We spent two long days trying hard to desnare the snared pup in the Maera pack.
The first day we departed at 5.30am and using telemetry found the pack at exactly the same spot where a dry river crosses the dirt road where they had been resting the morning before. Graeme, who is qualified to dart and immobilize wildlife, joined Rosemary, Misheck and Roy. In low-range four-wheel drive, we approached them ridiculously slowly in the vehicle after pausing to prepare the tranquilizer dart. We halted every time they looked edgy or stood up; nonetheless as we got towards darting range—which is a mere 25 metres for wild dogs owing to their small size and thin skin—the Wild Dogs moved off through the trees. They moved off casually and slowly, not alarmed, but it was clear that we were disturbing them.
We were able to follow them the short distance to the next water-hole where we waited several hours, mingling two strategies—one being to approach the dogs using the vehicle, moving infinitesimally towards them and hoping not to drive them away before we got into range—and the other being to park in the shade by the edge of the water and wait, darting gun at the ready, for them to come down to the water to bathe and drink. That first day, the dogs came down several times to drink and bathe but the injured pup was not always among them, and not always within range. However, there was one moment when we had a perfect shot, and the dart apparently hit the pup squarely and discharged the drugs.
When this happened, the pup was clearly given a fright and the pop from the darting gun alarmed the rest of the pack, too. It felt like a shame to breach the trust we had built slowly accustoming them to the vehicle and staying absolutely motionless while they cautiously approached the water. However, we were trying to help. What a strange kind of hunting this was: for it is hunting indeed, in all respects except one—that we were trying to save a life rather than take one. And arguably our task was more difficult than hunting to kill, because we had to shoot one particular individual out of a whole pack, not any suitable individual—and we had to be in very close range, because to shoot further requires a higher velocity and can do much more damage to the animal.
When the dart struck the pup, he and the rest of the pack scattered. Assuming the dart had discharged into the pup and it would shortly be immobilized, we started a timer and split up on foot to comb the area and find the sleeping pup. We would have to be quick, because in the intense heat, an immobilized animal’s temperature will sky-rocket, and it will die rapidly from overheating, being unable to regulate its own temperature by panting, moving to the shade, etc.
The minutes ticked past and the sun beat down on us; we fanned out and circled around and could find no sleeping pup. When we reconvened, however, Misheck surprisingly reported that he had just seen the pack with the snared pup moving around and wide awake. Clearly, for some strange reason, the darting hadn’t worked—most likely, the drugs had discharged into bone rather than muscle, and so not resulted in immobilization. (The dart had clearly hit the pup—we found its hair on the needle—and the drugs had been discharged.)
We spent more time trying to follow the dogs to find another opportunity for a darting shot, but they were constantly on the move in inaccessible thick Mopane woods, and we were reluctant to further stress them.
Instead, we met again early next morning for a second attempt. This time, the pack had moved. We followed the radio signal and spotted them moving along a road toward another water-hole. Almost as we arrived, the pack killed two young warthogs—we heard them squealing and saw the Wild Dogs eating excitedly. I was glad to know that the injured pup would be eating today, although tried not to think about how hard it would be for him to swallow. He is growing every day, and that snare must cut every day a little deeper and a little tighter, squeezing the life slowly out of him as his body tries to develop.
We slowed to our ridiculous crawl and crept closer; again, as we neared the water-hole the pack moved off a short distance out of sight. We parked under a tree at the water’s edge and waited.
Hours passed, and the sun shifted, and we were no longer in the shade. After a long time, the dogs approached the water and came to bathe and drink. Cindy, as usual, was the first to enter—she apparently loves the water and has a particular taste for bathing. Others will follow her down, some more boldly than others: and some barely seemed to approach it at all—possibly naturally more timid individuals, possibly put off by our presence. Unfortunately, the snared pup is among the more timid.
