I managed to see wild dogs on my first ever drive in the park. After my first encounter they immediately became one of my favourite species in the park.
One of the main reasons I chose to be a wildlife photographer and cameraman was so I could witness and record amazing animal behaviour. Wild dogs are one of those species that you wish for. Living in a pack with hierarchical structure when they're awake they are usually exhibiting some sort of interesting behaviour.
When I heard about a wild dog den right near one of the lodge’s Bushcamps I was begging to be allowed to go film them. It was a new group of dogs who I had no experience with I had no idea on how used they were to people and whether my presence at the den may cause them to abandon it. The last thing I wanted!
After speaking with Phil Berry and Babette Alfieri, the bushcamp managers, it sounded like as long as people behaved around the den, the dogs were fine. There had been some irresponsible behaviour from certain lodges around the den but from my time in the park I already knew all about this. Luckily the Zambian Carnivore Project (ZCP) had placed a couple of trap cams around the den to dissuade any bad behaviour although they did still manage to capture images of some people getting too close. I was to spend a week at the den, filming the dogs as well as acting as a dog guardian.
Being given a window into the life of any animal is a privilege but with the dogs it was up there with the best of them. Watching the comings and goings at the den, studying the social structure, how the dogs interacted, which calls meant what, the whole experience was a learning curve and I was doing my best to absorb it all whilst trying to take some photos and film at the same time.
Only the alpha male and female breed, like many other canids like wolves. Unlike many other animal groups it is the males who make up the majority of the pack; females move away to find new packs.
Our pack numbered 7. ZCP were able to keep track of them by having a radio collared male and female in the pack, not the best for photos but providing valuable scientific findings. Wild dogs are an animal on the brink, heavily persecuted in the past they are now suffering through being accidentally caught in illegal snares left by poachers pursuing bushmeat. It’s normal for the dogs to travel 50km a day and when you see a pack on the move this is easy to believe.
When you're used to travelling 50km a day having to spend your days around a smelly fly infested den doesn't seem the best thing to be doing, for me or the dogs. Wild dogs are massive fidgets. They’d never be laid in one spot for more than a few minutes, tails constantly flicking and snapping at passing flies or running over to one of the other dogs in case they were missing something.
I was beginning to get a grasp of the calls but still got caught out, my ears clearly weren't sharp enough for some calls which must’ve been out of my range as without warning all the dogs would leap up excitedly and run to one spot for some frolicking in the grass before returning to normal.
I’d already seen with the leopards that despite them being much bigger and not very strokeable, they had a lot of the same mannerisms as my cat back home and it was the same with the dogs. They were much like domestic dogs with their expressions and playfulness.
Every dog wanted a piece of the action. Whilst the female was down in the den all of the dogs would pay visits, excitedly running over and jumping down for a few minutes before leaping back out and heading off to relax again.
Every day around 7am and 5pm it would usually be pup time. The dogs would all rush over to the den squealing and rubbing muzzles. Wild dogs do this thing when they run around together as if their noses have been glued together. It’s brilliant to watch. At pup time everyone wanted to greet the new additions, leaping over one another, rolling over, barging into each other and trying to shove their heads down into the den. I’m not sure what a 3 week old wild dog pup thinks of 7 larger versions of itself all staring down at you as you try to scramble up a sandy slope into a strange new world but they didn't seem to mind.
The pups would try their best to stray from the den mouth but if they went too far they'd be ushered back in by the other dogs, comically running back to the den persuaded by a large muzzle up their rear end from one of their relatives.
The alpha female would lie down at the top of the den entrance slope and prepare to suckle. With the adult dogs all coming to have a look too, she’d lick at their mouths and then the utterly delightful process of the dogs regurgitating whichever unlucky antelope had been devoured earlier would occur for her benefit.
The pups clambered everywhere they could in their quest to find a teat to suckle on. Those more adventurous would precariously strut along her back, sliding off again with a whack from mum’s tail. The other dogs realised suckling time was for pups only and would create a protective circle around the den, covering every angle so a hyena or other opportunistic predator couldn't run in and snatch a defenceless pup.
Once mum thought they'd suckled long enough she’d leap up causing a pile of pups as they tumbled back down into the den. The more confident pups stayed above ground until they were picked up and dropped back in.
The stench from the den was noticeable even from some distance away. With temperatures hitting the mid 30s most afternoons and 12 small pups cramped within it it was to be expected. Little bee eaters and grey headed kingfishers utilised the fly attractant, hanging outside the den swooping down for some insect treats.
The smell was clearly unbearable for the dogs too and just a few days later the pups were relocated to plusher surroundings, fly-free for now and, unfortunately for me, completely inaccessible. It had been an amazing week with the dogs only to be slightly blighted by a bout of malaria for me and the dogs relocating.