Don Wilson is curator of mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and was named senior scientist in January, 2000. For the last 30 years, his work has taken him around the world to conduct field work and research. He has led tours for Smithsonian Journeys to most of the world’s greatest natural history destinations, from Antarctica to Africa. Click here to learn more about Don.
Kruger National Park is South Africa’s largest game reserve, and has long been one of my favorites. As a long-time Study Leader, I have made lots of trips to Africa over the years, but in the summer of 2007 my wife Kate and I had the good fortune to join a wonderful couple and 19 of their children and grandchildren on the experience of a lifetime. To celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, they took the whole family on an African safari by private plane.
One of the most memorable destinations was a private lodge and reserve bordering Kruger. It was the 21st of July, mid-winter in the southern hemisphere, and the morning air was nippy when morning tea was delivered to our thatch-roofed rondavel. Warmed by a hearty breakfast enjoyed while overlooking the Sand River, we headed out on our morning game drive in open-topped vehicles.
Having seen a plethora of wildlife, including the “Big Five” in our first two days here, we were on a special mission this morning. Our driver guides had told me about a den of African Wild Dogs, and although I had done research on mammals and led safaris to Africa for 30 years, I had never seen this impressive predator in the wild. Because we were in a private reserve rather than inside the National Park, we were able to ease our way through the scrub forest to a spot very near the den. In fact, we were so close, the pups came right up to the vehicle and were smelling the tires.
There were 14 puppies about two months old and 6 adult dogs at the den while we were there. The average pack size is between 5 and 20 dogs, so it was likely that other adults were out hunting to bring back the constant supply of food required by this large litter. Although large for canids, this was a typical litter for African Wild Dogs. Only the alpha female breeds, but the entire pack cares for the young, so pup survival is unusually high. Seeing these fantastic animals so up-close and personal was enough to jolt the most jaded of wildlife observers, and I spent the next half hour or so with my head spinning from one photo opportunity to the next. Being able to just sit quietly and watch the morning activity at the den was such a treat for me that it made the entire trip.
African Wild Dogs, also called Hunting Dogs, belong to the family Canidae, but unlike other dogs, they have only four toes on their front feet. This, combined with their long legs and gangly bodies, make it easy to see that they are built for both speed and endurance. Large, rounded ears give them excellent hearing, but by mid-morning the temperature was on the rise, and the adult dogs were flapping those big ears in an attempt to stay cool. A pattern of black and white splotches on different shades of brown background color is unique to each individual and suggests yet another of their common names: African Painted Dogs. African Wild Dogs are somewhat like our own North American wolves in their social structure, but watching this group in action gave the impression of a kinder, gentler species of canid as the adults tolerated the playful pups.
Just remembering that morning has me looking forward to the next safari. Each trip holds something new and special, and I can’t wait for the next one.
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