Mana is wild. That way you to get to see it uncut and uncensored and in a very modest way you experience the bush the way the wildlife does.
There are some mammals you will not see such as giraffe and black rhino. There is no evidence of giraffe ever having populated Mana Pools, possibly because of the steepness of escarpment. During my first trip to Mana Pools in the early 1960s, we saw a number of black rhino. Before this area was designated as a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1984, Mana Pools was one of the most important sanctuaries for eastern black rhino in Africa. There were approximately 500 in the park at that time. By 1994, poaching had reduced the population to just 10 rhinos, which were then removed to another area for their protection.
Paradoxically, now you can find one of the rarest predators in Africa in Mana Pools, African Wild Dogs. In 2016, the resident pack split in two, so there are now two separate packs working the Mana Pools flood plain area.
Currently between 3,000 and 5,000 wild dogs (600 to 1 000 packs) remain, mostly in southern and eastern Africa where they are confined to a few areas with low human densities. Wild dogs seem to prefer areas of moderately dense bush and open plains which suit their hunting skills.
“Painted dogs packed with loyalty and endurance. The pack is fast, light of foot, with many feet. The in-between time is when you hunt, when it is cooler. Your hunt is considered, coordinated and relentless. Your numbers, endurance and tenacity ensure full bellies at night.”
These wild dogs hunt over a vast area so there is a chance you may not see them. We were lucky, they remained in our area of the floodplain for three of the days we were there. These dogs are another example of co-operation in the African bush.
“Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.”
~ Henry Ford
The African wild dog is one of the most threatened carnivores in the world following its dramatic population decline over the past 30 years. They are now the second most endangered carnivore in Africa (after the Ethiopian wolf), and the most endangered in sub-Saharan Africa.
The African wild dog is a highly social animal, living in packs with separate dominance hierarchies for males and females. Uniquely among social carnivores, the females move away from the natal pack before the males are sexually mature, and the young are allowed to feed first on carcasses. This species is a specialised diurnal hunter of antelope, which it catches by chasing them to exhaustion.
“Necessity may be the mother of invention, but play is certainly the father.”
~Roger von Oech
Wild dogs are very gregarious and very playful, pups and adults alike.
With these dogs being diurnal, the only time you see them playing and hunting is in the early morning light and the last light of the evening. This is understandable. They are highly mobile in a place where the temperatures get to over 40 degrees centigrade in the shade during the middle of the day. Be prepared, for most of your wild dog photography unless you are lucky, will be in the shade. This makes getting the correct exposure and shutter speed tricky but that is what we wildlife photographers thrive on, where dynamic range and ISO capabilities come to the fore.
There are times when you search high and low for these painted dogs and never find them. On this occasion we were travelling east toward main camp and there, on the sand road in the morning shade, was the whole pack. They seem to be remarkably tolerant of people and photographers who were lying on their stomachs with big eyes looking at them.
Being lightweights in the bush with lion and hyaena all around they are always very wary. Something, a sound or a movement, caught their attention. The whole pack responded.
“Whelping over, out of the den, time to join the pack. Your family will teach you well, but don’t stray and you cannot dwell. You have a lot yet to learn and much energy to burn. Play to build your strength and skills, watch carefully and learn for your turn is coming for the kill.”
Interestingly, the pups seem to have ears that are almost the same size as their parents and there is always a pup which is more alert than the rest. Perhaps an alpha in the making.
The image is dark because of the deep shadows in the early morning.
Shooting at ground level gives a much more dramatic impression of the dogs. They took no notice of these large “one-eyed flat humans” who meant them no harm.
Wild dogs have a tight social structure. Their close interactions and bonds serve them well when hunting and while raising their young. Wild dogs live together in groups of six to 30 members. In the East African mammals: An Atlas of Evolution in Africa, Jonathan Kingdon wrote that before so much of the fauna was destroyed in South Africa, Gordon Cumming (1850) described packs of several hundreds and Karen Blixen saw a group of five hundred in Masailand which cantered past her “looking neither right or left, as if they had been frightened by something…”. The consensus view seems to be that wild dog pack sizes are much smaller today because the abundance of antelope has diminished.
“Small on your own but powerful in a pack. Wild at heart you run like the wind. Since you play in the hot zone, rest in the shade for you will need all your wiles later. Your mottled pelage of black, white, tan and ochre helps you to melt into the bush surrounds. You hunt in the in-between light when it is cooler and you are camouflaged.”
~ Mike Haworth
The wild dogs’ hunting technique is usually to silently approach their prey and engage a fast chase which can reach speeds of 66 kilometres per hour and averages less than kilometres. During the chase the dogs bite the legs, belly and backside of larger prey until it eventually stops. Smaller prey is run down and torn to pieces.
