Category Archives: African Wildlife

African wildlife on reserves, in national parks, and in rehabilitation centers.

Sharing a Message: “Stop Poaching”

Today we want to share a great message from our friend Mikkel Rasmus Hansen who has created an incredible infographic illustrating many aspects of the African poaching crisis.

Check out his website Safari Tanzania (mostly in Danish), stop by his blog to share this message on social media, and look out for more great visuals from him on the illegal wildlife trade in the future!

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Made by Safari Tanzania

African Wildlife Encounter #2: African Wild Dogs with Puppy

On this day while in Tembe Elephant Park we were working to habituate three African Wild Dogs (also called Painted Dogs) to the sound of the vehicle. The goal was to get them used to our vehicle so that we could both identify all the members of the pack, check their health, and eventually dart them for translocation to a safer area. To do this, we routinely had to locate the alpha female which wears a radio-collar and place parts from a dead Nyala or Impala on the ground, chained or tied to a tree.

A recording of Painted Dogs making a kill was played and usually after 10-20 minutes the pack would have found us and sniffed out the free food. This was the first time that we saw the puppy come out from its den.

Painted Dog pups typically den for their first several weeks, suckling from their mother and, when they’re old enough, eating food regurgitated to them from their older pack members or small bits of food brought back for them. After only a couple of months they must be strong enough to follow the pack’s nomadic lifestyle and keep up on the exciting hunts. Once old enough to keep up with the pack, Painted Dogs typically let the youngest eat first to make sure that they have enough nourishment, which is why we see the adult deferring to the youngest member. The twittering sounds heard int his video mostly come from this feisty pup who is excited to have this feast and also bravely guarding his meal!

Like their canine cousins, Painted Dogs give birth to several pups per litter. Unfortunately the little pup in the video, probably 8-12 weeks old, was the only survivor. While it’s not uncommon for pups to be lost due to weakness or disease, it’s most likely that predator persecution by lions was the cause of this pup losing its siblings.

The pup was very strong and active during the observation period, as shown in this video. The high-pitched vocalizations that are heard are characteristic of Painted Dogs and serve as a means of expressing excitement over their meal and letting others in the pack know that there is food to share.

More Information:

Many people have mistaken the African Wild Dog (Lycaon pictus) as a diseased Wolf, Domestic Dog, or even Jackal. However there are several defining visual characteristics which set the African Wild Dog apart from its distant relatives in the Canidae family. The most obvious feature is the coloration of its coat. Often they have three distinct colors represented: white, black, and tan, although there are some dogs with little or no white. Close-up, it’s also easier to make out their ears which are larger than a similarly-sized dog’s or wolf’s and much more rounded than triangular.

African Wild Dogs are better described by their other name, “Painted Dogs,” because they are naturally wild and evolved independently from the other extant species in the Canidae family, which includes Wolves, Jackals, Coyotes, and Domestic Dogs. Painted Dogs live in packs with usually around a dozen members, but packs have been observed with three times that many members. They are among Africa’s most successful hunters. Painted Dogs achieve their goals at least 30% of the time, about twice as often as large cats including Lions which may hunt as a pride.

Unlike Lions and other species that live in a close-knit group, Painted Dogs often let their young eat first. This suggests that the dogs are not only grouping for social reasons, but because they are stronger as a pack and only as strong as their weakest member.

Wildlife: Warthogs (Phacochoerus africanus)

Warthogs are one of at least four unique species in the pig family (Suidae) native to Africa. Other natives include the wild boar (Sus scrofa) in northern Africa, bushpig (Potamochoerus larvatus) in east Africa and southern Africa, and giant forest hog (Hylochoerus meinertzhageni) in isolated areas of central Africa. Species of warthog occur throughout parts of central Africa as well as the equatorial regions towards southern Africa and the eastern parts of southern Africa.

Conservation Status & Threats

Warthogs, African bushpigs, and Red River Hogs are threatened by hunting and poaching for their meat, but occur in large enough populations that they are not significantly threatened as species. At regional levels Warthogs are believed to have gone locally extinct in some West and North African states.

The canine teeth of Common Warthogs develop into tusks made from the same material as teeth in other animals, including Elephants. Like the ivory taken from African and Asian Elephant species, a Warthog’s ivory tusks have been carved and used in decorative and ceremonial applications. Due to the healthy status of many Warthog populations there may not be a prohibition on the domestic or international trade of their ivory, however the illicit way their tusks are acquired makes possession and trade problematic.

Warthogs in South Africa.

Relatives & Identification

Warthogs: Up to 63-85 cm (2-3 feet) at the shoulder. Males can weigh 60 to 150 kg (130 to 330 lb) while females are notably smaller at 45 to 75 kg (100 to 165 lb). Total body length 110-180cm (3.6-6 feet).

Males have two pairs of tusks: one pair on the upper part of their mouth and a second, smaller pair on the jaw fitting. With their mouth closed they fit closely together. Females have only a pair of upper tusks which can reach as much as 15.2-25.5 cm (6.0-10.0 inches) in length. The tusks of males can be even larger with one record-setting male possessing tusks 63.5 cm (25.0 inches) in length. Despite popular belief the tusks do not become “razor sharp” from normal use, but are still considerably dangerous.

