African Wild Dog

Range and Conservation Status

African wild dogs have disappeared from much of their former range (see map). They are currently found only in about 14 countries in Africa, with viable populations in only eight countries (Botswana, Kenya, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe).

Population densities for African wild dogs vary considerably, but in no instances can they be considered a high density species (some of the highest densities ever recorded are only c. 4 dogs per 100km² average 2 per 100km²). Because pack size is so variable (even within a single pack over the course of a single year), it is more meaningful to talk about the number of packs – or breeding units – as the unit for wild dog populations.

There are currently estimated to be only 660 packs (or breeding females) left in the wild. This is about 6,600 adults and yearlings in 39 subpopulations. Population size is continuing to decline as a result of ongoing habitat fragmentation, conflict with human activities, and infectious disease.

Wild dogs are not listed on CITES (because they are generally not traded) and are listed on Appendix 2 of the Convention of Conservation of Migratory Species (CMS).

Range Map:
Click here to see the historical distribution of African Wild Dogs and here to see current distribution

Physical Characteristics

African wild dogs are slender, long legged canids with individually unique coat patterns of black, brown, white and tan fur. Unlike other dogs, which have a fifth toe, a dewclaw, on their forelegs, wild dogs have only four toes per foot. They have characteristically large, rounded ears, black muzzles and tails tipped with white. Adults measure 75-110 cm in length and stand about 75cm at the shoulder. Average weight is 23-26kg.

Behaviour and Social Structure

African wild dogs are specialised social canids that live in packs of between 2 and 40 individuals; packs used to be larger before the population declined so much. The pack is usually dominated by a monogamous breeding pair; the alpha male and female. They are obligate cooperative breeders; usually only the alpha female will produce a litter of 2 to 21 pups (average c. 7), which are born in a den, and first emerge at about three weeks of age. One they are weaned (at between 5 and 12 weeks of age), the pups are cared for by the entire pack. Any individual can regurgitate meat for the pups or remain at the den during a hunt as a ‘babysitter’.

Denning season – when the pack is confined to the den to raise the litter of pups – usually lasts about three months (usually between late April and September in southern Africa). Den sites are typically burrows excavated by aardvarks (often expanded by warthogs or porcupines), or caves and crevices in rocky areas.

African wild dogs are very social, and packs have been known to share food and to assist weak or ill members. Social interactions are common, and the dogs communicate by touch, actions, and vocalizations. They often hunt as a cooperative unit; in a sprint, African wild dogs can reach speeds of more than 44 miles per hour.

Wild dogs are crepuscular, favouring the early mornings and evenings for hunting. They are not particularly active at night, except around the full moon. They are a wide-ranging, low density species and need vast areas of intact habitat to support a viable population. A single pack can range over 3,000km², but average home ranges tend to be more in the region of 300-800km². During the denning season, home ranges are severely restricted, often to as small as 80km².

Habitat and Diet

Wild dogs are almost exclusively hunters and rarely scavenge. Packs typically hunt antelopes, particularly impala in southern Africa, and will also tackle much larger prey, such as wildebeests, particularly if their quarry is ill or injured, and if they are hunting as pack. Contrary to popularly held misperceptions, African wild dogs are quick and efficient killers, which rarely kill more than then they can eat.

As human settlements expand, and the wild dogs come into contact with livestock, they can predate on goats or sheep and occasionally calves. However, they are easily scared off by people, so significant damage is rare. Unfortunately, they are often hunted and killed by misinformed farmers who fear for their domestic animals or their own safety, although wild dogs are not a danger to people.

African wild dogs are habitat generalists and can survive in a wide range of environments; there is historical evidence of them near the top of Mount Kilimanjaro and in the sea off the Kenyan coast. Nowadays, they typically roam the open plains and sparse woodlands of sub-Saharan Africa. For a map of their current distribution in Africa, please click here.

Threats and Conservation Action

African wild dogs are endangered. They are faced with ever shrinking suitable habitat and reduced safe areas to roam. Because of this habitat loss, and their wide ranging nature, packs often come into contact with people and domestic animals. As well as suffering direct persecution due to occasional livestock predation, they are also quite susceptible to diseases spread by domestic animals, particularly rabies and canine distemper from domestic dogs.

Being caught in wire snares set by poachers for bushmeat is also a significant cause of wild dog mortality in some areas, and mortality on roads can impact populations as well.

Natural threats include direct and indirect competition from lions and spotted hyenas. This includes direct predation, particularly of pups by lions, competition for prey, and stealing of kills, particularly by hyenas in less densely vegetated habitats. Because of this, African wild dog densities are lowest where lions and hyenas are numerous, and it is believed they often move outside of protected areas – and thus into conflict with humans – to try and avoid lions and hyenas.

Solutions

The biggest threat to African wild dogs is habitat loss and fragmentation and thus the most impactful interventions necessarily involve protecting and expanding habitats and creating and protecting areas of connectivity between isolated habitat fragments.

Working to reduce the illegal bushmeat trade is also key to reducing wild dog deaths from wire snares. In addition, community engagement and education is important to address negative misperceptions and to help encourage tolerance though reducing livestock losses and providing benefits.

The RWCP works with a wide range of conservation programs, field projects and government wildlife authorities to promote and support interventions and activities that directly and effectively address these threats.

Should you wish to support any such efforts, please contact any one of us, and we will direct you to suitable programs or organisations.

With Thanks to…

The Range Wide Conservation Program is a joint initiative of the Zoological Society of London and the Wildlife Conservation Society, endorsed by the IUCN Cat and Canid Specialist Groups. The program’s core operating costs are funded by the Howard G Buffet Foundation. Many other organisations have supported or funded various aspects of the program.