Leaders of the Pack: Facts About African Wild Dogs

Playful and ruthless, intelligent and social—the African wild dog is among the most coveted of safari sightings.

Read about these fascinating creatures below, then see them firsthand on safari with National Geographic.

A dog by any other name: The African wild dog also goes by the names of Cape hunting dog or painted dog. Like a zebra’s unique stripe pattern or a human’s fingerprint, no two dogs have the same markings on their coat. Mottled with red, black, brown, white, and yellow patches of fur, the effect is as striking as it is essential to survival.

Play it by ear: Like satellite dishes, the large rounded ears of African wild dogs swivel to detect minute sounds in the distance.

Less is more: Another way African wild dogs differ from domestic dogs: They only have four toes per foot.

Survival of the fastest: Wild dogs can sprint after prey at speeds of up to 44 miles an hour.

Pack mentality: African wild dogs live and die for their family—literally. Though the bigger the clan the more efficient the hunt, non-breeding adults sacrifice their own nourishment to ensure the pups in the group get enough to eat and grow. Subsequently these altruistic elders tend to gradually become malnourished and die younger than their peers in packs with fewer offspring.

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Top dogs: With an impressive 80 percent success rate, wild dogs are among Africa’s most effective predators. Lions only prevail around 30 percent of the time.

Not exactly man’s best friend: Even with their finely honed hunting skills, African wild dogs count among the world’s most endangered mammals. According to the IUCN Red List, only around 6,600 wild dogs remain, mostly in Tanzania, northern Mozambique, and southern Africa. The biggest threats facing the species come from their increased contact with humans: habitat loss, villagers seeking revenge against killed livestock, and viral diseases contracted from domestic dogs.

Not all who wander are lost: African wild dogs spend their days prowling huge amounts of territory, with home ranges of up to several hundred square miles in the open plains and sparse woodlands of sub-Saharan Africa. Consider this comparison: Greater London is home to 8.8 million people, but an area that size could only support one or two African wild dog packs.

Adventures in babysitting: A monogamous pair of alpha dogs leads each pack, with the whole crew caring for each litter of pups—from taking turns guarding and nursing the pups to regurgitating meat after a hunt.

No dog left behind: African wild dogs work together in packs of 6 to 20 or more to hunt antelopes and even larger prey such as wildebeests. These highly social beasts communicate with each other by touch, actions, and vocalizations—before a hunt, you can see them playfully circling each other and seeming to psych each other up for the endeavor. They’re also one of the few mammals that care for the old, sick, and disabled members of the pack.

African wild dogs are among the continent's rarest wildlife sightings; travelers have a relatively high chance of spotting these captivating canines in the wildlife parks of South Africa, Tanzania, and Botswana, to name a few.