Painted wolves are one of Africa’s most enigmatic creatures, little understood and heavily persecuted. To me they are by far the most endearing—even when they feed on primates.
With only 6,600 left in the world, these predators—also known as African wild dogs— have been hounded to the edge of extinction. For over a century they were considered vermin, and the hunting and killing has reduced their population to just one percent of its former size.
Since 2013, I have been tracking and photographing three packs of painted wolves alone, on foot, in Zimbabwe’s Zambezi Valley. I’ve got to know them well as I’ve watched them hunt, rest, and play.
I became obsessed, reading every book and scientific paper on the animals, scientifically known as Lycaon pictus (from the Greek root for wolf, lykos, and the Latin for painting, pictus).
They have a reputation for being Africa’s most efficient predators, with a hunting success rate up to 80 percent, mainly preying on antelope such as impala and kudu. I thought I was becoming an expert until I witnessed something never yet documented: a grisly ambush of baboons.
There’s as yet no record in the scientific literature of wild dogs eating baboons, or another other primate.
I first saw this happen several years ago after photographing an alpha female named Blacktip and her pack of 25, which were playing boisterously by a waterhole.
As the group moved off to hunt, I decided not to follow in the growing darkness. My car was over a mile away and it is at night that lions become aggressive—no time to be out in the bush alone.
Suddenly I heard a group of panicked baboons running towards me, loud warning barks echoing into the dusky air. I darted through some bushes towards the commotion only to see a painted wolf close on the tail of a large male.
The painted wolf’s speed was astounding as he cut around the front of the baboon and sunk his teeth into its ear, thus causing immense pain and immobilising the creature, a typical hunting technique. Fractions of a second later, two other pack members grabbed different parts of the baboon and quite literally ripped it apart. It was gruesome to watch, but analysing my photographs afterward, I could see that the baboon’s ordeal lasted less than five seconds.
Compared to other apex predators, painted wolf kill their victim quickly, which seems more human. Other hunters like big cats can take an age to kill their prey.
A few months later I am sitting on a termite mound watching Blacktip’s puppies devour the remains of another freshly killed baboon as the adults protectively watch. These canines always let their young eat first.
I am with my good friend Peter Blinston, head of Painted Dog Conservation, who has dedicated the last 20 years of his life to following, understanding, and working to protect this highly-endangered animal. This new hunting behavior is a positive development for both the painted wolves and the ecosystem, he believes.
“For a start, it widens the painted wolves’ prey base, providing them more hunting options. It is not only good for the painted wolves, but takes the pressure off the impalas, which are their staple diet in this park,” he says.
Many ecologists have also expressed concerned about the area’s growing baboon population, he explains, which might have led to a decline in birds thanks to the primate’s nest-raiding tendencies. By potentially curbing baboons, the wolves could indirectly help the birds, he says.
“This new behavior might help restore some balance to the ecosystem.”
At first, the baboons looked paralysed in the face of this new foe—but more recently they have begun to adapt by changing their own behavior.
One morning, I experienced a ferocious counter-attack from the baboons. The whole troop joined in and I was amazed to see how effectively they could use their long incisors, charging the wolves while trying to bite them.
The wolves retreated after a male, called Patrick, sustained severe wounds to his neck and side. I was not sure if he would survive, but these wolves are tough—he pulled through after only a few days’ convalescence and nurturing from the rest of the pack who licked his wounds to keep them clean.
While capturing a baboon may use less energy than running down an impala, it certainly has become an increasingly dangerous pursuit. Baboons haven’t killed any wolves yet, as far as I know, but they should be added to the list of suspects when one goes missing.
Often when wild dogs approach, baboons will rush down from the trees in which they shelter. Though it may seem nonsensical, a renowned guide named Henry Bandure told me he thinks it may be because they are used to being hunted by leopards, which can climb trees, and the alarm calls baboons use cannot yet distinguish the unique threat posed by painted wolves.
While discussing this new phenomenon with Peter, a puppy picks up the baboon’s dismembered head. Others rush in and they begin playing tug-of-war.
The scene is quite macabre. As a fellow primate, I certainly feel more emotionally involved with the baboon’s fate than that of an impala—and yet I’m not sure whether to feel appalled or amused, as the puppies are clearly greatly enjoying the moment. (One photograph of this encounter was "highly commended" by the Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards, announced this week.)
There are those that might find this behavior cruel, but many of us eat meat too. Except for us humans, the grisly parts are often hidden, far from the supermarket aisles.
What we have been witnessing over the last few years is a gradual ‘evolution’ in the wolves’ behavior, coinciding with the baboon’s population boom. It’s fascinating to watch nature balancing itself, a process that’s still unfolding.
This is not evolution in the strictest Darwinian sense, as no genetic mutation has taken place. However, this may be an example of the ‘Baldwin effect’ where an animal’s ability to change established behaviors can improve the survival prospects of the species as these are learned and passed down.
The painted wolves struggle to survive in this world, following near-extermination at the hands of humans. They hang onto existence by a thin thread. To me, it is a crumb of comfort that nature has offered them a new food source, tilting something back in the struggling creature’s favor.