Who Let The Dogs Out?
And what's more in the Kalahari to boot!
So, there we were, minding our own business watching another beautiful African sunset, contemplating the day, sipping drinks when a Land Cruiser came hurtling up our road in a billowing cloud of dust. My stomach lurched and I do confess I felt nervous. There were four men on board two sitting on a sky high bench with an aerial, a driver and one other driving shotgun. They stopped in a hail of gravel, jumped out and approached us.
This is Africa. They were kitted out in Khaki, sunglasses, camera and hats. Without preamble the driver enquired “did you see the dogs?”
Dogs? What dogs? African Wild dogs of course. “No!” we exclaimed rolling our eyes. Nice one! But, we did have clear hyena spoor. One that had pulled up our ground sheet notwithstanding the 6” brass pegs holding it down, dragging it off a few meters before losing interest. The men were interested. They looked and announced. “That’s them. Our pack of Wild dog pups. We’re looking for them” Just like that.
As Butch said later “if someone had told me there are wild dogs in the Kalahari I’d have thought they’d got bush fever and lost it.”
We were speechless. Apparently our campsite was their playground and the path they used from their den down to the pan to go hunting. Like nodding dogs on the rear windowsill of a car we nodded and shrugged. The men returned to their vehicle, they were on a mission to find their dogs.
We, thrilled with our identification of the spoor, went to inspect them again. This time full of wisdom. Butch reminded Sue and Percy of our Wild dog experiences in Mana last year. How special it was to see these rare animals and filled them in about their habits, unique markings, breeding habits and what ferocious hunters they were. Sagely he warned, “Chances are good we’ll not see them.”
Next minute the Land cruiser was back. The yearlings were on their way to the pan and if we followed the crew we might see them on the road before they crossed over. We jumped at the opportunity and went tearing, at a respectable speed, off behind them.
With huge smiles the men pointed them out and allowed us a perfect view of the five dogs crossing the road. Without missing a beat they were off on their hunt. They’d spotted some ostrich on the far side of the pan and the hunt was on. We watched from the sidelines and saw how their interest changed when they spotted a lone springbok. Everything they do is instinctive. How they form their pincher movement, one dog leading the way, the rest spreading out, some lagging slightly, conserving their energies for later when they take over from the leader as the buck tires, slows and eventually gives up the chase. Within minutes they’d sprinted many hundreds of meters through the grasses and scrub until the Springbok saw a gap and headed for thicker and denser Acacia trees and shrubs. The dogs were determined, energetic and hungry.
Unfortunately we couldn’t go off road and had to turn back. We’d not witness the kill but, were promised a full disclosure later. We waited impatiently as we saw the tracking lights sweep its beam over our campsite during the night. Like excited children we couldn’t wait for the debriefing, speculating whether we’d be privy to the discussions or not. We were the outsiders after all.
Next morning over steaming cups of coffee and rusks we got the whole story. A kill was made, the dogs hungrily fed tearing at the meat in great gulps until they’d finished every scrap always mindful of other predators and scavengers like lions and hyena who would not think twice before chasing these yearlings off the kill.
Once they’d finished eating they’d return to their den to regurgitate and feed the lactating female. As the new pups were still denning it was not known how big the litter was. These pups were at their most vulnerable and the location of the den was a closely guarded secret. Dens are frequently vacated and new dens are found, aardvark holes are the most popular as they’re large, deep and very safe. It is unlikely that a predator will be able to rob the den. But, the tracks going to and from the den are a problem. Cats walk in paths, are very keen spotters of paths and will soon uncover a track, especially vehicle tracks which is why we’d never know the location. Leopard are opportunists and their modus operandi is to watch behaviors. Reoccurring behavioral patterns are noted and when the opportunity arises a strike will be made. The other interesting fact was that the relocation often happens at midday, when nocturnal hunters slumber.
When I mentioned that I’d be loath to mention specific sites one of the guides said “you can bring 100 tourists they’ll never find the den!” I was relieved. So their secret place is safe. For now.
This tight knit group of men consisted of Botilo, studying for his doctorate based on the wild dog, a fascinating, knowledgeable man who’s traveled the world and with great humour sees human behavior for what it is. A natural leader and an eloquent teacher. He is a scientist with a passion for wildlife and specifically African Wild dog.
Their mentor and research assistant, Mmoloki, an accomplished guide who’d mentored many graduates in animal behavior whose vast practical knowledge and skill was honed in the field. A fascinating man who had us all enthralled with his wisdom and plain speaking!
