Did you know that historically this species used to occur in packs of well over 100 animals?
This is one of the most fascinating predators to spend time with and they provide incredible adrenaline packed entertainment when you follow them on the hunt. I have always read up on any information I can find on them and recently came across a book by Stevenson-Hamilton called ‘Wild Life in South Africa’. These old books provide a wealth of information into Africa’s wildlife before it was so negatively impacted on by humans.
During the mid-twentieth century, packs in the Kruger National Park area of South Africa often numbered in the region of 60-70 animals and this was widely documented and often by hunters and game wardens who saw this species as vermin and one of the biggest reasons for the destruction of herbivore populations. Stevenson-Hamilton also quotes in this book that in the early days of South Africa, Gordon-Cumming and others used to record ‘bands of several hundred’. This is not the only source that I have read such outrageous numbers being documented and in Alan Cattrick’s ‘Spoor of Blood’ there is another report where one hunter on an expedition during the 1800’s and not far from today’s city of Johannesburg, wakes up one morning to find himself surrounded by well over 100 of these carnivores at first light! They found the hunter sleeping there and while they paid some interest, they showed no aggression and it wasn’t long before they moved off into the dim light.
Today, packs very rarely reach any big numbers and throughout their present range are most often recorded in packs of 5-15 animals. Only occasionally and temporarily do these packs push 50 animals. These larger packs usually comprise almost 50% pups and often by the time the pups reach a year in age the pack has already split. In northern Botswana the largest pack I have recorded is 31 and that consisted of 20 adults and 11 sub adults in the Vumbura area. Soon after that the pack split. In the game rich area of Mombo at the northern tip of Chief’s Island in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, packs used to number over 30 adults at times and with pups often pushed the 50 mark during the 1990’s. In Zimbabwe the biggest pack I have recorded is 25 adults and reports from the Selous in Tanzania and Niassa in northern Mozambique (both wild dog strongholds) suggest packs also rarely exceed the 30 mark.
This begs the question – why are wild dog packs so much smaller these days than compared to 200 or even 50 years back? Well with all the research on the matter the most accepted answer is that quite simply the herbivores of Africa do not exist in the numbers they used to and with most of the great migrations having gone extinct, there is no longer a food source that is able to sustain large packs. In the early 1800’s Springbok migrations still used to number in the millions and anecdotal records tell of herds of these antelope having a 20km wide front and passing through an area for days. Today the fragmented antelope herds are largely fenced off (or have human habitation in their way) and cannot move to optimal feeding grounds en masse meaning that the maximum carrying capacities can’t be reached.
While wild dogs have been persecuted in all manners, there are areas where they still thrive but packs never form these large numbers anymore. Often we record packs being very successful in Botswana and on occasion both the Alpha and Beta females will raise litters under ideal conditions. Once these packs grow big enough, and without any kind of mortality being recorded, they seem to be forced to split and this can only be due to lack of prey availability for the size of the pack.
Today the largest of the great migrations that still exist in Africa, are with the wildebeest in the Serengeti/ Mara system. Recently wild dogs have been reintroduced here and it will be very interesting to see if these large herds can sustain larger than average packs compared to other areas. If there is no persecution from humans, it is very possible and will no doubt be a very interesting case study to follow!