Warthog Distribution: Increasingly diminishing distribution throughout South Africa. Large distribution throughout Sub-Saharan Africa.

Bushpigs: Up to 66 to 100 cm (26 to 39 in) at the shoulder, and weigh from 55 to 150 kg (121 to 331 lb). Total body length 130-170cm (3.6-6 feet).

Bushpig Distribution: Predominantly northeastern parts of Southern Africa and reaching into southern East Africa.

The giant forest hog, which currently has a scattered distribution in tropical parts of West and Central Africa, can weigh as much as 275 kg (606 lb). All species in the Suidae family native to Africa are capable swimmers in spite of their size.

Habitat & Behavior

Warthogs live in a male-dominant hierarchical structure typically based on age, which also correlates to size. However males are typically solitary even when steward of one or more females and offspring which form a group called a sounder. Depending on the quality of their habitat and success of the male in acquiring females, it may keep more than one sounder. Multiple sounders and bachelor males of related individuals form a clan and may occupy a specific range for generations.

Adolescent and adult males do not form a permanent part of this group but during mating seasons will move among sounders for receptive females. Unsuccessful or immature bachelor males may live alone or form small bachelor herds.

Warthogs are commonly diurnal, meaning that they are active during the day and sleep at night, but some populations may be primarily nocturnal especially where human-wildlife conflict exists. They require water and prefer to live in savanna, grasslands, and lightly wooded areas, but will expand into less forgiving environments with a satisfactory supply of water. Similar to Savanna Elephants and White Rhino and Black Rhino, warthogs enjoy wallowing in mud.

Warthogs kneeling to eat short grasses. RHA

Warthogs are among the only herbivores known to kneel on their forelimbs to eat at short grasses or drink water. While leaning down they are also able to make use of their tusks to pull up roots and succulent grasses. Their tusks are also defensive tools and with head held down point forwards during a charge.

Warthogs can run at up to 55 kph (34 mph), allowing them the speed to escape many ambush predators. Typically the warthog’s fight-or-flight response leading into a charge is a retreat away from a threat, however their size, speed, and determination to get out of danger makes Warthogs a clear threat to anything standing in their path. For this reason animals and especially humans on foot must be careful when walking in areas where warthogs are potentially present as scaring them can result in an inadvertent charge.

When panicked or stressed the long hairs running along the front-half of their back will stand on end. Unlike the African Bushpig, Warthogs have muscles near their tail which draw taught when running and helps hold the tail erect. This is thought to act as a signal to other warthogs who may follow a lead warthog to safety. The raised tail has also been associated with helping young to follow their mother through high grass, though this behavior and many other aspects of Warthogs is not yet fully understood.

Adult males are capable of digging their own burrow, but may take over those made by Porcupines or Aardvarks. If abandoned by the warthog these burrows are very important for other animals able to survive only because of the protective shelters made by other species.

A sounder of Warthogs grazing in South Africa. RHA.

Reproduction & Lifespan

Warthogs keep multiple burrows, or dens, within their home range so that there is always a safe place to sleep or to raise young. These burrows are often in enormous termite mounds that can be 2-3.5 meters high and go deep underground. These locations are thought to often be partially excavated by Aardvarks that feed on the termites, leaving  a nice area to make a den for the warthogs.

Unlike Bushpig piglets which have stripes, likely to camouflage them from the eyes of predators, Warthog piglets must rely solely on its mother and burrow for protection. Warthog sows give birth away from the male and will leave the burrow with their mother after 50 days. Unlike most hoofed animals, such as impala and gazelle, warthogs commonly give birth to multiple young in a single litter. The gestation period is approximately 170 days and litter sizes are typically 2-3, but a litter with as many as 8 piglets has been recorded. It takes roughly 21 weeks to completely wean the piglets and they will become a part of the sounder until sexual maturity is reached by 18-20 months of age.

Males typically leave their mother at 15 months old, but will still be three months shy of sexual maturity and about three years away from mating. Adult males engage in fights with other males, possibly over mates or resources, but are not known to be territorial or to fight over a specific range or den. The fights involve sidling up to one another and bashing their head sideways, taking out of play the ends of the tusks and reducing dramatic injuries.

Warthogs can live for more than a decade in the wild, with some examples living for as long as 17 years. In captivity a 17-18 year lifespan is possible.

Sources:

  • “The Safari Companion: A Guide to Watching African Mammals” by Richard D. Estes
  • “Walker’s Mammals of the World” by Ronald M. Nowak
  • “Stuarts’ Field Guide to Mammals of Southern Africa” by Chris & Mathilde Stuart

African Wildlife Encounter #1: African Wild Dogs & a Nyala (Graphic)

While on Somkhanda Game Reserve in South Africa I had the good fortune to witness a very natural animal encounter between predator and prey. Although my group had regularly seen this pack of African Wild Dogs in various states of rest, play, hunting, and post-hunt activities, this was the first time we had seen the pack make the kill from start to finish. Although gruesome, it was exciting to see them on the hunt and achieve success. We also got to see how the group dynamic played out, which often has the youngest members eating first (puppies, sub-adults) and the older, stronger members eating last. This is the opposite of lions and is likely one of the factors which contributes to the ability of canines to support many more individuals per group than feline species. Of course, some of the dogs higher in the hierarchy pull out the tasty bits for themselves or, as seen in the video, pull out the foul-smelling innards and drag it down-wind.

