalas. They resemble wiry, muscular dogs, but have long, slender, supermodel legs; broad heads and massive jaws; bushy white-tipped tails; and comical Mickey Mouse-shaped ears. Their sinuous bodies are splashed with dark brown, gold, white and black splotches, like camouflage suits.
The wild dogs seem to be merely loping along, even as they match the impalas' blazing speed. We drive behind along the trail, occasionally glimpsing the impalas and the wild dogs through the scrub. A few minutes later we hear a squeal from the bushes, and then silence.
They are ruthless killers, it is true. Depending on the terrain, they can be twice as successful as lions, getting up to three out of four of the prey they target. And though wild dogs weigh just 50 to 70 pounds, their prey averages 110 pounds and, in the case of a kudu bull (a type of antelope), can weigh up to 500 pounds. Living in groups of 2 to 30 animals, with home territories as large as 770 square miles, wild dogs hunt in packs, adapting their tactics to the environment.
In the Serengeti, says Micaela Szykman Gunther, a behavioral ecologist at Humboldt State University, in California, "a pack chases a prey for a long time across the open savanna, with dogs that tire falling back and their places taken by other dogs. They exhaust the prey." But in the thick bushland of Hluhluwe-iMfolozi, wild dogs tend to catch their prey by surprise. "I once saw a pack of 17 wild dogs flush out a big male nyala [an antelope] onto the road and surround him," Gunther recalls. "They kept darting in, tiring him as he tried to spear them with his horns. They pulled him down and tore into him in seconds." Wild dogs have been known to even disembowel prey while it is still on the run.
It's that sort of behavior that has earned them such enmity. In 1914, British big game hunter R.C.F. Maugham wrote: "Let us consider for a moment that abomination—that blot upon the many interesting wild things—the murderous Wild Dog. It will be an excellent day for African game and its preservation when means can be devised for its complete extermination."
Gunther bristles at the sentiment. "Somehow, the way a big cat like a lion or leopard usually kills—by strangulation that can take many minutes—was seen as more noble than the wild dogs' swift but gruesome kill," she says. "Which is more cruel?"
Greg Rasmussen says he dislikes the term "wild dog" because it reinforces the animal's nasty reputation. He prefers "painted dog," and indeed, among canid experts, Rasmussen is "Mr. Painted Dog." His base is at Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park, in northern Matabeleland, about 120 miles from spectacular Victoria Falls. Hwange spreads across 5,650 square miles, 90 percent of it Kalahari sand. At the northeastern edge of the park, a huddle of bungalows houses Painted Dog Conservation (PDC), a program set up by Rasmussen in 2002. There are about 150 wild dogs in the park, and Rasmussen has studied them in their natural habitat for two decades.
At the center, I settle into a chalet-style room with a view of a water hole, a draw for wild animals because of a persistent drought. More than 100 elephants troop in to slurp up water and spray themselves with cooling mud just a few yards from where I sit in the darkness. A leopard slinks across the flat dry pan toward the hole, causing several sable antelope, led by a male with huge curving horns, to skitter away. But I see no wild dogs. They get much of their fluids from the blood of prey.