Hunting dogs – nomads of the savanna



Tanzania 1990
Hunting dogs (Lycaon pictus) are formidable hunters, with powerful jaws and long legs. They are able to run at 60 km/hour. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



When a spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) entered the territory of the hunting dogs, two of the dogs immediately gave chase. The hyena uttered its peculiar laughing call and started running, full speed. But, compared to the dogs, it was far too slow. In a few seconds, they caught up with the hyena, biting its hind legs a couple of times. The hyena screamed and whirled around, snapping at the dogs with its powerful jaws. The incredibly fast dogs swarmed around the hyena, biting its behind and jumping backwards, before it was able to bite them.

The poor hyena zoomed across the savanna, bleeding from its behind and legs, still chased by the furious dogs. Finally, it backed into a hole, where only its head and front paws were exposed. Here the dogs were unable to bite it, as its powerful jaws kept them at bay. A few minutes later, the dogs returned to their territory. Here, two other hyenas received the same type of punishment and quickly retreated.

Hyenas are much attracted to hunting dogs, their favourite food being the dogs’ faeces, which they are willing to do almost anything to get at. There have been instances of hyenas, creeping up to a sleeping hunting dog to lick its anus, risking being bitten in their behind. Hyenas often try to steal prey from hunting dogs, and if their pack is large enough, they often succeed in chasing away the dogs from their prey.



Tanzania 1989
After a brief chase, the hunting dogs caught up with the hyena, biting its hind legs a couple of times. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Tanzania 1989
Thomson’s gazelle (Eudorcas nasalis) is a favourite prey species of hunting dogs. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



The hunt
After chasing away the hyenas, the five dogs were quite restless. Four of them began following a herd of Thomson’s gazelles (Eudorcas nasalis), assessing if any of the animals would show any sign of weakness. The dogs were incredibly fast. In a few moments, they had caught up with the gazelles, selecting a buck as their possible prey. Two of them gave chase, while the other two were running some distance behind them, ready to prevent the buck from turning back. When gazelles get tired, they often start running in semi-circles, after which the dogs at the rear quickly take over the chase.

This was also the case with this gazelle, and the hunt ended abruptly after only two minutes, when one of the dogs collided with the buck. The collision was so violent that the buck literally made a somersault, and a few seconds later the dogs had a firm grip at it. Their sharp teeth tore open the belly of the gazelle, which was still alive, when the dogs began gorging themselves on the intestines.

“Hang on!” shouted our driver Moses, proceeding to race across the bumpy savanna at 70 km/hour. We reached the dogs, shortly after they had started eating. They ignored the car completely. The gazelle soon died, and ten minutes later it had been devoured, with only the head, some bones, and some of the skin left behind. As a gazelle buck weighs around 60 kilograms, each of the four dogs had eaten ten to twelve kilograms of meat!



Tanzania 1989
The gazelle literally made a somersault, and a few seconds later the dogs had a firm grip at it. Their sharp teeth tore open the belly of the gazelle, which was still alive, when the dogs began gorging themselves on the intestines. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Tanzania 1989
In ten minutes the gazelle had been devoured, with only the head, some bones, and some of the skin left behind. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Pups galore
The dogs now ran across the savanna towards their territory, and we decided to follow a bitch with swollen teats. She ignored the car completely, running towards a den, while emitting a strange, bird-like twitter. Nine pups, about four weeks old, with black, wrinkled faces and enormous ears, emerged from the den, tottering about on their short legs. The pups surrounded the bitch, licking the corners of her mouth. She retreated a bit, making a few convulsive throat movements, and proceeded to regurgitate a large portion of meat. The pups at once fell upon it, swallowing the smaller bits and fighting over the larger ones, which, in some cases, evolved into a tug-of-war.

When the other three dogs returned to the den, they also regurgitated meat, not only for the pups, but also for the mother and for the fifth dog, which had remained at the den to guard the pups.  All dogs in a pack participate in the upbringing of a litter of pups. When the pups are very young, the mother – and often another dog – will remain at the den, while the other members of the pack go hunting. Even if the mother dies, the other members of the pack will rear them. There has even been an example of a pack of male dogs rearing a litter of pups, as the mother – which was the only female in the pack – had died.



