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

The poor hyaena zoomed across the savanna, bleeding from its behind and legs, still chased by the furious dogs. Finally, the hyaena backed into a hole, where only its head and front paws were exposed, and from this position, its powerful jaws could keep the dogs at bay. The dogs left, returning to their territory, where two other hyaenas received the same type of punishment, which made them retreat quickly.

Hyaenas are much attracted to hunting dogs, as the dogs’ faeces is one of their favourite foods, which they are willing to do almost anything to get at. There have been instances of hyaenas, which crept up to a sleeping hunting dog to lick its anus, with the risk of being bitten in their behind. Hyaenas also often try to steal prey from hunting dogs, and if their pack is large enough, they may succeed in chasing away the dogs from their prey.



Following a brief chase, the hunting dogs caught up with the hyaena, biting its hind legs. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




The hunt
When the hyaenas had been chased away, the five dogs became restless. Four of them began following a herd of Thomson’s gazelles (Eudorcas thomsonii), assessing if any animal would show signs 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 dogs 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 begin running in semi-circles, which gives the dogs at the rear a possibility to 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 caught up with the buck. The collision between them was so violent that the buck literally made a somersault. A few seconds later, the dogs had a firm grip at it, their sharp teeth tearing 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, racing like a madman across the bumpy savanna at 70 km/hour. We reached the dogs, shortly after they had commenced eating. They ignored the car completely. The gazelle died after a minute or so, and ten minutes later it had been devoured, with only the head, some bones, and a few bits of skin left behind. As a gazelle buck weighs around 60 kilograms, each of the four dogs had eaten ten to twelve kilograms of meat!



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



In ten minutes, the gazelle had been devoured, with only the head, some bones, and a few bits of skin left behind. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Pups galore
When they had finished eating, the dogs ran across the savanna towards their territory. We decided to follow a bitch with swollen teats. Ignoring the car completely, she stopped at a den, 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. They 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. When the pups are very young, the mother, and often also another dog, will remain at the den, while the other members of the pack are out hunting. Even if the mother dies, the other members of the pack will rear the pups. There was even an example of a pack of male dogs rearing a litter of pups, when the mother – which was the only female in the pack – had died.



Nine pups emerged from the den, tottering about on their short legs. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



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’), thus ’the painted wolf’. Hunting dogs, however, are only distantly related to wolves, but the term ’painted’ is a most suitable description of the species. Their snout is always black, and the tip of the tail is white, but otherwise their pelt varies tremendously, showing patterns of various shades of brown, black, white, and yellowish. Some individuals are almost black, others are sand-coloured, and no two animals are alike.

Formerly, not much was known about the social structure and habits of the hunting dog, and people had many prejudices against them. Watching their violent way of killing and eating their prey alive is a rather nasty spectacle, and 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 method of killing is quick 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) and wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus) may live a little longer. Up to 17 minutes has been recorded, but such cases are very rare.

Generally, people seem to have a much more sympathetic attitude towards the way that large cats kill their prey, namely by strangling it with a firm grip around the neck. 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, researchers Hugo van Lawick (1937-2002) 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 enormously.

Hunting dogs live in packs, the size of which varies tremendously, from 2 to about 25 members, mostly between 6 and 10. For the major part of the year, these animals are nomads, roaming savannas and woodlands in search of prey. British explorer Wilfred Thesiger (1910-2003) once encountered a pack far up the slopes of Kilimanjaro.

The hunting area of a pack may surpass 4,000 km2. The areas of two packs sometimes overlap, and territorial fights have been observed. In most cases, however, one of the packs will retreat to avoid a fight.

The main prey of hunting dogs are smaller animals like gazelles and warthogs (Phacochoerus africanus), but they occasionally 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, guarded by a stallion, which is very brave when defending his herd. In most cases, 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. This is a myth, as less than half of their hunts are successful. The dogs are able to run at 60 km/hour, whereas gazelles, over shorter stretches, can run at almost 80 km/hour. This is 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.



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




Strict hierarchy
There are two separate hierarchies in a pack of hunting dogs, 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, baring its teeth in a ’grin’ while cowering. If the dominant animal 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, whereas 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 makes all members of the pack run around among each other, whining and wagging their tail, while licking one another’s faces. This greeting ceremony, which is derived from food-begging, strengthens the solidarity of the pack and will also subdue aggression in the dominant animals. This is a necessity during a hunt, where it is essential not to waste energy on submission postures. In fact, prey is killed by low-range members just as often as by dominant dogs.

Researchers believe that most male dogs stay in a pack after reaching adulthood, 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 research has shown that aggression is far more frequent among females than among males.



An adult dog greets another member of the pack 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 about 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 bitch may enlarge the den, biting off roots sticking into it.

The pack is now sedentary 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, causing the male dogs to remain in the area instead of continuing their nomadic way of life. The dominant female marks the surrounding savanna with urine, announcing to other packs that this particular area is occupied.

As a rule, a bitch gives birth to between 8 and 16 pups. She only has 12 or 14 teats, and in larger litters 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 of a dominant female, suckling a mother dog of a lower status. The desire for suckling seems to be quite strong.

Usually, hunting dogs have no fear of other animals – on the contrary, most other animals are afraid of the dogs. However, when they have pups, the dogs are very nervous of the presence of lions, and in such cases, they often move the pups 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 at an age of about three months, 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 take part in the killing proper.



Playing pups. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Solo’s story
In a pack, usually only one female has pups at any one time. On one occasion, 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, dubbed Solo by the researchers, survived as if by miracle, despite the fact that she 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 tried her best to keep up with the pack, but, as days went by, she got ever more exhausted. At last, the pack left her, and the researchers brought her back to their camp.

Some days later, 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 now placed a cage, containing Solo, near the dogs’ den, anxiously awaiting what would happen. As it turned out, the two dogs got 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.



Hunting dogs have no fear of vehicles. This pup is watching us from a distance of a metre or so. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




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, H. & J. Goodall 1970. Innocent killers. Collins
Thesiger, W. 1994. My Kenya Days. HarperCollins



Other members of the dog family are described on the page Animals: Dog family.




(Uploaded February 2016)


(Latest update May 2020)