Understanding Africa’s Painted Wolves

African hunting dogs in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Copyright Micaela Szykman Gunther.

“What is that woman doing?” I remember asking myself that as she got out of her car to shoo away an African hunting dog (Lycaon pictus) that had emerged from the African bush to smell her car tire. Doesn’t she realize that where there’s one dog, there’s a fair chance there will be others?  I was about 200 yards away, and was rather stunned at the whole scene.  Fortunately for the lady, the dog looked somewhat bemused at the situation and trotted off into the bush, leaving the woman to get back into her car and drive off, unwittingly missing the potential to see more of these beautiful animals.  The whole episode took less than a minute – it has been my only sighting of a hunting dog in the wild. 

African hunting dogs, whose Latin name means “painted wolf” are natives of Africa and an endangered species.  There are estimated to be only 5,000 dogs left roaming a fraction of their former range.  African hunting dogs live in packs and require vast home ranges in order to thrive.  The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s African Wild Dog Reintroduction and Conservation Program, with support from AZA’s Conservation Endowment Fund, has been working with the KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa) population of African hunting dogs since 2003.  The goals of the program include assessing reintroduction success, maintaining the genetic viability of the population, and increasing wild dog numbers in order to establish a viable population in the region. 

The program researchers carried out a genetic analysis of the population using both conventional and non-invasive techniques (extracting DNA from scat) and discovered some interesting facts.

Some of the facts that came to light included:

  • The KwaZulu-Natal population has a relatively low degree of inbreeding.
  • There was no difference in fitness between inbred and non-inbred animals when it came to rising to dominance in a pack or in reproductive success.
  • There was a high degree of reproductive sharing between dominant and subordinate pack members. When two same-sex adults were present, subordinate females produced one third of all pups and subordinate males sired nearly half. 
  • For the population to persist over the next 50 years, it would be necessary to translocate one single-sex dispersal group into the area every four years.

So, why is this kind of work important?  Understanding the genetic make up and behavior of this population of wild dogs will help wildlife professionals make important decisions about how to support the population.  In the future the hope is to reduce the need for intervention all together. 

Tim Lewthwaite

PS: While I wouldn’t recommend getting out of your car to see a wild dog in Africa, there are a number of AZA-accredited institutions where you can do just that.

AZA Accredited Institutions with African Wild Dogs

Albuquerque Biological Park

Audubon Zoo

Binder Park Zoo

Bronx Zoo

Chicago Zoological Society – Brookfield Zoo

Brandywine Zoo

Denver Zoo

Detroit Zoo

Erie Zoo

Gladys Porter Zoo

Henson Robinson Zoo

Honolulu Zoo

Houston Zoo

Indianapolis Zoo

Kansas City Zoo

Knoxville Zoo

Lincoln Park Zoo

Living Desert

Los Angeles Zoo & Botanical Garden

Philadelphia Zoo

Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium

Potawatomi Zoo

Oglebay’s Good Zoo

Oregon Zoo

Oklahoma City Zoo

Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo

Phoenix Zoo

Roger Williams Park Zoo

San Antonio Zoo

San Diego Zoo

Sedgwick County Zoo

Toledo Zoo

The Wilds

Wild Canid Survival & Research Center

Wildlife World Zoo

Woodland Park Zoo

Zoo Miami

Zoo New England

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