Many people have mistaken the African Wild Dog (Lycaon pictus) as a diseased Wolf, Domestic Dog, or even Jackal. However there are several defining visual characteristics which set the African Wild Dog apart from its distant relatives in the Canidae family. The most obvious feature is the coloration of its coat. Often they have three distinct colors represented: white, black, and tan, although there are some dogs with little or no white. Close-up, it’s also easier to make out their ears which are larger than a similarly-sized dog’s or wolf’s and much more rounded than triangular.

African Wild Dogs are better described by their other name, “Painted Dogs,” because they are naturally wild and evolved independently from the other extant species in the Canidae family, which includes Wolves, Jackals, Coyotes, and Domestic Dogs. Painted Dogs live in packs with usually around a dozen members, but packs have been observed with three times that many members. They are among Africa’s most successful hunters. Painted Dogs achieve their goals at least 30% of the time, about twice as successful as large cats including Lions which may hunt as a pride.

I’ve previously written about this topic in Fence Lines: Dividing Africa and its Wildlife, but in the video below we get to see exactly how predatory animals have adapted to the existence of fence lines and used them to their advantage. In the case of this pack of Painted Dogs we had previously seen them chasing prey towards fence lines, although not always with such results, and cooperating to make the kill.

Warning: This video is graphic.

Disclaimer: Red Hawk Adventures is not affiliated with Somkhanda Game Reserve or Wildlife ACT.

Please visit Somkhanda Game Reserve on Facebook or in person!

Wildlife: The Lions of the World (Panthera Leo)

The Lion is the largest species in the Felidae family living in Africa. In prehistoric periods the modern Lion had the largest geographic distribution of any carnivorous mammal and was found throughout temperate parts of Europe as late as 2,000 years ago and throughout the Caucasus region and temperate zones of Asia until 150 years ago. Fossil records have also placed modern Lion distribution throughout North America and northern parts of South America. Today the Asiatic Lion (P. leo persica; also called the Indian Lion) exists in a small population exclusive to India.

The Lion has existed as a symbol of strength and power for thousands of years and exists not only in the mythology of a number of cultures, but is also representative of nations and their heritage. A sculpture of four lions (with one always hidden from view as you change viewing perspective) is the National Emblem of India and is based on a similar sandstone carving dating back more than 2,000 years. In China the Lion has played a significant part in everything from traditional décor and art to New Year celebrations. The appearance of the Lion has even served as the inspiration of dog breeds such as the Chow Chow which is one of the oldest dog breeds in the world.

Symbols depicting the Lion also appear in the coats of arms of a number of families across Europe, as well as in nicknames. Perhaps most well-known are The Lion of Flanders and Richard the Lionheart. Western and Eastern sports teams and businesses have continued the tradition of representing one’s values and character with a Lion symbol or name. The Lion has even given rise to phrases such as “Lion’s share,” meaning the largest portion, which is attributed to Aesop’s Fables which dates back to 620-560 BCE.

Conservation Status & Threats

The present distribution in Africa is based upon a map created by ‘The African Lion Environmental Research Trust’ (ALERT)

Because of the attributes and symbolism attributed to the Lion, especially observed in Europe and Africa, Lions have been hunted for cultural purposes as well as for sport for thousands of years. There are many historical artifacts which depict leaders and ancient civilizations hunting or fighting Lions, however during these times the Lion population was much greater. Today the Lion must contend with decreasing habitat and disturbance by humans as well as increased disease in their local environment. Some of this disease could be attributed to the hunting and poaching of scavenger animals, such as Vultures and Hyena, which play an important part in the health of their ecosystems.

Livestock protection in contemporary times has also had a major impact on Lion populations and may have contributed to a roughly 30% decrease in Africa’s Lion population between the mid-1980s and mid-2000s. While Lion hunting in some African countries is legal, and attempts to contribute to the local economy, the Lions killed proactively to protect farmers and livestock undermine tourist economies by providing illegally sourced animal parts, including Lion claws and teeth.

White Lions, those born with a recessive trait making its coloration extremely light or even white, are highly sought after by private hunting reserves who can sell canned hunts to high-paying hunters. These Lions can occur naturally, and appear to be able to survive in the wild without significant disadvantage, but currently the only known wild populations of White Lions have been reintroduced into the wild from private reserves.

The Asiatic Lion, now exclusive to India despite a widespread range just two hundred years ago, suffers from a number of continuing threats to its population. Inbreeding after their population was reduced to only a few dozen individuals remains one of the long-term problems in restoring their population. Human disturbance will also remain a long term problem, however great efforts have been taken to create a protected region for the few hundred remaining Asiatic Lion by conscientiously resettling humans that had lived in the newly protected area.

