African wild dogs: one of the most sought-after wildlife viewing experiences for experienced safari-goers. What is it about the African wild dog that captures the imagination? I am about to find out..
It is early morning at Saruni Samburu Camp. Here in the middle of this wilderness of over two hundred thousand acres I am on the point of sinking into a king-size bath when the cry goes out. A pack of African wild dogs has been sighted heading north on the facing eastern slopes. I can feel the air crackle; even the staff are alert and engaged. Abruptly rid of any thoughts of a languid morning soak, I throw dignity to the winds and clad only in dressing gown scramble up the rocky slope. There is no way I am going to be left behind; it is a rare event, even to the well-seasoned ranger, and the revving land cruiser takes off with alacrity and in hot pursuit. Well, as hot a pursuit as considered safe down the rocky terrain of this remote hilltop lodge.
We are lucky to catch up with the pack after a slow bone-shaking descent into the valley. They are moving with intent: agile and ordered like a military exercise. Yet they are also somehow unhurried and controlled. Smaller than expected there is a beauty, a rhythm and synchrony in their movement. Their physique has evolved into an efficient running machine; a honed-down design devoid of anything unnecessary. Each blotchy-coated dog, that morning, shows he knows his place in the family hierarchy and keeps formation behind the female leader. They seem coolly aware yet unperturbed by our silent presence.
The African Wildlife Association estimate that only 7,000 of these dogs remain. But they remain mysterious and elusive to any researcher, their intentions unpredictable. They apparently employ the same economy of their physique to their mating: unlike other dogs they take just one minute.
We gently track the dogs until they move as one to pick up the pace: we are on the hunt. Both exhilarating and unnerving, I cling to the land cruiser as it flies alongside the ebbing and flowing pack. I haven’t seen the prey but I can’t help to feel its terror as the predators streak behind it. We follow for some time, but lose the pack temporarily as their relentless pursuit doesn’t miss a beat. Once we catch up, the deed is done and the pack are frenzied and bloodied.
They hunt, the ranger told me, with a cruelty rare in any other predator. The attractiveness of the dogs contrasts starkly with their nature at this point. These dogs do not first kill their prey; they attack by biting flesh from the animal whilst still very much alive, even while on the run. This inflicted suffering sends a shiver down the spine.
The aftermath is beautiful, however. Once sated and rested, we watch these dogs go through an elaborate display of love and thoughtfulness. As they wake they bound over to all who have also risen to reaffirm their close bond by licking each face. Once everyone is up and has been greeted, they are off in a ducking, rolling, springing jumble of wagging tails.
Later that afternoon I hear the southern drawl of a new guest just arrived, presumably fresh from the States, complain that he saw some ‘stray’ dogs run past the camp and how revolting that the camp would allow the scavengers near the camp. I smile.
Blog post by MJ Cobb, visiting Saruni Samburu October 2016
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