As one of the largest game reserves in South Africa, Madikwe provides more than enough space for wild dog to flourish, as you’ll see on a wild dog safari. These nomadic predators roam over vast distances when not denning, which brings them into conflict with humans and livestock. In Madikwe, they only have hyena and lion to worry about.
We’d included Madikwe Game Reserve on our luxury South African safari specifically to boost our chances of seeing wild dog, one of the most endangered predators in Africa. Our very first morning game drive more than delivered on our safari wish list.
We set out from the lodge in the grey light of dawn, our guide Hennie telling us a little of the history of the Madikwe wild dog. Along with many of the other species here, they were reintroduced to the area as part of the ambitious Operation Phoenix, as the land rose again from the ashes of its time as a failed agricultural venture. Just six dogs were released back in 1994, and despite some setbacks caused by disease, they had begun to flourish – a great conservation success story and research opportunity.
This morning we were seeking the Northern Pack, which included around half of Madikwe’s wild dog. Or perhaps more, Hennie suggested, as he strongly suspected that they had recently had puppies, although he’d not yet pinned down the location of the den. His plan was to head to where he thought it might be, but, as so often in the wilderness, the animals had other ideas.
Not half an hour into the game drive, we heard an urgent barking sound. Just once, then again, and again until it reached a crescendo. We barely had time to register the irony of antelope barking to warn of the presence of predators, when the first panicked impala flashed past us.
I’d read that they could cover up to 10m in a single bound, but to see them flying over bushes and stumps as they ran was incredible. As Hennie cast around, looking for the cause of the commotion, he explained to us that the black marks on the ankles of the impala are scent glands that release an invisible pheromone trail that hangs in the air, guiding other impala to safety.
One of the last impala to pass us was a ram with an impressive set of horns, but a little gaunt and with laboured breathing. Hennie pointed him out as the likely target of the wild dog – but where were they?
Right on cue, two wild dog loped out of the tree line, and paused, looking around. Their oversized ears were pricked forwards; their cotton-bud tail tips pointing straight up. We could see immediately where their alternative name of ‘painted wolves’ came from – both were covered in irregular splotches of colour, but whereas one was mostly black and white, the other had a lot of golden yellow in its coat.
Hennie told us that the dark one was the alpha male, and a phenomenal hunter. We braced ourselves as more wild dog emerged from the bushes – we counted at least nine. With a burst of excited twittering and chirping (their sounds were far less dog-like than those of the impala) they suddenly accelerated in the direction that the terrified antelope had fled.
As Hennie gunned the vehicle into life, the wild dog split to execute a perfect pincer movement. Tactically at least, they were streets ahead of their prey. Hennie drove through the sun-bleached grass in a wide arc, aiming to get ahead of them, and their quarry.
Not for the last time, we were amazed at his prescience. We clung tightly to the bars of the vehicle as we bounced over aardvark holes and small termite mounds, before ultimately stopping in a clearing in the acacia scrub. Just in front of us stood the same impala buck, flanks heaving. Hennie told us that he was one of the winners in the recent rut, but he’d paid a heavy price in terms of body condition after days of fighting and mating. As the first dog raced into the clearing, we understood that he was about to pay the ultimate price.
Wild dog used to be much maligned for being ‘cruel’ hunters, but they disemboweled and dispatched the exhausted impala in moments. Yes, it was gory, but the antelope was clearly in shock and Hennie told us that it was unlikely that it felt anything.
The spirit of cooperation between the pack members extended to sharing their bounty – there was none of the selfish squabbling you see with lion. Soon, one or two of the younger wild dog, bellies already swollen with meat, made a beeline through the trees. ‘The den!’, exclaimed Hennie, ‘They’re taking food back to regurgitate for the puppies’.
He gently eased the vehicle away, and all we could hear was the alpha male chomping on the impala’s bones with evident satisfaction. An emotion we could identify with, after such a phenomenal first morning with the Madikwe wild dogs. How would we ever top this?