Dawn on an African savannah and the impala are cautious. Ears swivelling, the wide-eyed antelopes move closer together, staring at the tree line where shadowy figures lurk. The reason for their distress is suddenly clear. Streaking out from the trees come Africa’s most efficient predators, putting the impala into instant flight.
African wild dogs are pack hunters, relentlessly chasing down their prey over several kilometres; it’s survival of the fastest and seven times out of 10 the hunt ends in favour of the dogs. The ensuing spectacle isn’t for the faint-hearted – the dogs instantly devour the unlucky quarry - but it’s a quick and clinical death.
If you want the best chances of witnessing wilddogs in action in Africa, here's where to go to see them.
Once persecuted, now protected, the wild dog is Africa’s second-rarest carnivore after the Simian wolf and is restricted to a handful of game reserves in East and Southern Africa. Your chances of seeing a pack depend on where you go and good, old-fashioned luck but, by putting yourself in the right place at the right time with a good guide, you increase your chances dramatically.
Linyanti & Kwando Concessions – Botswana
Anywhere in northern Botswana is a solid bet for a wild dog sighting but if you have to choose, head for the Linyanti and Kwando concessions. A landscape of open floodplains and scattered woodland sandwiched between the Okavango Delta and Caprivi wetlands, these privately run reserves are packed with prey and support several roaming packs.
The area has a reputation as a place to see wild dog dens. Sometime in the dry winter months of May to July, the pack’s alpha female settles into an abandoned porcupine burrow and gives birth to up to 10 pups. Fed and looked after by the whole pack, the puppies are adorable and often emerge from underground, yawning and blinking in the sunlight as the day warms up.
Selous Game Reserve - Tanzania
Selous is simply enormous. Mostly a trackless wilderness, it’s twice the size of the Kruger National Parkand three times bigger than the Serengeti. But it is also home to 100 000 impala, which makes it the best place in East Africa to see wild dog.
Timing is important. Being so huge, Selous sometimes hides its secrets but July and August are classic denning months for Selous’ wild dogs and the shared responsibility of protecting the puppies keeps the pack near the den for a while. The last few months of Selous’ dry season - September and October - are also good months for wild dog sightings as antelope concentrate in large numbers around the remaining water sources.
Ruaha National Park – Tanzania
One of the country’s least visited game reserves, Ruaha is where the East African savannahs meet the Southern African woodlands. The result is East Africa’s biggest elephant herds, all the big cats and Tanzania’s biggest wild dog population after Selous.
Like Selous, Ruaha is best experienced during the May to October dry season. The later you leave it, the hotter and more arid the conditions but you enjoy the best chances of spotting dogs.
Niassa National Reserve – Mozambique
Mozambique is normally associated with dreamy Indian Ocean islands and teeming coral reefs rather than big game but the establishment of the Selous–Niassa Wildlife Corridor has changed all that.
Niassa has always been a wild card destination for wild dogs – between 200 and 300 of them live in the reserve - but by connecting it with the Selous Game Reserve authorities have not only created one of the largest conservation areas in Africa but also one that allows crucial gene flow between wild dog populations (isolated packs are genetically short-changed and tragically susceptible to disease).
How to do it: if you want ‘wild’, then Niassa won’t disappoint. Bigger than Switzerland and virtually unvisited by safari travellers, the reserve is fast gaining a reputation as ‘The Next Big Thing’. The only photographic camp is Lugenda Wilderness Camp, which offers classic ‘candles-and-canvas’ comfort in a secluded corner of the reserve. Niassa is best visited between May and October but to narrow your dog-odds, go from May to July when wild dogs den in the Lugenda area.
Madikwe Private Game Reserve – South Africa
I’ve just been urging you to look for wild dog in Africa’s biggest and wildest reserves. So why am I now recommending Madikwe, a small private reserve on the edge of the Kalahari Desert in South Africa?
Big reserves have the big numbers of wild dog. Botswana’s Moremi Reserve and Chobe National Park are home to several hundred between them; Selous has over a hundred. But the bigger the reserve, the more thinly the dogs are spread and the more difficult they are to find. At 750km² Madikwe is a crumb compared to the giant parks but that makes finding its wild dogs relatively easy. Madikwe’s two dozen or so dogs are split into three packs and local guides keep a close eye on their movements.
Surprisingly accepting of our presence (I once inadvertently walked though a pack of 40 dogs in the Okavango Delta and barely raised their hackles) wild dogs may lack the gravitas of the big cats but a sighting is usually the unscripted highlight of a safari. Each one you see is testament to the ability of Africa’s big carnivores to survive in their vanishing world. As long as their home territories remain as they are, the exhilarating image of wild dogs coursing after their prey will be one we can count on in the future.