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The African wild dog

19 February 2014


The generic name Lycaon of the African wild dog Lycaon pictus is derived from the Greek word lykaios which means wolf-like. The name pictus is based on the Latin word picta for blocked or spotted. Therefore the name Lycaon pictus means a wolf-like wild dog with a blocked coat. Sometimes it is also known as a Cape wild dog or the painted wild dog because of the yellow, white and black blocks on its coat. For this reason it has also once been known as the tri-coloured wild dog Lycaon tricolor.

Doglike animals, which includes the wolves, jackals and foxes, occur in most parts of the world and the African wild dog is the southern ecological equivalent of the more northern wolf. However, the wolf has a longer nose and smaller ears than the African wild dog. The wild dog’s hunting behaviour once led to its absolute condemnation. Currently, however, it has become sought after by tourists and its presence is also considered to indicate a large, intact ecosystem. There are presently at least 11 programmes in South Africa which aim to breed African wild dogs in captivity for their relocation as populations in the wild.

It is interesting that the spotted hyaena Crocuta crocuta was originally described as a type of wild dog Canis crocuta but that the African wild dog was originally described scientifically in 1820 as a type of hyaena Hyaena picta by C J Temminck based on a specimen that was collected along the coast of Mozambique. It was renamed as a wild dog Lycaon tricolor by C J Brookes in 1827 but was still erroneously referred to as a type of hyaena Cynhyaena in 1829 by F Cuvier and as Hyaenoides in 1855 by F L P Gervais. Its current scientific name is Lycaon pictus and there are five subspecies in Africa south of the Sahara. It may be that the wild dogs of southern and East Africa represent the same subspecies, but they differ from those of West Africa.

The dog family Canidae originated some 50 million years ago and additional branches of development gave rise to various other families for the bears, walruses, seals, otters, raccoons, mongooses and the extinct bear dogs. Of the extinct bear dogs of the family Amphicyonidae, the species Amphicyon major was as large as a black bear but it had a long cat-like back, long hind legs, a long tail and teeth like a wolf. Fossils of this bear dog that are 14 to 18 million years old have been found in southern Africa where they lived during the Namibian Mammal Age.

There are unsubstantiated reports of hundreds of African wild dogs that followed the former springbok treks. These wild dogs do move around nomadically but the largest breeding population occurs in the Selous Game Reserve of Tanzania. Occasionally they are also found south of the Zambezi River in Mozambique. It is believed that some may also still survive in Algeria, Mauritania and the western Sahara, but if this were true then that population will differ genetically from the rest. In South Africa the African wild dog currently occurs in the Limpopo, North West, Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal and Northern Cape provinces although these populations vary continuously. The largest population of some 25 breeding packs occurs in the Kruger National Park. Because of their extremely fragmented distribution there is no gene flow between the continental populations and this requires a meta population management approach.

The African wild dog is a carnivore of medium size with characteristic large, round and dark ears; a broad, bushy tail with a white tip; a bushy coat with white, yellow and black blocks and a short, broad black or brown muzzle. Each individual has a unique coat pattern and the wild dogs of southern Africa have larger skulls and teeth than those of East Africa. In the Kruger National Park the adult males have a mean weight of 24 kg and the females one of 28 kg. There are four toes on each foot and each toe has a strong claw.

The primary habitat of the African wild dog is open, arid bushveld although it will also occur in open plains, such as those of the Serengeti, and in wetter bushveld but not in rain forests or deserts. The social hierarchical behaviour ensures pack integrity. The pack members share their food and care for sick and injured pack members. The dominant male and female determine the movements of the pack and do most of the mating. There is a strong division of labour and the non-mating adults are litter mates of one of the dominant pair. Young dogs older than four months form 25 to 50 per cent of the pack and year-old ones 25 per cent. The size of a pack varies constantly because of peaks in births and mortalities. Larger packs divide from time to time during peaks in the availability of prey. The packs of wild dog in the Kruger National Park consists of a mean of 13 dogs and a young male is only allowed to join an existing pack when the dominant male dies or there are only a few pups left.

The population density varies from two to 35 wild dogs per km2 depending on the density of the prey. Where lions and spotted hyaenas occur there is a low population density of wild dogs because these large carnivores rob the dogs of much of their prey. The total range size varies with prey density from 250 to 3800 km2 per pack, but it is only some 80 km2 around a den containing the pups. There are areas of preference for activity but even the larger ranges are patrolled once every two to three days.

Wild dogs are mostly active around sunup and sunset and kan move for up to 10 km in a morning. When the dogs are 24 to 30 months old, dogs of the same sex may leave the natal pack and establish an own pack up to 200 km away. However, the young females leave the pack before the young males.

Mainly the dominant pair reproduces although mating by the other pack members with one of the dominant pair does occur occasionally. The rest of the pack care for the pups. Reproduction is seasonal and occurs at a time when the prey is most abundant. In the Kruger National park this mainly happens in May and June. Mating lasts for three to seven days and oestrus increases slowly over several days. Copulatory lock is maintained for 50 to 112 seconds but copulation may last for up to five minutes. Gestation lasts around 73 days and only one litter is usually born per year in a pack. The litter size varies from six to 12 or more pups (mean: 8.1). The interval between litters is a year and a dominant female produces ten to 11 litters in her life-time.

The pups are born naked and blind in the old burrows of aardvarks, porcupines, warthogs or hyaenas and the floor of the birth den is covered with leaves and grass. The eyes of the pups open when they are ten days old and they leave the den when they are three to four weeks old. When the den is disturbed the mother will carry the pups in her mouth to a new den somewhere else. In areas with lions many of the pups are killed by the lions after leaving the den and only 56 pr cent survive. An adult pair cannot raise its pups alone because only the male will be able to hunt, leaving the female at the den to care for the cubs. When only one adult female is left in a pack some of the males will help her to care for the pups. When the female dies, the males will care for the pups.

African wild dogs fix their attention on a specific prey animal when hunting and will chase it for several kilometres while biting at it and tearing off pieces of flesh. The prey eventually weakens and stops when the dogs kill it. Despite common belief the wild dog does not use a relay system when chasing a prey animal. Prey animals as large as a buffalo are not hunted but the wild dog is the only type of dog in Africa to show cooperative hunting behaviour. It kills smaller prey such as hares, rabbits, rodents and ground-living birds by pinning them down and giving a killing bite, and are also scavengers of carrion.

Prey is devoured rapidly and completely except for a few pieces of skin, the head, the hooves and larger bones. Just like the cats, wild dogs secure their food with their forefeet while they chew their food better than any other type of large carnivore in Africa. The small skull does not allow them to crack larger bones. A pack feeds with little aggression between the pack members according to a fixed feeding sequence in which the pups feed first, followed by the year-old animals, then the dominant pair and then the rest of the pack. Each adult dog eats from 80 g to 5.7 kg of meat per day. Both sexes cache food which is covered with leaves and sand near the den with the pups, but each cache is only eaten by the dog that did the caching.


Bothma, J du P and C Walker 1999. Larger carnivores of the African savannas. Pretoria: J L van Schaik, pp 130 - 157.

Skinner, J D and C T Chimimba (eds) 2005. The mammals of the southern African subregion, third edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp 474 - 480.

Turner, A 1997.The big cats and their fossil relatives. New York. Columbia University Press.

Wozencraft, W 2005. Order Carnivora. In: D E Wilson and D M Reeder (eds), Mammal species of the world – a taxonomic and geographic reference, third edition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, p 581.

Article by Prof J du P Bothma


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