Habitat & Life

"Lioness of the Grasslands" photo by dingo84dogs at dingodogphotography.deviantart.com (L:CCA-SA 3.0)
Photo by dingo84dogs at dingodogphotography.deviantart.com (L:CCA-SA 3.0)

The Lion has an important place in the ecosystem being both an apex predator, with no natural predators, and a keystone species, meaning that it has substantial influence on the wildlife species in its own environment. They also have an interesting social dynamic, being one of the only cat species to have a strong social structure which revolves around related females, but is typically headed by one male or sometimes a coalition of males. And despite being predatory carnivores, Lions gain a substantial portion of their food from scavenging or stealing kills of smaller or weaker animals.

This structure is called a “pride” and allows cubs sired by the male to be looked after by several females and for a family of related females to develop over generations. The females typically do most of the hunting for the pride, with the male occasionally participating and in some regions frequently taking part in hunts. However young male Lions are the last to be taught to hunt within a pride, with the females taking a priority not only in contributing to the group’s scavenging and hunts, but also because of social norms within the pride. It is the duty of the males to provide protection for the pride not only against wandering males and coalitions that seek to take over the pride, and in the process usurp the dominant male, but also against a clan of Hyena that would attempt to steal the pride’s kill. Lionesses and adolescent males will also participate in defending the pride’s food, especially if they stole it from another predator.

Subadult/adult male Lion following a female in Kruger National Park
Subadult/adult male Lion following a female in Kruger National Park

As they approach maturity males will be kicked out of the pride entirely and will become nomadic. Males that have not been taught to hunt are still kicked out of the pride between the ages of 2.5 and 3 as they approach sexual maturity. Sexual maturity is reached between ages 3 and 4 and physical maturity between 5 and 6. This can have a profound impact on the life expectancy of the young males as they do not have anyone to provide it with as much as 40kg of meat per meal (which may only be once every few days). A lack of practical survival skills, strength, as well as infanticide practiced by adult males taking over a pride, contribute to extremely high mortality rates for males and high mortality rates of female cubs. And unlike mother Leopards that will sometimes bring live prey for their cubs to practice catching, Lionesses rarely teach their young this way. Instead the 3-4 cubs that a Lioness typically has must mature to a point where they can both keep up with the pride’s movements through their territory and participate in hunts. Therefore most survival skills are learned in the field and young that are not able to keep up with their mother, particularly during times of famine, will be left behind.

Although participating in a strong social structure adolescent male Lions are not particularly welcome within their own pride and will shadow their pride and construct their own range within their pride’s territory. Males associated with multiple prides have been known to aid in the defense of all the prides they have a positive relationship with. Successful young males typically form coalitions with other males from their pride or surrounding prides. These temporary alliances help the Lions scavenge food from other predator’s kills and hunt prey that may outweigh them by hundreds of kilograms. Group hunts are particularly important for increasing changes of success, as Lions are not particularly successful hunters to begin with, with as much as a 30% success rate. By comparison Wild Dogs, who hunt in packs and have extreme endurance, have an estimated success rate of more than 70%.

In some areas prides have adapted to unusual living conditions, such as atypically small territories, unusually large prides, and unusual sources of prey. All these factors affect the social behavior of Lions; the way that they hunt; aggressiveness towards other predators and scavengers in the area; and the way that cubs are raised. In one part of Chobe National Park in Botswana a pride of 30 male and female Lion have learned how to take down young African Bush Elephants weighing thousands of kilograms.

Relatives

A Bengal Tiger, photograph by John and Karen Hollingsworth, US Fish and Wildlife Service (Public Domain)
A Bengal Tiger, photograph by John and Karen Hollingsworth, US Fish and Wildlife Service (Public Domain)

The Lion has four living relatives in the Panthera genus: Tiger, Leopard, Jaguar, and Snow Leopard. Only the Siberian Tiger (P. tigris altaica) is larger than the Lion, while Southeast Asian Tiger subspecies are typically smaller than full grown male Lions.

In Asia the Tiger, with its distinctive orange and white coat with black stripes, and the Leopard, with its black rosettes, both existed in areas where the Asiatic Lion historically roamed. In Africa the Lion still occupies regions throughout the continent where Leopards also live. Although not closely related to any species in the Panthera genus the Cheetah has a similar historical range throughout much of Africa, the Middle East, and southwest Asia.

Identification

A male Lion (rear) and Lioness (front). In a separate enclosure is another Lioness watching. (Moholoholo Wildlife Rehab. Centre)
A male Lion (rear) and Lioness (front). In a separate enclosure is another Lioness watching. (Moholoholo Wildlife Rehab. Centre)

Lions are the second largest species of big cat, weighing around 250 kg (550 lb), while the largest Tiger subspecies can weigh more than 306 kg (675 lb). Historically Lions and Tigers have been able to inhabit parts of the Middle East and Central Asia, however their current ranges no longer overlap. Their markings contrast significantly, along with other identifying features, making them easier to distinguish than the Cheetah and Leopard.

Sexual dimorphism, visual differences between genders of the same species, is readily apparent in the Lion. Adolescent and adult male Lions typically have a large mane which may extend to behind their front legs and under their chest. However Asiatic Lions tend to have a smaller mane than their African cousins; this may be a result of the Asiatic Lion’s poor genetics. The Lion in the Tsavo region of Kenya, belonging to the P. leo nubica subspecies, have a small mane or lack one altogether. Male Lions are the only cats to have this distinctive hair.

