Our first game drive from Chitabe Camp in the Okavango Delta, one balmy Sunday afternoon (winter days in Botswana hit 28 degrees; it’s the early mornings of 4 or 5 that can be a bit… brisk), headed off in the direction of where the wild dogs had been seen that morning.
And there they were, just waking up from their afternoon snooze, and on the move. All 16 of them, even the one that clearly had a broken leg, limping manfully (dogfully?) on three legs to keep up, were loping through the dry grass, around small thorn bushes and large termite mounds, their eyes and ears intent on, well, probably dinner.
As we realised, when four or five suddenly executed a sharp U-turn and shot past us the other way. Dennis, our intrepid guide, quickly did his own U-turn – only it was a bit more complicated in a large vehicle and trying not to get stuck in various warthog holes. As we bounced towards them, we saw them converge on and form a circle around an unseen something; all we could see was a ring of white tails waving madly in the air. And lots of delighted yelping!
It was just 20 seconds before we reached them and it was already over. The dogs finished whatever-it-was and began moving off rapidly. There was nothing left, not even blood, to tell us what had been devoured in such a short space of time, except for one dog who emerged from the melee with a leg hanging out of his mouth like an extra-long cigar.
Dennis identified the leg as having belonged to a steenbok, just a minute ago. And we were struck by the speed at which life and death occurs when you’re around wild dogs.
It’s a successful pack – 16 members, of which eight are sub-adults that survived their first year to take their places as full-time members. But, just the other day, the alpha male was killed by lions. Sadly, this happens more often than one would like to think – lions are the enemy and much of what wild dogs do consist of attempting to avoid these cats. Everyone knows that cats and dogs don’t get on, right?
The alpha female must now find a new male to mate with and keep the pack going. So it was fascinating to watch her that day, after their steenbok aperitif: after a bit of bounding along, she veered towards a small mound and began digging feverishly into it. Clods of earth sprayed up and out, so that she looked for all the world like a dog with a bone to hide… only in this case, the guides surmised that, despite the loss of her mate, she is impelled by instinct to den. Her excavations, then, had purpose, if a somewhat futile one.
Meanwhile, the rest of the pack milled around, sometimes sitting down to pant, sometimes jumping up to sniff at something. Then off they all went again, bounding through the grass in the deepening dusk, dogs on a mission.
In a world filled with lions, as well as steenbok, the energy of the wild dog is palpable and, like all dogs, an energy that seems joyful and eternally optimistic.
Written by Ilana Stein, Wilderness Safaris Group Editor & Content Manager
Images by Dave Hamman