Located in the southern part of Africa, the country Botswana might be landlocked, but it enjoys a sea of fresh water as the rivulets of the Okavango River flow into the Kalahari scrub. Here, in what was once desert, plants thrive and wildlife abounds. People come from afar to see the spectacular landscapes rich with game and to stay in an array of atmospheric lodges.
This time, we were invited to stay at the Spartan but special Predator Research Camp where PhDs have radio-collar access to the rare African Wild Dogs. With only 6,000 of them left on the continent, coming across them on safari is a bit of a miracle, and we were fortunate to spend 3 days with a pack of 30.
As our jeep crashed through the red-leafed Mopane forest, all eyes peering for the alert, round ears of the dogs. Hidden in the tall grass, they looked at us with anxious eyes in the golden light of the evening, and then relaxed. The pups scampered out of the den, all 12 of them, nervous and excited at the same time. Unsteady teetering on two-and-a-half month old legs soon gave way to boisterous play. They stalked, pounced, nipped and clambered over each other and twittered in clumps, suckling from their mother and coaxing the other adults to regurgitate. Known as Painted Wolves, the African wild dogs are neither wolves nor dogs. They are “lycaon,” a species unto themselves. With extraordinary stamina and well-honed tactics, they are one of nature’s fiercest and most efficient hunters with the ability to bring down and strip a large antelope such as a kudu in minutes.
Fauna in Santawani
At the first hint of dusk, the dogs set off for a hunt. One of them took the lead and the others followed. They loped with intent, bounding over bushes and joining the vanguard on the sand road heading away from the den. We followed, intensely excited, feeling as though we were a part of their hunting party. The dogs trotted nonchalantly, stirring dust, raising hell at a wart-hog hole and startling grazing impalas. Like the neighbourhood Mafia on a rampage, they caused all other creatures to run, climb, burrow and reel-in their young. Krystyna, the researcher who had diligently noted everything so far, gave spirited chase cracking through the woods till it was too dark to follow. We turned back, knowing the pack would not go hungry.
While photographing the dogs was our focus we also saw plenty of other game such a leopard, cheetah, elephant, impala and zebra. Back at camp, dinner conversation often caved-in to lion calls and hyena whoops.
Rustling up lunch in the kitchen I had some unexpected help with banana-billed hornbills clearing the dishes, slender mongoose picking off the floor and a honey badger taking out the rubbish.
Researchers Tico and Leslie McNutt set up this camp 22 years ago with the intention of studying and protecting wild dogs. They’ve written several books, including Running Wild. Leslie interacts with children in nearby Maun, teaching them about their precious wild heritage. If one of the world’s most dynamic predators can be given a leg-up, we’re doing something right somewhere.
Best time to visit
May to September. Wild dogs are largely seen in the Okavango Delta in Botswana, Kruger Park, South Africa and Selous, Tanzania
How to get there
Fly to Johannesburg, South Africa or Nairobi, Kenya and onward to Maun airport in Botswana. There are several lodges in areas where wild dogs can be sighted, such as Vumbura Plains, King’s Pool and Zaraffa
In the area: Lions, leopard, cheetah, elephant, giraffe, zebra, kudu, impala, roan antelope, wart-hog, porcupine, honey badger, mongoose and dozens of bird species.