Males are also typically larger than females, with adult males averaging 50 kg (110 lb) heavier. They will also have a darker coat along their body and a substantial part of their mane may be dark while a Lioness has no mane and is typically a uniform pale gold color. Studies have shown that Lionesses use dark manes as a means of selecting sexual partners, possibly because a male with darker colors will be more sexually mature and healthier.

Comparison (Figures are approx.)

Attribute African Lions Asiatic Lion Bengal Tiger Siberian Tiger Leopard
Scientific Name P. leo P. leo persica P. tigris tigris P. tigris altaica P. pardus
Wild Population 16,500-47,000 > 400 < 3,000 < 400 much less than 75,000
Length 2.4-3.3 m (8-11 ft) < 2.9 m (9.7 ft) 2.4-3.1 m (8-10 ft) 1.6-2.3 m (63-91 in) 0.9-1.91 meters (3-6 feet)
Male Weight 189-240 kg (416-528 lb) 160-190 kg (350-420 lb) 180-260 kg (400-570 lb) 180-306 kg (397-675 lb) 37-90 kg (80-200 lb)
Female Weight 126 kg (277 lb) 110-120 kg (240-260 lb) 100 to 160 kg (220-350 lb) 100-167 kg (220-368 lb) 28-60 kg (60-130 lb)

Sources

“Panthera leo”. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

“Panthera onca”. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

“Panthera pardus”. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

The National Audubon Society Field Guide to African Wildlife by Peter Alden, et al.

“The Safari Companion: A Guide to Watching African Mammals” Revised Edition, by Richard D. Estes (Copyright 1999 by Chelsea Green Publishing Co.)

Walker’s Mammals of the World, Sixth Ed., Vol. 1 by Ronald M. Nowak

African Wildlife: African Wild Dog (Lycaon pictus)

Also referred to as the African Hunting Dog and Painted Dog, the African Wild Dog (Lycaon pictus) is one of Africa’s most successful hunters. It’s also the largest Canid in Africa because the Hyena has been determined to be more genetically similar to the very diverse cat-like species, than the Canidae family.

Contrary to their name and appearance the African Wild Dog is not a type of wild domestic dog, nor is it descended from Wolves. They are the only extant species in the Lycaon genus and appear to have carved out a unique niche in Africa that was not filled as successfully by other species.

Conservation Status & Threats

The Distribution of the African Wild Dog, according to the IUCN. (Image by: Nrg800 on wikipedia.org; CCA-SA3.0U)

In spite of the Painted Dog’s capacity to breed easily and successfully a number of factors have taken a heavy toll on their populations throughout sub-Saharan Africa and especially the country of South Africa where roughly 300-400 remain.

In territories that overlap with a Lion pride the African Wild Dog, like many predators, suffer attacks on their young who would one day grow up to compete with Africa’s largest cats. Hyena also sometimes participate in this gruesome means of ridding themselves of competition, however in competitive areas Lion are particularly ruthless and will go after adults and even breeding females. Outweighed by nearly ten to one, the Wild Dog has little chance in a fight against a male Lion, even as a pack.

Habitat loss also plays a large role in the survival of the African Wild Dog which typically travels dozens of kilometers a day across a range that may take days to cover. As the habitat changes and human developments increase the Wild Dog must continually search for new areas with prey small enough for them to hunt, while also not intruding on dense pockets of apex predators like a pride of Lion or a clan of Hyena. Habitat reduction and persecution by predators accounts for a significant percentage of current Wild Dog population declines.

Due to their unusual coloration the Painted Dog has been a victim of predator persecution and animosity at the hands of humans going back at least 200 years. In colonial and post-colonial South Africa, Botswana, and Zimbabwe primarily Caucasian land owners frequently shot the dogs out of distaste for their appearance as well as for being a threat to small livestock. In some areas subsistence farmers and land owners still kill these animals to protect their livestock. The Painted Dog, even in a pack, is not much of a threat to humans; however it’s thought that historically persecution by humans has accounted for a dramatic decline in the population throughout Southern Africa.

Common canine diseases such as rabies can also affect this species and currently due to the low population levels the African Wild Dog is at greater risk of local extinction.

There are a number of organizations, particularly in Southern Africa, that are striving to conserve and encourage population growth of the Painted Dog. These organizations are also reaching out to land owners to teach them about the species and to establish ways of protecting livestock from the predators. Tanzania may be the only country with a Painted Dog population exceeding 1,000 and many southern African countries are estimated to have only a couple hundred.

Habitat & Life

African Wild Dogs – Kruger National Park – South Africa (Sabi Sabi Game Reserve). Photo by Bart Swanson, 8 April 2007. (CCA-SA3.0U)

The African Wild Dog is a highly social species and, like Wolves, operates in a pack lead by an alpha male and alpha female. These packs average around 10 individuals plus their pups, but may number more than 40 in some areas. Like most species in the family Canidae Wild Dogs have a broad range of vocal communications, but on the hunt they operate with such extraordinary cohesion that they frequently hunt in silence. It’s only before or after the hunt that their excited yips are vocalized.