However, he eventually came down to drink, and I was relieved to see him immerse is lower jaw and lap the water—water that will help keep him alive a little longer, as would the meat he’d eaten earlier. When he stood up and turned sideways, Graeme took a shot—it was a long shot, and difficult to see whether it had struck home. It turned out to have hit the ground and bounced. The pack scattered again, but moved off only a few dozen metres, staying in the vicinity of the water-hole.
Here’s a picture of them resting affectionately in the shade. They often lie touching each other. Here you can see one Wild Dog is resting its head and paw on the back of one of its friends. At one point several of them did this in a kind of chain of body-pillows, but I couldn’t get a picture of it!
We waited 8 hours at that water-hole for chances to dart the injured pup. Much later, the pack came down to drink again, but unfortunately the snared pup did not come to the water. One adult barked pointedly in our direction. The signal was so clear that it was unmistakable—he was saying to us, ‘Go away! Push off! Give us some space!’
Although we were as quiet as we could and sat still or almost still for hours on end, our presence was certainly keeping animals from their much-needed drinks. We saw Warthogs and Wildebeest come within sight but stay away because they saw and smelt us. It’s highly likely other creatures wanted to drink too, which we never saw.
One adult male warthog was the only mammal other than the Wild Dogs which dared to come to the waterhole while we were there. He was a beautiful specimen—if Warthogs can be beautiful—and showed all the quiet, solid confidence of a strong male. He wasn’t fazed by the Wild Dogs who were drinking not far along the shore, despite the fact that they’d killed two of his kin at the same spot hours before—possibly his own children. At one point, one of the Wild Dogs showed interest in him and began to stalk along the shore towards him. He simply grunted and charged at the Wild Dogs, who scattered without leaving. Then he went back to his spot to continue drinking.
In the picture, the warthog male has just charged towards with wild dogs which have scattered–the ones you can see are looking nervous and clumping together. At the end of the charge, the warthog just stood there and stared towards them. I was impressed at his fearlessness.
He was more concerned about us, but only showed this by taking his time and keeping an eye on us, rather than by any nervous caution. He drank slowly, and then stood motionless by the water’s edge for a long time. I could tell that he wanted to wallow, but was calmly assessing the situation. He eventually turned round and lay down in the shallows. Ah, that cool water! Were the water-hole less attended by possible predators, I’m sure he would have rolled in the mud.
All day a Hamerkop waded in the water-hole, stalking elegantly like a heron, darting its beak to catch insects and once, a frog. I was amazed to watch it washing its food—I wasn’t aware that birds do things like that. The frog was wiggling, and so the Hamerkop slammed it repeatedly against the ground to kill it properly. It would stop wriggling temporarily, and the Hamerkop would move back to the water, rinse the frog in the water, and then attempt to swallow it again. It would wriggle again, and the Hamerkop would repeat this procedure, always washing the frog before every attempt to swallow it, presumably to remove the sand that got stuck all over the frog when it was being bashed on the ground. Once the Hamerkop swallowed the frog while it was still wriggling, but then quickly regurgitated it and continued bashing and then washing the frog until the frog was finally properly dead. Then it washed it one more time and swallowed it whole. Shortly after that, the Hamerkop took a rest, perching on a dead branch nearby and emitting one satisfied white dropping onto the dirt away from the water.
The Wild Dogs were totally disinterested in the Hamerkop, which showed no fear of them, as you can see in this picture.
As it neared dusk, we could see the dogs still resting a hundred metres away through the trees. We decided to try approaching them instead. We drove through thick brush, squeezing between trunks and squashing small trees, wincing at the damage the woody vegetation would be doing to the underside of the vehicle. Although they all got up as we got close, Graeme did manage to loose another shot at the pup, but in the thick vegetation, it also missed.
It was getting dark, and we were finally stumped. Disappointed, we drove home as the stars came out. We would have to wait for another opportunity when Graeme is available and the Maera pack are in a suitable location—and with luck the snared pup will still be alive, and we can have another go at saving its life. In the meantime, although the wound is nasty and the pup is clearly weakened, it can still keep up with the pack and is still eating and drinking—so there is hope yet.