Wild dogs are seasonal, co-operative breeders. Whelping generally occurs during the months of April to September after a gestation period of just over 70 days. In southern Africa, pups are born mostly from late May to early June. The pups are born in a den, where they remain for the first three months of their life. Wild dog females cannot successfully rear pups without the assistance of the pack.
Each individual has a unique coat pattern, which makes it possible to identify every one in the pack with certainty.
“Children learn as they play. Most importantly, in play children learn how to learn.”
~O. Fred Donaldson
The pups are sexually mature after 23 months and they start leaving the pack when they are a year-and-a-half old. They leave the pack as same-sex groups that join unrelated, opposite-sex groups to form new packs. Males disperse later, in larger groups, and further than females; these patterns are to avoid inbreeding and competition for mating. No dogs mate with close relatives.
African wild dogs are light weights, weighing between 19 and 34 kilograms. Females are generally larger than males and can weigh up to 34 kilograms.
“In union there is strength.”
Wild dogs hunt primarily by sight and in daylight, either in the early morning, or in the early evening. The pack often approaches herds of prey to within several hundred metres, but they select a particular animal only once the chase begins. The pack functions as a hunting unit and the group cooperates closely in killing and mutual defence.
“Big ears keep vigil. There is danger all around, you live in the predator zone. You are small but few can match your hunting skills. You tear through the bush and tear through your quarry. Speed and endurance is your signature.”
Known as the alpha pair, the dominant male and female are the only dogs to breed in a wild dog pack.
One of the interesting interactions our guide, Kevin, told us about was between Hooded Vultures and wild dogs. Hooded Vultures are not the main participants in the cleaning of a carcass because of their relatively small size and inability to effectively tear flesh of the carcass. They do not have the strength and tearing ability of a Lappet-faced or White-backed vultures so tend to work the periphery of a kill picking up scraps. “Hoodies” hang around wild dogs because the latter tear up their prey so there are probably numerous scraps lying around. In addition, the adults regurgitate meat for their pups which is also a possible source of scraps
Even more intriguing is that Hooded Vultures eat the faeces of wild dogs because they are so nutrient rich. Hyaenas have been known to harass a pack of wild dogs forcing some of the pack members to defecate – which the hyaenas then eat. I find it fascinating that there are many more linkages between wildlife than is apparent on the surface.
Once rested, whether it is early morning or late afternoon, the pack tend to play. Adults with adults and adults with pups.
In the packs we saw there were around 16 dogs with the majority being adults. Each breeding season they lose a few pups to predators.
“Antelope this is a time for instinct, not a time to lope. Flee for your life, once the pack locks on you, your odds dive. They will run you to exhaustion. Once caught, no time for strangulation, just desperation. With tearing and blood-letting, the shock will do the rest.”
~ Mike Haworth
Wild dogs are efficient hunters. They run their prey to exhaustion using a relay race tactic. Once they have caught their prey, it is literally torn to pieces by the pack within minutes. African Wild Dogs are considered one of the most successful hunters in Africa with a kill rate per chase of more than 85%.
Wild dogs are not the senseless killers that some make them out to be. They kill to eat only. Once prey is caught, a single dog cannot strangle it so the pack pulls it apart. Larger prey such as wildebeest and kudu are bitten on the flanks and chunks of muscle and connective tissue are torn out until the prey stops and collapses from exhaustion and shock. Juveniles are allowed to feed first after the kill has been made. Not much remains of a carcass after the pack has fed.
We were driving back to camp as it was getting dark when we met Stretch Ferreira, a legendary guide in Mana, on the road who said the pack had run past him not two minutes before. When we arrived, this is the scene we found – part of the reason for the quick kill and fast feeding is to minimise the chance of it being stolen.
There is so much in a scene which a photo’ cannot capture. In the dim fading evening light our human tools are limited, but our eyes and senses reveal the scene. Our camera’s narrow field of vision excludes much of the surrounding scene and context. In the dusk, the action is frenetic. The adults allow the pups to feed while they keep vigil. All the noise of the hunt and capture is bound to attract unwanted nocturnal inquisitors. Experience has taught the pack to feed fast. The frenzy of the feeding is not captured in the very low light. The camera cannot capture the smell of a kill. It is raw and unpleasant to the human nose. It is difficult to get your mind around the fact that the Impala you saw dashing through the twilight running for its life just a few minutes ago is now in pieces.
“It is a travesty that your co-operation and hunting efficiency cannot help your species prevail. Pack sizes over 100 were recorded in times gone by when the antelope passed by in vast herds. Sadly those days are gone, humanity’s encroachment has reduced the herds and with it your family. Still unbounded, you seek uninhabited places in Africa, which are now few and far between.”
Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.