Today we were blessed with an especially good sighting of the Bedford Pack—about the best view of them we’re likely to get when it’s not the denning season.
We were driving back through the Savé Valley Conservancy after a reconnaissance trip to the Gonarezhou National Park when Rueben, one of our scouts, banged on the roof of our pickup to get us to stop. Although we’d been travelling at some 60 or 70 kph, he had spotted Wild Dog tracks on the dirt road as we whizzed along. He’d also spotted some vultures circling not far from the road and after calculating the number of dogs and pups present from the tracks he could see, we grabbed our cameras and GPS units and followed him into the forest to find out what the vultures had spotted.
A few minutes walk into the trees, we found the fresh remains of a mature impala ram that the Wild Dogs had already almost totally devoured. Their tracks were all around it and although it had been killed very recently, every vertebra had been cleaned of meat already and the only thing intact was the head (although the vultures had pecked out its eyes). We took photos and GPS readings and attempted to locate a collared member of the Bedford Pack, Spanners, as we strongly suspected it was this pack who had made the kill. However, we could not find any signal using the antenna. Rosemary tried standing on some rocks to gain elevation in hope of picking up the signal, but without any luck.
Instead, we followed the tracks on the ground which led us towards the Makore River, but then we lost the trail and there seemed to be Wild Dog tracks going in every direction. What’s more, we couldn’t pick up any signal from the collar no matter how hard we tried. Perhaps the dogs had already moved far from the morning’s kill.
So Rueben and I climbed the Mkondo Hills nearby to search again for a radio-collar signal. None on the first hill—none on the second—but at the top of the third and highest hill, we suddenly picked up the ‘blip…blip’ from Spanners’ collar. Rueben estimated that the Bedford Pack was 5-8 km away and from the direction, that they were likely to be in dry bed of the Makore River after all, despite our failure to locate them there earlier.
So we drove bumpetty-bump down the rough dirt roads back to the Makore River and this time, a little way downstream, Rueben picked up the signal clearly from his perch on the back of the pick-up. Then we spotted them in the river-bed, again accompanied by a circling column of vultures. They were obviously well-aware and wary of the vehicle, but it causes them much less disturbance than a human on foot, and we were able to approach close enough to see that they were feeding on another kill, and to identify individuals and get some good photos.
As they moved off down the river-bed, we followed them (sometimes getting a bit stuck in the sand when the 4-wheel-drive didn’t perform well) and after a short distance we found the whole Bedford pack either playing in the river-bed, lying in holes they had dug in the sand to cool off (the holes fill with water from below the dry river bed), or feeding excitedly on a THIRD kill of the day—this time a young warthog. The feeding Wild Dogs were wagging their white tails and often tugging on different bits of the carcass, like a tug of war, until it broke into more manageable chunks which they could carry off and enjoy.
After we got a good enough view to count them properly and see that the entire pack was still alive and apparently healthy, we left them to continue their way down stream and we went back to identify the second carcass, which we found surrounded by vulture footprints. It was a yearling impala ram with not a shred of meat left on it. Clearly, a pack of 29 dogs with 19 growing pups like the Bedford Pack can’t afford to waste any food. It didn’t appear that the vultures were going to get many left-overs, either!
This was my first decent sighting of African Wild Dogs in the wild, and I was struck by their close social organization—moving very much as a united and cooperative pack—and the rather artistic beauty of each Wild Dog’s unique fur colours. Although it seems unlikely outside the denning season, I really hope to be able to report some more sightings as successful as this one, and to show you some more pictures of these rare creatures.