Leader of the Pack

by ZSL on

Hunter. Team player. Playful puppy. Good parent. There are many sides to the African wild dog. We join the pack to find out more about these colourful and fascinating animals. 

African wild dog

When you think of Africa's most formidable predator, you'd be forgiven for thinking of a majestic lion, or speedy cheetah. But in fact, one of the most efficient and successful carnivores on the continent is actually a member of the dog family. 

With its multicoloured patchwork coat and huge ears, the African wild dog may look characterful and even cute, but don't be fooled - its hunting skills have earned it a reputation in its homelands as a fearsome hunter. 

An African wild dog pack will work together to chase and overcome their prey. Although each dog is smaller than the average Labrador, they're noted for bringing down targets much larger than themselves, such as antelope and wildebeest. 

The dogs' cooperative behaviour makes them far more efficient predators than the likes of the cheetah or lion. Hunting at dawn and dusk, these canines will roam enormous distances in search of prey, with each pack having a home range of anything from 200 to 5,000 square km, in habitats ranging from open plains and bush savannahs to semi-desert land and forest. 

Dogs in decline 

Rarely spotted in the wild, even in areas where they are relatively common, African wild dogs have long captured our imagination. 

Decorative animals resembling African wild dogs appear on early Egyptian crafts alongside wolves and domestic dogs. Other cultures, such as the San people of Botswana, revered them for their hunting abilities, believing that San shamans could harness the dogs' power. But this prowess hasn't made African wild dogs universally popular. They are nicknamed the 'devil's dogs' by some African farmers. Many fear the threat they could pose to livestock, and as a result, dogs have been shot, snared and poisoned. 

Years of this persecution, alongside habitat loss and other threats, such as traffic accidents and disease, have seen the wild population of African wild dogs plummet. 

Defending the 'devil's dog'

ZSL is fighting to protect the African wild dog, helping to secure the vast landscapes that wild dogs need to survive. This often means encouraging governments to cooperate with neighbouring countries to take action on the scale needed. 

Our staff also lead periodic reviews of dog population numbers and trends as part of the IUCN Red List threat assessment process. 

African wild dog at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo

Species Spotlight 

  • Thanks to their distinctive coats, members of an African wild dog pack can recognise each other from distances of 100 metres. 
  • Usually white-tipped, its tail is thought to act as a marker or flag to keep the pack in contact while hunting. 
  • Fewer than 700 packs of these dogs are thought to remain in the wild - making them one of the world's most threatened carnivores. 
  • Male African wild dogs are slightly larger than females, reaching around 20-35kg in weight. 
  • Each dog has its own unique coat pattern with black, brown, yellow and white patches (which is why they are sometimes called 'painted dogs'. 
  • The dogs' big, rounded ears have many muscles for flexibility, helping them tune into distant sounds. The large surface area of the ears is also likely to help with heat loss. 
  • The dog's specialised molar teeth are perfect for tearing meat and breaking bones. 
  • African wild dogs have the largest litter sizes of any canine, averaging 10 pups. 

Life with the pack 

African wild dogs are incredibly social animals and live in packs of anything from around four to 40 individuals, led by a dominant male and female. This couple are usually the only members of the pack to breed and produce pups, but the other males and females in the pack will help care for their offspring. 

The pack's close bonds come to the fore when hunting. Before heading out on a hunt, they will 'rally' to sniff, lick and call to other members to fire the pack into action. 

Working as a team, the dogs rely on sight and hearing, rather than smell, to target their prey and give chase, reaching impressive speeds of more than 70kmph when sprinting. 

Despite their fearsome reputation, African wild dogs show many signs of cooperation and consideration towards other pack members. After a hunt, young pups are fed with meat regurgitated by the adults. They stay in their den until they are around three months old, after which they start to feed on kills with the rest of the group. 

As pack hierarchy is so well established, adults don't fight over food but typically wait for their turn to eat. Some pack members will stay behind during the hunt to guard the den and care for pups. In rare cases, pack members will even return to feed badly injured dogs that can't join the hunt. 

See our wild dogs in action at ZSL Whipsnade and London Zoo

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