Mackenzie, a KRC Research Intern doing his practical and a very keen photographer, intelligent yet wise for one so young whose photographs will one day be snapped up by National Geographic I am sure.
Their tracker, Cooper, one of only three trackers in Botswana and considered the best of the best. Taught by his grandfather who had been a Kalahari tracker as his ancestors were for many thousands of years. This shy, softly spoken man who spoke perfect English always looked to Mmoloki for guidance with so much respect, listened, contemplated and then answered my questions revealing only what he considered important. I think he studied us as he studies the Kalahari sands and read us like he does a paw print getting all the answers from the signs we leave in our wake.
A rare opportunity presented itself and we grabbed it with both hands enjoying the camaraderie, the knowledge and stories shared. We spent a most enjoyable hour or two before they had to leave to restock their supplies and freshen up. We’d see them on their return later that afternoon.
We decided to remain in our campsite for the day in the hope that we might spot the dogs as they made their way past us, unfortunately we didn’t, as expected, but, we did have an opportunity to see them return at sunset and set out on another hunt this time getting their kill on the pan which we were fortunate to glimpse from afar.
“Ninety percent of everything we know has been passed along through story.” ― Laurens van der Post
HOW CONSERVATION WORKS AND THE CULLING OF THE BOTSWANA ELEPHANTS, A LOADED CONVERSATION
In June there was an announcement by the Botswana Government that hunting elephant would be allowed and the ban lifted. I was horrified.
During our conversations with the group I asked what their opinion was. They unanimously agreed that it is a good thing. Why? I asked.
Their explanation was the following:
The people of Botswana co-exist with the animals. There are no fences. Animals migrate naturally and there is a strong bond and respect between humans and the animals. Cattle ranching is a huge source of income in Botswana. Rural communities and their livestock have to be protected. In some instances farmers have been discouraged from cattle ranching and are supported by the Community Trusts.
Elephant numbers have increased dramatically over the last years decimating trees as they need large quantities daily (In a day, an elephant can drink 200 litres of water. Elephants eat roots, grasses, fruit, and bark. An adult elephant can consume up to 200kg of food in a single day.) Elephant are also predated and that means lion, cheetah, leopard and other scavengers will follow, this puts livestock farmers under added pressure to protect their herds. The circle of life. Disrupt the one and we open another can of worms.
Elephant are very clever and have existed using their instincts to survive amongst which are; fear and flight. Therefore, elephant herds will vacate a location if they fear for their lives and naturally re-locate to a safer area. The reasoning is that by culling 5 elephant in an area annually the herd will move on to areas where they are not hunted, such as the national parks where they’re safe.
To re-locate one elephant costs $15K or more, to re-locate a herd many thousands more. International hunters, under supervision, are willing to pay thousands of dollars to cull. All the funds raised in doing so will be paid to the community trust, which is managed in a very transparent way. These funds are used to uplift the communities and schools, hospitals and clinics are built which benefits the whole community and the herds naturally move to protected areas which is less stressful for the animals. The hunters are mainly interested in the trophies which means that the meat can provide much needed food for that community too.
The ban on ivory will be upheld and tusks will be safeguarded in vaults and not sold.
I realised these learned men, who have considered and scientifically studied all scenarios realistically, who understand conditions, traditions and local lore had a point. To co-exist a fine balance has to be maintained. In Botswana conservation is a top priority. Tourism is their main source of income they certainly don’t intend to bite the hand that feeds them.
Years ago I read somewhere that we find answers to many questions when we are under pressure e.g. ground breaking medical research was done during the most devastating battles and wars. When animals are on the verge of extinction means are employed to save them, when humans die from epidemics like HIV, Measles, smallpox and Polio we find cures. When plastics threaten our oceans we ban single use plastic and find alternates. Sometimes we have to be unemotional and find ways to save our planet and all its creatures.
Ian Player said “We believe that interest in nature leads to knowledge, which is followed by understanding, and later, appreciation. Once respect is gained it is a short step to responsibility and ultimately action to preserve our Earth.
Thank you guys for showing us the way, without your kindness, generosity, wisdom, willingness to teach and show we’d have missed the greatest sightings of all. I hope we will all meet up again somewhere sometime, it’s a sad thought to think we might miss out on your great adventures. I know we will read about you in the future.
You reminded us of the African Wild Dog’s precarious position and fight to survive, but, most importantly, that we must tread softly on this earth, Botilo, Mac Kenzie, Cooper and Mmoloki you do just that. You are in inspiration and you’ve rekindled our hope and desire to see our beloved Africa reach its full potential. Who knows one day the animals might roam freely and in large numbers again.