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Among the best hunters in Africa, wild dogs have a higher kill rate than lions and can take down antelope that weigh as much as 500 pounds. They are notorious for a grisly efficiency that has made some people fear and hate them, if not shoot them on sight. (Daryl Balfour / NHPA)

Curse of the Devil's Dogs

Traditionally viewed as dangerous pests, Africa's wild dogs have nearly been wiped out. But thanks to new conservation efforts, the smart, sociable canines appear ready to make a comeback

Rasmussen, stocky and 50 years old, was born in London and came to Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) with his mother and father, a schoolteacher at a private academy, when he was 11. "I loved animals and found myself in heaven," he says. In 1988, an American wild dog researcher, Joshua Ginsberg, offered him a job observing the animals in Hwange National Park because, Ginsberg recalls, Rasmussen "obviously enjoyed being out in the bush for months at a time observing wild animals, and I needed someone like that to follow the wild dogs."

Rasmussen started to live with a pack, following the wild dogs around the national park in his SUV and sleeping near them. "Their hunts usually start when the temperature is cool," he says. "By 9 a.m., it's too hot to hunt, and so the dogs lie up all day, sleeping together in a great heap." Often they hunt by the light of the moon. "They're very successful in the moonlight, and get more kudu than other prey on these hunts."

What attracted Rasmussen to the wild dogs and kept him going through the lonely days and nights out in the bush was what he calls their "perfect social harmony." They rarely fight among themselves, Rasmussen says, and "the pack members daily reinforce their bonding by elaborate greeting rituals, with leaps, tail wagging, squeals, twittering and face licking—when they wake up, just before they hunt and when they come back from a kill." As Gunther says, "The wild dog is one of the most intensely social animals we know. The pack is always living, playing, walking, running, hunting and feeding together."

Rasmussen remembers once seeing a wild dog get swatted by a lion, opening a deep gash around its neck. The wound was so bad that a veterinarian Rasmussen consulted recommended putting the animal down. "The pack knew better than the vet," Rasmussen says with a smile. "The dogs dragged their wounded member away and looked after it for three months. They appointed one of the dogs I called Circus to act like a medic, constantly licking the wound and making sure the injured dog got food after the pack returned from a kill. Three months later I saw the injured dog, its neck now healed, back in the pack and taking part in the hunt." Later, Rasmussen observed a dog he called Doc seemingly deputized to be the pack's medic. Doc fed and tended five injured dogs, Rasmussen says, feeding them by regurgitating food, something wild dogs can do at will.

Rasmussen found that the animals' social organization is so complete that each pack member was allotted a task suited to its skills. A dog he named Magellan proved almost useless in the hunt, and was once seen running after a rabbit while the other wild dogs tore after a kudu. But Magellan soon took on another role—babysitter. "He stood guard over the pups while the others were away at a hunt," Rasmussen says, "alerting them of any danger so they could quickly shoot down into the protection of the den."

Wild dog litters can number up to 20 pups—one of the largest litters of carnivores—and the pups stay in and around their underground den for about three months before they begin to run with the pack. Usually only the dominant pair of dogs in each pack breeds, the alpha male and alpha female, and they mate for life. (Beta females sometimes also have pups.) "The other dogs are incredibly loyal to the puppies and join in to raise them," says Rasmussen. Unlike lions and hyenas, they allow their young to feed first after a kill, even before the dominant pair.

Because the animals are hard to track, moving up to 20 miles a day, Rasmussen began following them in an ultralight. One morning two years ago, he took off at sunrise and was not long in the air before the right wing dipped, the tail lifted and the plane plunged to the rocks. With his legs badly smashed, Rasmussen dragged himself to a nearby thorn tree. A pair of vultures circled and landed nearby. (He cheered up a bit when they flew away.) He dragged himself back under the wrecked fuselage for protection from the boiling sun. "At sunset my heart sunk, knowing there was no chance of being rescued at least until the next day." At night his throat tightened when he heard a soft "ooogh, ooogh"—a lioness calling to a lion. He banged hard on the windshield and started whacking an aluminum strut, frightening the animals away. He scared off a prowling hyena the same way.

Another day passed without food and water. The end was near, he thought, and as he reviewed his life he concluded that the most rewarding moments had been among the wild dogs in the bush. Then he heard the drone of a plane. Its pilot noticed bits of wreckage that Rasmussen had distributed near the crash site, and sent their coordinates to a helicopter, which found him and bore him to a hospital. "Above the waist I was fine," he says, "but my pelvis had a fracture, both femurs were broken, both lower legs were broken in several places, and my ankles were damaged." Several major operations put life back into his shattered legs, now shortened two inches and as stiff as boards.

Rasmussen now runs two anti-poaching patrols manned by 17 trackers who scour the area near his headquarters in Hwange National Park. In the five years since the patrols began, the trackers have found and destroyed more than 10,000 snares, circles of wire designed to trap antelope but capable of killing or maiming wild dogs and even zebra and giraffes. He has also opened a 70-acre rehabilitation facility, which currently houses five orphaned dogs behind electrified fences. So far, Rasmussen has reintroduced four such orphaned dogs into the wild. He moved them first to Starvation Island in Lake Kariba, 300 miles to the north. (Despite its name, the island is well stocked with antelope.) For a month Rasmussen provided carcasses for the dogs. "Then, they chased and killed a female kudu," he says. "They got a taste for the hunt and had no trouble getting prey after that." Once they were ready to live on their own, Rasmussen transferred the dogs to the mainland, where they have had to contend with lions and hyenas. It's too early to tell whether reintroduction will have a big impact on wild dog populations. But, says Rasmussen, "if it has saved dogs from one area that then survive to fight another day somewhere else, even if they may not always do as well, then it's a success."

"Wild dogs are the hardest of all the African carnivores to reintroduce because they are highly social and require enormous areas to roam, preferably in protected reserves," says Ginsberg, Rasmussen's former mentor, who is now affiliated with the Bronx Zoo and is co-author of the World Conservation Union's (IUCN) African Wild Dog Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan.

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