A Sneeze is Worth a Thousand Words

WWF December 26, 2018 0

© WWF-US/Dave Luck

An African safari has always made me imagine iconic species such as elephants, leopards, cheetahs, rhinos, zebra, giraffe… beautiful animals that represent the incredibly diversity of life on Earth, and their fragility. Yet in addition to these most celebrated animals, Botswana is host to a wide array of lesser-known flora and fauna—each impressive and valuable on their own. Surprisingly, the African wild dog was the animal that left the greatest impression on me.

Wild dogs are among the most endangered and, in my opinion, charismatic animals in Africa. Also known as the African painted dog, these animals have over-sized and adorable ears, white and black spotted legs, and a subtle striped coat of brown and orange around their torso. They are also among the most social animals, living in with complex hierarchies and social structures that even incorporates “sneeze” communication to “vote” on decisions like hunting.

While we were on a relaxing, evening safari drive, we were amazed when our Expedition Leader, Francis Kudumo, spotted a wild dog running through tall grass chasing an impala. We held onto our seats and hats—literally—as he abruptly turned the safari vehicle and sped across bumpy terrain to “chase the chase.” At first it was just a fun, wild ride; my friend and I jokingly shouted, “run impala, run!” But as the wild dog got closer and closer, the humor subsided. They disappeared behind a bush and we knew it was over. My stomach sank.

© WWF-US/Alex Rosenberg

We turned a corner and saw that the wild dog caught the impala. It was a very emotional experience, watching a young impala, so graceful and innocent, have the life taken out of it. It was heartbreaking to see and hear. We teared up. I had never seen something like that and, naturally, my heart went out to the impala and at that moment I wished that all animals were herbivores.

But the dog did something that was unlike other African carnivores. She made sure that the impala was dead and pulled the carcass into the bush. We worried that the wild dog was “wasting” the sacrificed impala, but our Expedition Leader explained that she was hiding the meal from vultures while she went to find her family. Most predators rarely share their kills with others, but wild dogs are uniquely social and loyal. Panting, still hungry herself, the dog waited for nearly an hour until her family returned.

My heartbreak over seeing the impala killed was eased when the dog returned with her pack, which included nine squeaking puppies who were excited to finally eat. We learned from our Francis, who has been following this pack for many months, that three puppies in the same litter had already been lost to hunger and other predators. It was uplifting to see these vulnerable animals being fed by their mother.

©WWF-US/Rachel Kramer

While I knew it would be lifechanging, the safari challenged me in ways I didn’t expect. With an experienced, knowledgeable Nat Hab Expedition Leader, we learned about the behaviors, social structures, and emotions of the animals you encounter. Francis knew not only about the species, but the individual animals we saw, their families, and their histories. He knew more about the intimacies of these animals’ families and behaviors than I thought possible. I will always remember how Francis would smile and sigh when watching the animals.

There will always be a lot of emotion tied up in that experience. When we returned to the lodge and recalled the experience to the staff who worked there, they were excited to hear that the puppies were able to eat. They all knew the wild dog family, had been watching the parents raise their young for months, lamented when three of them passed, and were excited by the prospect that all nine remaining puppies could grow up and reproduce.

©WWF-US/Jennifer Dellegrazio

Human-wildlife conflict and land fragmentation are the leading threats to African wild dogs. WWF works across Southern Africa to protect these dogs by using collars to monitor their movements and supports lodges and communities who tolerate wild dog populations. These strategies help sustain wild dog families and provide hope that their expansive habitat will be restored.

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