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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

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Of all Rasmussen's efforts on behalf of this oft-maligned beast, it seems he's most proud of the Inganyana Children's Bush Camp, "inganyana" being the local Sindebele name for wild dogs. Some 900 sixth graders each year, 50 at a time, spend four days and three nights at the rehabilitation facility, watching the dogs and learning that they are an important part of the ecosystem, helping hold other animal populations in check. They also learn that, contrary to legend, wild dogs do not normally attack people. "The kids go back to their villages and report to the chief anyone they suspect is poaching painted dogs," Rasmussen says. "Convince the local kids that they should respect painted dogs, and the battle to save them is half won."

There are signs that wild dogs are capable of making a comeback. More than 15 field projects across Africa's lower half are monitoring wild dog packs for the IUCN's Canid Specialist Group, says Claudio Sillero, who chairs the effort. And he says that although wild dogs are declining in some regions, they are becoming more numerous in others, and have even returned to the Serengeti, from which they had disappeared more than a decade ago. At Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, in South Africa, researchers affiliated with the Smithsonian's National Zoo say there are almost 65 wild dogs in eight packs, up from 34 dogs in four breeding packs in 2003.

Whatever the species' long-term prospects, researchers don't expect wild dog populations to rebound overnight, given what's being learned about the animals' complex social life. In most wild dog packs, all the males are related, as are all the females—but not to any of the males. When females are about 2 years old, they leave their home group and roam, looking for a group of brothers that have split off from their natal pack. "It can take months" for groups of young males and females to find each other, says Penny Spiering, a conservation biologist who directs the fieldwork for the National Zoo's project.

One glimmering dawn, Spiering and I drive along a road inside Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park searching for wild dogs. She jams on the brakes and points ahead—there's one, in silhouette, pacing the road. She aims her binoculars and smiles. "It's Khanda, one of the dispersers. I haven't seen her in two months." Khanda is apparently searching for a new pack. Being somewhat familiar with the researchers' trucks, she trots up to us and stands by my door for a few moments. I admire her lean powerful body and keen intelligent stare. Then, with a turn of her handsome head and a flash of gleaming teeth, she trots off, vanishing in the undergrowth.

Paul Raffaele's story on the Korubo people of the Amazon was selected for 2006's Best American Science and Nature Writing.

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