Painted Dogs have a diverse array of hunting tactics that they are able to employ due to their unique characteristics and pack size. While all the large cats maximize their chance of success by relying on stealth to get close enough to prey to then chase them down, the main advantage the Painted Dog has is its stamina. The Cheetah (120 kph/75mph), Leopard (60 kph/37 mph), and even Lion can sprint at great speeds for short distances, but the Painted Dog is capable of running near their top speed of 60 kilometers an hour (40 mph) for several kilometers without difficulty. While not as fast as the fastest Antelope species in Africa, this is enough for a surprise ambush and to keep within scenting distance of their quarry. More impressive is their innate ability to moderate their speed and stamina, allowing them to run at a more reasonable speed for up to an hour when the need arises.

In addition to their sense of smell, the Wild Dog has great hearing and vision. It’s no surprise that they use these attributes to their advantage against prey that typically can’t see very well, but they supplement these attributes when running through 1.8 meter (6 feet) high grass by taking great bounding strides to see over the grass and keep an eye on their quarry while continuing the chase. Operating as a pack the Wild Dogs will appoint a lead chaser who will keep hot on the tail of their prey. Other members will follow in single file or break off to cut-off prey that tries to double-back and evade the lead member. One of the secondary members can also quickly take the place of the lead chaser, allowing them to catch their breath without losing ground. A Wild Dog may be appointed to take up the rear to prevent other members of the pack from getting lost during the chase. But if they do get split up they will work together and use their powerful noses to follow the trail of their companions make or a hoo call that can carry over a long distance.

No species of Antelope or small game is capable of this level of endurance and frequently animals that get split up from their herd and chased by predators do not get assistance from the others. Evasion techniques like doubling back, running in a large circle to confuse its scent with other animals, and hiding in dense brush might work against predators with lower endurance or shorter attention spans but do not work well on Wild Dogs. It’s this combination of teamwork and extreme endurance ensures that the African Wild Dog has among the highest rates of successful hunts in Africa: 80-85%.

African Wild Dogs at Madikwe Game Reserve, South Africa. Photo by Masteraah at de.wikipedia. (GNU FDL 1.2/CCA-SA3.0U)

This success is not without its disadvantages as some packs may be frequently trailed by competitors intent on stealing the kill. Lion and Hyena are particularly dangerous, but a strong pack can often drive away a small group of Spotted Hyena and likely would be able to fend off an individual Brown Hyena.

Typically only the alpha pair, the dominant male and female, will have a litter of pups, but occasionally a couple females may contribute to a large litter. Because of predation by competing predators the pups of African Wild Dogs are kept well protected for the first six weeks of their lives. Pups will be weaned around the same time, but they and their female guardians will continue to receive regurgitated food and scraps from their fellow pack members for a couple more weeks. Dense foliage and caves provide the necessary shelter and help to reduce the noise of the young pups who can vocalize ultrasonic calls while playing.

Pups must grow up fast and after only ten weeks the den is abandoned because the pups are old enough to accompany the adults to kills and learn to feed for themselves. Although the pups will not participate in hunts for some time, they will have to follow the pack in their seemingly endless patrol of their home range or greater territory.

Pack organization changes dramatically with the ratio of males to females as well as changes in the leader of the pack. Opposite of Lions who typically form female-oriented family groups as the basis for their pride, Painted Dogs more frequently keep male family in the pack. However Painted Dogs in different regions participate in different social customs: in some regions related females must leave and find another group while in other regions both males and females must leave during adolescence. This likely helps create genetic variation while also reducing power struggles within the pack which, when they occur, may see brothers pushed out of the pack by another sibling group.

Relatives

Although evolving from a different line than Wolves (Canis Lupus), the African Wild Dog (Lycaon pictus) is still closely related to species in the Canidae family, which includes the domestic dog. They can even catch some of their diseases such as canine distemper and rabies. However the African Wild Dog is unable to breed with these other species and so no hybrids have been produced.

Identification

Moholoholo-wild_dogs
Two African Wild Dogs at Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, South Africa

Wild Dogs are easy to identify due to their unique tricolor camouflaging of white, light tan, and black splotches. They typically have a black muzzle regardless of region, however northern Wild Dogs tend to have a darker coat while southern specimens are lighter. Their large, semi-rounded ears, useful for hearing and possibly heat dissipation, make this species stand out significantly from Wolves and domestic dogs that typically have either pointed or rounded ears.

Males and females don’t differ significantly in size or weight, with males being at most a few percent larger. All members of the pack have the responsibility of protecting pups so taking care of the young is not an indicator of relationship. Stewardship falls to the females in some regions and more to the males in others. This may also depend on the gender ratio of the pack.

Comparison (Figures are approx.)

Attribute Painted Dog African Lions Spotted Hyena Gray Wolf
Scientific Name Lycaon pictus Panthera leo Crocuta crocuta Canis Lupus
Length 0.60-0.75 m (2-2.5 ft) 2.4-3.3 m (8-11 ft) 0.95-1.65 meters (3.1-5.4 feet) 1.0-1.6 m (3.3-5.3 ft)
Male Weight 20-30 kg (44-66 lb) 189-240 kg (416-528 lb) 40-86 kg (88-189 lb) 20-80 kg (44-176 lb)
Female Weight 20-25 kg (44-55 lb) 126 kg (277 lb) 46-93 kg (101-205 lb) 18-55 kg (40-121 lb)
Litter 2-18 (typ. 10) 1-5 (typ. 3) 1-5 (typ. 2) 1-11 (typ. 6)

Sources

“Lycaon pictus”. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

“The Safari Companion: A Guide to Watching African Mammals” Revised Edition, by Richard D. Estes (Copyright 1999 by Chelsea Green Publishing Co.)