Tanzania 1989
Nine pups, about four weeks old, with black, wrinkled faces and enormous ears, emerged from the den, tottering about on their short legs. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Tanzania 1989
The bitch made a few convulsive throat movements, proceeding to regurgitate a large portion of meat for the pups. Note that the other dog is wearing a radio-collar. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Evil killers
The scientific name of the hunting dog is Lycaon pictus, from the Greek lykos (wolf) and Latin pictus (painted) – i.e. ’the painted wolf’. Hunting dogs, however, are only distantly related to wolves, but the term ’painted’ is a most suitable description of it. Their snout is always black, and the tip of the tail white, but otherwise their pelt varies tremendously, showing patterns of different shades of brown, black, white, and yellowish. Some individuals are almost black, others sand-coloured, and no two animals are alike.

Formerly, not much was known about the life and habits of the hunting dog, and people had many prejudices against them. Watching their violent way of eating their prey alive is a rather nasty spectacle, and for this reason, many people hated them, regarding them as evil murderers. Farmers shot them on sight, and even in national parks they were persecuted. Soon they were eradicated over large parts of their former distribution area.

The truth of the matter is that this killing method is fast and efficient. Large and deep wounds cause an instant shock effect, and the sufferings of the prey are probably rather limited, before it dies, which mostly happens within a few minutes. Larger prey like zebras (Equus quagga ssp. boehmi) and wildebeest (Connochaetes mearnsi) live a little longer – up to 17 minutes has been recorded, but these cases are very rare.

Generally, people seem to have a much more sympathetic attitude towards the way large cats kill their prey, namely by biting it around the neck until it is strangled. This is not a very bloody affair, which is probably why people regard it as more ’humane’. In reality, the prey is suffering for a much longer time by being strangled than by being torn apart alive.


Nomads of the savanna
In the late 1960s, Hugo van Lawick and James Malcolm initiated a systematic study of the habits of the hunting dog, and since then many other studies have been carried out. These studies have changed the perceptions about these animals tremendously.

Hunting dogs live in packs, the size of which varies enormously, from 2 to about 25 members – most often between 6 and 10. Most of the year, these animals are nomads, roaming savannas and woodland in search of prey. British explorer Wilfred Thesiger once met a pack far up the slopes of Kilimanjaro. The hunting area of a pack sometimes surpasses 4,000 square kilometres. Often hunting areas of several packs overlap, and territorial fights between packs have been observed. Most often, however, one of the packs will retreat to avoid a fight.

The main prey of the dogs are mostly smaller animals, such as gazelles and warthogs (Phacochoerus africanus), but they sometimes hunt larger prey like wildebeest. One pack in the Serengeti National Park had specialized in killing zebras. One of the pursuing dogs would attach itself to the zebra’s tail, causing it to stop and bite at the dog. Another dog would then jump up and attach itself to the zebra’s soft muzzle and, for some reason or other, this action would paralyze the zebra, which would stand dead-still, while the remaining dogs tore open its belly, causing the intestines to fall out. Far from all zebra hunts, however, would end in this way. A herd of zebras comprises mares with their foals, led by a stallion, which is very brave when defending his herd. Often the stallion is able to drive away the dogs by kicking and biting.

Formerly, it was generally believed that once the dogs had chosen a prey it was doomed. In fact, this is a myth, as less than half of their hunts are successful. The dogs are able to run at 60 km/hour, while gazelles, over shorter stretches, can run at almost 80 km/hour. This is the reason why the dogs spend a considerable time watching a flock of gazelles to pick out the weakest animal. Another method is to split into smaller hunting units, which co-operate to cut off a member of the flock.


In a pack of hunting dogs there are two separate, strict hierarchies, one for males and one for females. When a dominant dog approaches a dog of a lower status, the latter will lower its neck and tail and cower, baring its teeth in a ’grin’. If the dominant animal then proceeds to sniff the other dog, the latter will often lie down on the side, baring its neck as a sign of submission.

Hunting mainly takes place in the morning and in the evening, while the hottest part of the day is spent resting and sleeping, often in the shade beneath a tree. Occasionally, a dog or two will wake up, uttering a twittering call, which causes all members of the pack to run around among each other, whining and wagging their tail, while licking one another’s face. This greeting ceremony is derived from food-begging, strengthening the solidarity of the pack, simultaneously subduing aggression in the dominant animals. This is a necessity during a hunt, where it is essential not to waste energy on submission postures, and, in fact, prey is killed by low-range members as often as by dominant dogs.

