African wild dog

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark
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African wild dogs were once found across the African continent but their populations have declined due to loss of habitat and threats from farmers who fear for their livestock.

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark

What is the African wild dog?

The African wild dog is known by many names, including Cape hunting dog or painted dog. Its scientific name, Lycaon pictus, means “painted wolf,” referring to the animal's irregular, mottled coat, which features patches of red, black, brown, white, and yellow fur. Each animal has its own unique coat pattern, and all have big, rounded ears.

These long-legged canines have only four toes per foot, unlike other dogs, which have five toes on their forefeet.

Habitat

Though they were once found throughout the continent—from desert to mountain habitats—African wild dogs have disappeared from most of their geographic range. These days, African wild dogs typically roam the open plains and sparse woodlands of sub-Saharan Africa. Their largest populations can be found in Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Zambia, Tanzania, and Mozambique.

Pack behavior and hunting

African wild dogs live in packs that are usually dominated by a monogamous breeding pair. The female has a litter of two to 20 pups, which are cared for by the entire pack. These dogs are very social, and packs have been known to share food and to assist weak or ill members. Social interactions are common, and the dogs communicate by touch, actions, and vocalizations.

African wild dogs hunt in formidable, cooperative packs of six to 20 (or more) animals. Larger packs were more common before the dogs became endangered. Packs hunt antelopes and will also tackle much larger prey, such as wildebeests, particularly if their quarry is ill or injured. The dogs supplement their diet with rodents and birds. As human settlements expand, the dogs have sometimes developed a taste for livestock, though significant damage is rare and most dogs prefer wild prey.

Threats to survival

Unfortunately, African wild dogs are often hunted and killed by farmers who fear for their livestock. They are also threatened by shrinking space to roam in their African home as well as their susceptibility to diseases like rabies and canine distemper. The International Union for Conservation of Nature reports that the population level of African wild dogs fluctuates but is in a likely irreversible decline, which is why it considers this species to be endangered.

Conservation

African wild dogs are among the many species that benefit from the creation of protected wildlife corridors that help connect their increasingly fragmented habitats. Conservation groups are also working on initiatives that reduce conflict between humans and African wild dogs. These include awareness initiatives that dispel myths about the animals as well as educational initiations that offer farmers training in livestock management techniques that prevent depredation.

National Geographic grantee Rosemary Groom is among the many advocates who are working to ensure the continued survival of African wild dogs.