“Walker’s Mammals of the Modern World” Sixth Edition, Volume 1, by Ronald M. Nowak (Copyright 1999 by The Johns Hopkins University Press)

Further Reading

Botswana Wild Dog Research Project official website at BPCTrust.org.

Phenomenal Photos of Playful Wild Dog Pups at AfricaGeographic.com

African Wildlife: Hyaenidae Family (Hyena and Aardwolf)

Hyenas and Aardwolves play an integral role in their habitats and show tremendous diversity between species. Interestingly, Hyenas are categorized in the feliformia suborder of the carnivora order due to a physiology and behavior more similar to cat-like species. Each species has shown unique adaptations that allow it to be individually successful in specific environments and they have all out-lasted the dog-like species that had similar bone-crushing adaptations millions of years ago.

While not typically called a Hyena, the Aardwolf is classified in the same suborder, but is not a descendant of the same ancestors of its bone-crushing relatives. The name Aardwolf is derived from the Afrikaans words “earth” and “wolf” because it primarily feeds on termites rather than on large animals or plants.

The other three species in the Hyena family are known for their ability to crush bones, one of several specializations that evolved millions of years ago and allowed the ancestors of modern Hyena to succeed in varied environments and compete successfully with rival species in their region. Spotted Hyena have the strongest jaws of any mammal and are capable of exerting enough force (1140 lbf/in2 ) to crush elephant bones.

The Spotted Hyena, also known as the Laughing Hyena because of its trademark vocalization, is one of Africa’s largest predators and the largest of the four species in the family. Another interesting aspect is that Spotted Hyena females have high levels of testosterone which plays a role in the hierarchy of the clan as it is females that are dominant, with an alpha female taking precedence in the clan and taking the largest share of any group kill. Females also are typically the most aggressive and largest. High testosterone levels may also be responsible for the development in female Spotted Hyena of ambiguous genitalia.

Conservation Status & Threats
Injured female Spotted Hyena by the side of the road in Kruger National Park, South Africa.
Injured female Spotted Hyena by the side of the road in Kruger National Park, South Africa.

Spotted Hyena and Aardwolves are listed as “least concern” by IUCN, with the Striped Hyena listed as “near threatened” and the Brown Hyena as “vulnerable.” Habitat loss may represent the largest threats to the Hyaenidae species, but pesticide use in agriculture and pest control also plays a role in harming Aardwolves which eats primarily insects. In addition, there is a lot of misinformation and folklore which harms the relationship between humans and Hyena, furthering beliefs that the animals are ugly and evil.

This mistreatment and misunderstanding has in the past been exemplified in South Africa where the Aardwolf has been mistaken by land owners as a vicious carnivore and killed to protect livestock. Incidentally, overgrazing leads to a suitable habitat for termites, which Aardwolves can then control through predation, without impacting the livestock. This mutualistic relationship has helped farmers understand the utility of local Aardwolf populations.

However predator persecution, demand for traditional medicine, and poaching-related wildlife crimes can still present a noticeable impact on local populations. In particular, scavenging vultures are being increasingly targeted by poachers, who know that circling vultures act as a beacon that there is a newly dead animal. Anti-poaching rangers use such insights from the environment and quickly respond to a potential threat. To counter this response poachers have been poisoning the remains of animals to intentionally target vultures, however the poisons affect all scavenging species in the ecosystem including Brown and Striped Hyena and juvenile African Sea Eagles.

Various Hyena species have been blamed for livestock attacks or theft but only Spotted and Striped varieties have been known to kill humans and potentially livestock. Whereas the Brown Hyena is more likely to have been found scavenging remains that it finds and not be the culprit. However scavenging behavior, including digging for recently buried remains, have made many people regard Hyena with suspicion and fear. But that hasn’t prevented some individuals, and even warlords, from keeping Spotted Hyena as guard animals or exotic pets. However due to the nature of the animals, this relationship does not work out very well and many adult Hyena become too aggressive to be domesticated and lack opportunities to manage its hygiene, impacting its long-term health.

In some areas the species are killed for their parts for use in traditional medicines. These practices are evident in many old cultures, including ancient Romans and ancient Greeks, where specific parts of the Hyena were believed to aid in fertility or protect against evil. Hyena also have negative associations in both Middle Eastern and African folklore and mythology, partly due to the perception of scavenging animals being evil or related to the occult because they interact with dead bodies. However with scavenger animals to “clean up” the remains of dead animals, even if they are rotting or toxic, their habitat and human habitats would be at much greater risk of disease.

Habitat & Life

Distribution of species in Hyaenidae family, by Craig Pemberton (CCA-SA3.0)

All species in the Hyaenidae family are capable of vocalizations, although some barks are more reminiscent of a laugh than others, particularly in the Spotted Hyena. All species also bear a similar shape, with the forelegs being longer than the rear. It’s thought that this trait allows the meat-eating Hyena to more easily pick up carcasses or bones and carry it to their den, which could be kilometers away, or stored in one of their hiding spots.