Researchers believe that most male dogs stay in a pack after they become adults, whereas females leave the pack to join other groups – a means to prevent inbreeding. Thus, most males in a pack are brothers or half-brothers, and in fact aggression takes place more often among females than among males.



Tanzania 1988
A greeting ceremony among adult hunting dogs strengthens the bond between the members of the pack. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Tanzania 1988
An adult hunting dog greets another dog by sniffing its genitals. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Momentarily sedentary
The dogs only give up their nomadic way of life, when a bitch is going to give birth. In East Africa, most pups are born during the wet season, between February and April, when prey is plentiful on the savanna. The pregnant bitch seeks out a suitable place, often a deserted den of an aardvark (Orycteropus afer), a peculiar nocturnal animal with large claws on its forelegs, and a long pig-like snout with an enormously long tongue, suitable for licking up termites.

The pregnant bitch may enlarge the den, biting off roots sticking into it. Now the pack lives in this area for some months, while the pups grow up. Before giving birth, the pregnant bitch enters ‘false heat’, which means that she secretes the same type of hormones as during the genuine heat. The effect of this strange habit is that the male dogs will stay in the area instead of continuing their nomadic way of life. The dominant female marks the surrounding savanna with urine, hereby announcing to other packs that this particular area is occupied.

As a rule, a bitch gives birth to 8 to 16 pups. She only has 12 or 14 teats, and if the litter is larger the pups must suckle in turn. Under normal circumstances, the other dogs in the pack have no difficulty in supplying enough food for the mother and her pups. During his studies, van Lawick noticed a peculiar behaviour, when he watched a dominant female suckling a mother dog of a lower status. The desire for suckling seems to be quite strong.

Usually, hunting dogs do not fear any animal on the savanna – on the contrary, most other animals are afraid of the dogs. However, when there are pups in a pack, the dogs are very nervous when lions are around, and often the pups are moved to another den. When pups are about two months old, they start joining the adults during the initial part of their hunting trips, but quickly return to the den. As time goes by, they get bolder, and when they are about three months old they are ready to join the adults on their wanderings. When the pups participate in a hunt, they are allowed to eat first, even if they didn’t participate in the killing.



Tanzania 1988
Playing pups. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Tanzania 1988
Hunting dogs have no fear of vehicles. This pup is looking at us from a distance of one metre. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Solo’s story
In a pack, usually only one female has pups at any one time. Once van Lawick and Malcolm watched a dominant female, who had pups herself, systematically kill the pups of a female of a lower status, which gave birth two months later. Only one pup, called Solo by the researchers, survived as by a miracle, despite the fact that it was continuously tormented by the older pups.

This pack resumed their nomadic way of life, when the pups of the dominant female were about three months old. Little Solo also joined the pack, but, as days went by, got ever more exhausted. At last, the pack left her, and van Lawick and Malcolm brought it back to their camp.

Shortly after, they encountered two hunting dogs, which had left their pack – a pair with pups which were somewhat younger than Solo, but about the same size, as Solo had never had enough food to grow normally. The scientists placed a cage, containing Solo, near the dogs’ den, anxiously awaiting what would happen. As it turned out, the two dogs were very interested and approached the cage, sniffing the small prisoner. When the cage was opened, Solo ran out, performing the various submission postures, and, what the researchers had hoped for, happened: The dogs accepted Solo, and the female let her suckle alongside her own pups.


Serious decline
Even though hunting dogs are no longer persecuted, they are still an endangered species. For several decades now, a very contagious viral disease has killed entire packs all across East Africa, and the total number of dogs may be lower than 5,000 individuals in all of Africa. The species is still fairly common in Botswana and Zimbabwe, and it may be able to spread northwards from here. Hopefully, these fascinating nomads will continue to roam the African savannas in the future.



Lawick, H. 1973. Solo. The story of an African wild dog puppy and her pack. Collins
Lawick-Goodall, H. & J. 1970. Innocent killers. Collins
Thesiger, W. 1994. My Kenya Days. HarperCollins



(Uploaded February 2016)


(Revised April 2017)