Painted Wolves of Africa

These beautiful, large-eared carnivores have, somewhat of a bad reputation. They have long been misunderstood, treated as ruthless, cruel predators, and prosecuted because of this. People think that they are nothing more than vermin, stray domesticated animals, that run feral in the African landscape, which means that they must be exterminated. Thought of as livestock killers, to humans being appalled by the way that they bring down their prey, their numbers have taken a big hit. They are now the second most endangered carnivore after the Ethiopian Wolf in Africa.

Image © ICUN

This is what Selati Game Reserve has done. They have recently introduced a pack of 9 Painted Wolves to the reserve. The Painted Wolves come from reserves in the Waterberg and KZN region. They joined Selati as a fully formed functioning pack and are currently housed in a boma to help them acclimatize to their new environment.

It was a cold April morning in Selati when we got the call. The sunrise was only a short while ago, we were hoping that the clouds would disappear so that the sun would come out and warm us up.  The research team was going to feed the Painted Wolves and they invited us along to watch. We jumped into the game viewer and after a cold, blustery ride we arrived at the boma. As we drove up to the boma we got a glimpse of the Painted Wolves, the males large and pale in color, the females smaller and darker.

Photographs © Steve Bailley

Did you know that everyone has their own unique coat pattern which can feature patches of black, brown, white, and yellow?

We climbed up on the viewing platform, so that we were partially obscured, and didn’t scare them or prevent their natural behavior. We waited silently with bated breath.

The research team got the Impala Ram carcass off the vehicle. They had not long shot the Impala as Painted Wolves need the meat to be as fresh as possible. This is a process they will repeat many times until they can release them into the Reserve and they can hunt for themselves.

They were all watching, their eyes fixated on their meal. They were so excited by the upcoming feast that some started to emit a high pitch cackle.

Photograph © Emma Summers

As the researcher dragged the Impala carcass into the boma, they got even more excited and started to run towards it, following the researcher as he dragged it away from the gate. It was not until the researcher put the Impala carcass down and walked away, did they dare to go in for the ‘kill’ and eat.

If this had been a wild hunt, unlike Lions who will chase down their prey and suffocate it, Painted Wolves once they catch their prey, immediately begin feeding, quickly disemboweling their prey. Their prey will die of shock and lose blood. This is one of the reasons why they have a bad reputation and are seen by some, as ruthless, merciless killers.

Photograph © Emma Summers

It didn’t take them long to get into the stomach of the Impala. The smell of the Impalas stomach contents is something that is hard to describe. It’s not the nicest smell in the world, as a mixture of rotting grass mixed with bile. We all watched with fascination as the Painted Wolves tugged at the carcass. One of them manages to get a piece of bone, offal, or meat, they run off looking ever so please with themselves, to eat their prize in peace and quiet. One of the pack members realizes that someone else has a tasty treat and runs over to investigate, hoping that there may be something left for them. While others grab a bite-sized chunk, eat it, and then go back for more.

Photographs © Emma Summers

Some of us were lucky to see the Alpha Male and one of the younger Painted Wolves run over to the den and regurgitate meat for the Alpha Female after she retreated back there. She has newborn pups hidden away in the safety of the den.  They can’t be left alone for long, even in the relative safety in the boma.  While other predators won’t be able to get to the pups (not necessarily to eat them as food but rather to take out the competition) there is nothing stopping a sharp-eyed bird of prey from trying their luck if one of the pups did happen to wander out.

It was amazing how quiet they were after they began their feast. Other than when a higher-ranking Wolf was putting a lower-ranking one back in its place the meal was incredibly silent.

We left them. Their faces-stained pink and their bellies full. There was hardly anything left of the Impala, just some skin, leg bones, and the skull was left. Some of the Painted Wolves were still gnawing at the bones and pulling at the skin, trying to get those last little bits of tasty goodness, others were drinking water or relaxing.

Photographs © Emma Summers

So why do I call them Painted Wolves rather than by their more common name the African Wild Dog?

To me, a Dog is the cute, loyal, fluffy companion of my childhood, the Dobermans, German Shepard, and Irish Setters I grew up with.

These elegant carnivores are certainly not the Dogs we know. Their Scientific name is Lycaon (which translates to wolf or wolf-like) and Pictus (which translates to painted, decorated, or colored).  They are the only living species of the Lycaon genus. Their coats look like a piece of modern art, like an artist who couldn’t decide what color to paint them or how their coats should look and decided to make them into something beautiful and unique.

Photographs © Emma Summers

While they are not the fierce Wolves that we associate with Europe and America, they are a perfectly designed Apex predator. They are one of the most successful, high stamina hunters with a kill rate per hunt of around 85 percent.

It’s much easier for me to get other people excited, when, I talk of my encounters with these elegant animals if I refer to them as Painted Wolves, whereas if I call them Wild Dogs, I normally have to explain, what they are first and how rare they are, so others will understand why I am so passionate about them.  A scrawny stray they definitely are not.

The name African Wild Dog has so many negative connotations, part of their past when we treated these animals as nothing more than vermin so maybe it’s time they have a new name, one that matches who they are and the hope we have for this unique species survival. To me, the name Painted Wolf, explains the excitement I have every time I see these carnivores, even if it’s just a fleeting glimpse.

Endangered Species | Wild Dogs on Foot

WildEarth presenter Steve Falconbridge encountered a pack of wild dogs on foot in Pridelands Conservancy. Let’s take a walk with Steve and find out why viewing a pack of wild dogs is such a special sighting.

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Emma Summers

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