The Spotted Hyena and Striped Hyena have the greatest ranges, each dominating significant portions of Africa. The Spotted Hyena is found in most open plains, bushveld, and rocky areas of sub-Saharan Africa, with the exception of the majority of South Africa. Spotted Hyena can travel up to 80 km (50 miles) a night as they search for food or a new clan. The Striped Hyena is the only existing species of the genus found in the Middle East through to India, but also survives in North and East Africa. The Brown Hyena is confined to a much smaller area, but has ranges throughout most of southern Africa due to its hospitable bushveld and grassland. Aardwolf populations are divided between parts of East Africa and the majority of southern Africa.

Clans of Spotted Hyena rely on several hierarchies to establish dominance over one another. Females are at the top, but an alpha female leads the clan and may kick members out. Her female relatives are typically the other top members of the hierarchy. Males establish their own dominance hierarchy that may determine which male(s) are allowed to mate with females. Clans of Spotted Hyena may range from 2-10, but hunting packs are typically 2-3 individuals.

Striped Hyena are more solitary than other Hyena and typically live in monogamous pairs and it’s the responsibility of the male to defend the den and young while the female forages for food. Alternatively they may hunt or scavenge in a family unit along with their young for one or more years.

Brown Hyenas may create a clan out of a family unit of many young, or organize into a small group of males and females with one alpha male dominant. Foraging may take individuals upwards of 50 km in a night as it looks for something to scavenge. Because kills are not always abundant, Brown Hyena may prey on rodents, eggs, and even eat fruits and vegetables to significantly supplement its diet.

Relatives

“Aardwolf taken at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden.” by Greg Hume (CCA-SA3.0)

The Aardwolf (Proteles cristata), an insect-eating species that looks similar to the Striped Hyena, is also in the Hyaenidae family, but is in its own subfamily (Protelinae), while remaining a part of the overarching Hyaenidae group because of many similarities to the common ancestors of the Hyena. The Aardwolf specializes in eating termites and is predominantly nocturnal, when it will digs holes into sandy soil or termite mounds and may eat two hundred thousand termites and larvae in a single night, but may leave the nest intact so as to preserve the population for future predation. There is evidence that the Aardwolf will also eat small rodents and birds to supplement its diet.

Aardwolves are notably smaller than Hyena, standing 40-50 cm (1.3-1.6 feet) at the shoulders and weighing only 7-15 kg (15-33 pounds). They can be distinguished from their Hyena cousins by their slender build, coloration, and the five toes on their front paws.

Identification

Brown Hyena. Source: South African Tourism (http://www.southafrica.net)

Striped Hyena and Brown Hyena are about the same size, but their different markings make them easy to distinguish with the shaggy hair of the Brown Hyena very distinctive among the Hyaenidae. In Brown Hyena the males are typically a little larger than the females. Both sexes have large manes, the largest of any Hyena species, with long guard hairs that can stand on end to make themselves look larger to potential threats.

Spotted Hyena females have ambiguous genitalia which can make identification between males and females difficult. However female Spotted Hyena are typically also larger than the males as well as more aggressive, particularly in keeping their fellow clan members in line. Both males and females lack a significant mane, which differentiates them from the Aardwolf and Striped and Brown Hyena.

Comparison (Figures are approx.)

Attribute Brown Spotted Striped Aardwolf
Head and body length 1.1-1.3 meters (3.6-4.2 feet) .95-1.65 meters (3.1-5.4 feet) 1.0-1.1 meters (3.2-3.6 feet) .5-.8 meters (1.6-2.6 feet)
Shoulder height 64-88 cm (2.1-2.8 ft) 70-92 cm (2.3-3.0 ft) 60-95 cm (2-3.1 ft) 45-50 cm (1.5-1.6 ft)
Mane length 30 cm (1 ft) ~0 cm 20 cm (0.66 ft) ?? cm (?? ft)
Tail length 18-27 cm (0.6-0.9 ft) 25-36 cm (0.8-1.2 ft) 26-47 cm (0.8-1.5 ft) 20-30 cm (0.6-0.9 ft)
Male weight 37-45 kg (81-99 lb) 40-86 kg (88-189 lb) 25-55 kg (55-121 lb) 7-15 kg (15-33 lb)
Female weight slightly less than males 46-93 kg (101-205 lb) 25-55 kg (55-121 lb) 7-15 kg (15-33 lb)
Litter size 1-5 1-5 1-3 1-5

Sources

“Proteles cristata”. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

“The National Audubon Society Field Guide to African Wildlife” by Peter Alden, et al. (Copyright 1995 by Chanticleer Press, Inc.)

“The Safari Companion: A Guide to Watching African Mammals” Revised Edition, by Richard D. Estes (Copyright 1999 by Chelsea Green Publishing Co.)

“Walker’s Mammals of the Modern World” Sixth Edition, Volume 1, by Ronald M. Nowak (Copyright 1999 by The Johns Hopkins University Press)

Further Reading

Hyena Conservation