Every day for more than a month, wildlife biologist Joshua Ginsberg, of London's Institute of Zoology, tracked a pack of 30 African wild dogs in Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park. He dubbed the 30-odd member troop of calico-colored canids the Brightman Pack, after tour guide Charles Brightman, who helped him find his first wild dog pack. He christened the pack's dominant, or alpha, male Charles. During that month, Ginsberg watched the pack make forays into the dense thickets of the park's woodlands, flushing out and killing impala, young kudu and warthogs.
With their thin, muscular bodies and greyhoundlike legs, the dogs rushed after their prey, keeping up a steady cry of high-pitched yelps until the animal turned at bay. Then the lead dog would leap up and lock its jaws onto the preys snout, a vulnerable position where the dog could be slashed by tusks or hooves or lashed around by large victims. Meanwhile, the other dogs undertook the less risky task of ripping and tearing at the prey's hindquarters and underbelly.
Often, the seemingly fearless lead dog was Charles. So Ginsberg was not completely surprised one morning to find Charles limping badly. "Probably he'd been kicked by an antelope or zebra," Ginsberg speculates. All the other dogs, except Charles's brother Half-Moon, were nowhere to be seen.
Obviously in great pain and virtually. unable able to move, Charles lay panting in the shade of a thornbush. Half-moon (named for a crescent-shaped blotch he bore on one side lay close by, watching his brother. He left only to hunt, returning with belly distended with meat. Then he would regurgitate food for Charles, as if his brother were a pup.
"Half-Moon did that every day for two weeks," says Ginsberg. "His success rate was lousy at first. Sometimes they were eating only every two to three days." But it was sufficient nourishment for Charles to regain his old vigor and begin hunting with his brother. Within six weeks, the two re-united with the rest of the pack. Charles resumed his position as alpha male and fathered the pack's next eight litters.
Half Moons apparently altruistic behavior might surprise most people - particularly since wild dogs were once ranked among nature's most vicious and brutal killers. But for wild dog researchers, Half Moon's actions were simply another example of the tight familial bonds that biologists have observed among these highly social animals. "That's an extreme manifestation of what we see all the time," says Scott Creel, a wildlife biologist who, with his wife and fellow researcher, Nancy, has studied the wild dogs of Tanzania's Selous Game Reserve for six years. "And it does clearly illustrate just how strong those bonds are and how important it is to have members of the pack around to help out. A single dog couldn't make it without the pack."
The wild dog is the second-most endangered of Africa's large carnivores, after the Ethiopian wolf, a distant relative of the timber wolf. One of B species related to the domestic dog, the wild dog is about the size of a small German shepherd, but with long, lean legs. Exciting research across Africa is revealing that these animals, long despised by farmers and even wildlife managers for disemboweling prey, have a far more appealing. In the process, scientists also are learning why a species on the endangered list has proved to be robust in a few remnant islands of its range.
Many early colonial game administrators regarded wild dogs as little better than murderers and called for the species, extermination, Farmers, who feared the dogs might prey on livestock-although, apparently, they seldom did-also wanted the dogs wiped out. A combination of outright persecution and habitat loss nearly accomplished this goal. Hundreds of thousands of wild dogs once roamed Africa from the northern deserts to the southernmost velds, but today only an estimated 5,000 remain. Some populations include fewer than 100 dogs. …