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African wild dogs in Northern Tuli Game Reserve, Botswana. Photograph by WILDLIFE GmbH, Alamy

What Wildlife Shows Don’t Tell You About African Wild Dogs

In the first episode of The Hunt, the recent blockbuster BBC natural history series, a pack of African wild dogs attacks a wildebeest in the grasslands of Zambia. Their ears are flat, their legs pound the grass, their muscles flex beneath beautiful black, white, and orange hides. They work in relay, with fitter dogs taking over from tired runners at the front. “The pack can keep this up for miles; the wildebeest can’t,” says David Attenborough. “Their success will depend on wearing him down on a long chase.”

This is the portrait of African wild dogs that has become enshrined in textbooks, scientific papers, and wildlife documentaries like The Hunt, Life Story, and Planet Earth. They are the ultimate endurance hunters and the most efficient predators in Africa, relying on teamwork and stamina to bring down some 80 percent of their prey.

Or are they?

In the first study of its kind, a team of scientists led by Alan Wilson from the Royal Veterinary College fitted a pack of wild dogs with collars that recorded their position, speed, and acceleration. The collars gave the first unbiased view of the dogs’ hunts, revealing what they do in places where the scientists couldn’t see them.

The data revealed that the dogs chased almost all of their prey over short runs rather than long pursuits. They didn’t coordinate their attacks, and they never showed signs of teamwork. On average, they killed just 16 percent of their targets.

In other words, nothing about their reputations bore out in the data. “It was really quite the opposite of what we expected,” says Tatjana Hubel, who was involved in the study. “We’re not saying they never do these things, but we didn’t see any evidence.”

In April 2012, the team travelled to Botswana and collared a pack of six adult wild dogs: Kobe, Timbuktu, MJ, Scorpion, Accra, and Kigali. They then left the dogs alone for five to seven months. Over that time, the collars recorded over 1,100 chases that lasted for just a minute on average—far shorter than expected. The chases were also rather leisurely—the dogs had a top speed of 40 miles per hour, but rarely broke 13.

The dogs travelled together but when they attacked herds of impala, their main prey, they showed no evidence of cooperation. On 40 percent of the chases, the dogs immediately scattered. In the other 60 percent, they ran in the same direction but didn’t use specific manoeuvres like blocking or flanking. Most chases ended with the dogs at different locations—a clear sign that they weren’t targeting the same prey. And even when the whole pack took part in a chase, they rarely all ran at the same time.

Rare Video: Wild Dogs Take Down Impala

Rare Video: Wild Dogs Take Down Impala
A Nat Geo WILD crew in 2014 caught an unusual look at a pack of wild dogs taking down a pregnant impala.

Wilson’s team also compared their dog data with information from wild cheetahs, which they collared a few years ago. “They represent two extremes of how you can hunt,” says Hubel. “At one end, you have high athleticism, and at the other, you have high endurance.”

Cheetahs are indeed more athletic: Their chases are shorter and faster, involving half as many strides and much greater acceleration. Their success rate is also higher: A cheetah kills 26 percent of its targets, compared to just 15 percent for a single wild dog. Yet the dogs have one advantage. “The dogs are not investing as much in each individual hunt as a cheetah,” says Wilson. “They go through the long grass and have a go, have a go, have a go until they catch something. You’ll see the same with domestic dogs. They’ll make a few steps and see if they want a go.”

This style of hunting is incredibly efficient, especially because the dogs share their food. For every kill, a solitary cheetah recoups 22 times the energy it spent on hunting. By comparison, a pack of wild dogs recoups 73 times the energy it put in. This refutes another common conceit about wild dogs: that they live on an energy precipice, vulnerable to thieving lions and hyenas, and always on the verge of starvation. Not so: even assuming the worst conditions—juvenile prey, scarce herds, tough chases, thieving hyenas—a six-dog pack can still catch enough food to feed 16 members.

The many discrepancies between the team’s results and the dogs’ reputation may come down to habitat. Scientists first started studying wild dogs on the wide grasslands of East Africa, and the sequence in The Hunt was also filmed on open plains. At the time of writing, Wikipedia says that “the African wild dog is mostly found in savannah and arid zones, generally avoiding forested areas.” That may once have been true, but wild dogs have been exterminated from much of their former range. The remaining packs live mostly in mosaic habitats—bits of grassland dotted by woodland and bushes. That’s where Wilson’s pack lived, and in such terrain, long chases aren’t feasible.

Nor are direct observations. During the study, Julia Myatt tracked the collared dogs for three months and in that time, she saw just one reasonably complete hunt. And even then, she had no idea that while she was watching, three of the dogs went off and killed something else. The team only knew what was going on because of their collars.

“I was amazed at the detailed data,” says Michael Somers from the University of Pretoria. To him, the results show that the dogs’ hunting behaviour is “context-dependent” and “can be altered to suit local condition.” It might also be specific to the one pack that the team collared. “There is an example of a pack specializing on zebra, for instance. This was not widespread in the population. So there may be cooperative behaviour in the presently studied population, and maybe just not in the sampled pack.”

But Wilson says, “Our collaborator, J. Weldon McNutt, has been studying these dogs since 1989, and he would say that’s typical of what they do.” The team confirmed that by collaring individuals from 18 other packs. These other dogs showed the same pattern of multiple short chases. “It’s unlikely that those individuals did short chases while the others went off to do long endurance hunting,” says Hubel.

Wilson suspects that scientists and film-makers have focused on aspects of the dogs’ lives that could be easily observed—hunting larger prey over open grassland—and such conditions produce the kinds of behaviour one expects from the dogs. “Maybe we see what we want to,” he says. You apply the status quo of knowledge. You shoot footage and present it at that context.”

“Maybe the next documentary will give a different story.”