Test all limits in the Nissan Navara
Test all limits in the Nissan Navara

The ghost dogs of the Waterberg

I have always loved the African wild dog. With their big ears, energetic enthusiasm and commitment to their pack, this special species must be one of the most endearing to humans. A sighting is always a special treat. So, when Toyota South Africa invited our team to join them on their latest environmental outreach – to work with the Waterberg Wild Dog Initiative (WWDI) – there was no way I was going to surrender this opportunity to one of my colleagues

Telemetry, tracking collars, imitated wild dog calls played on a speaker, an impala – already killed – tied to a stump… All so clean and calculated. Unnatural even. Yes, a lot of people will criticise the level of human intervention that personifies the WWDI’s eco-tourism project. I may even have been one of those people. But then the little she-hero who coordinates the project opened her mouth and the sheer passion for and commitment to this species bubbled over.

Reilly Mooney, the pint-size eco-tourism project coordinator, came to South Africa about three years ago as part of research team tracking and studying the behaviour of baboons in the Waterberg biosphere. Spending hours tracking this distant cousin of homo sapiens, Reilly laid eyes on the highly endangered Lycaon pictus, or African wild dog, for the first time in her life. In fact, they are the second most endangered carnivore species on the African continent, only after the Ethiopian Wolf. She was immediately intrigued and when the Covid-19 pandemic prevented her from heading home to the United States, she got involved with the special project aimed at saving the wild dogs of the Waterberg. In fact, she fell head over heels in love with these dogs… And why wouldn’t she?

Upon our arrival at the at a small, private game farm in the northern part of the Waterberg – and on the property where wild dogs have been denning for the past few years, including this year – we were not quite sure what to expect. Would we see the dogs? What does this eco-tourism project entail? After a quick briefing on the project, which focuses on supporting and educating local landowners on whose properties the pack roams and hunts in an attempt to minimise persecution by farmers, we were bundled onto a game viewer for our first “wild dog call”.

En route we were treated to an eco-tourism game drive while the project’s environmental guide, Tumi Mbuyane, entertained us with interesting facts and titbits about the fauna and flora in the area. But the big draw card of the project was looming and as we were neared the area close to the pack’s den, we intermittently stopped so that Reilly could take out her telemetry contraption to ascertain if the dogs were around. As the weak bleep grew stronger as we neared the den, the anticipation was palpable in the air. We stopped and the team quickly offloaded the donated impala from the back of the Hilux (sponsored by Toyota South Africa, to ensure increased mobility for this important work) and tied it to a tree stump, only a stone’s throw from our game viewer. Reilly played a call the pack has been conditioned to associate with a feed and, with whispered excitement, we waited…

As if from nowhere, the dogs appeared… I found it fascinating that we saw them before we heard them since the wild dogs I have seen in the Kruger and other reserves around southern Africa are quite vocal on a hunt… As they came into clearer sight, I also spotted much more white markings and colouration than I had ever noticed with this species before. All of a sudden, I understood why this pack is known as the ‘ghost dogs’ of the Waterberg. But I prefer Reilly’s name for them – the most beautiful pack of African wild dogs in the world.

I sat in stunned silence, watching the dogs a few metres from us, until the clicking of Toyota South Africa’s Vice President: Future Toyota, John Thomson’s camera pulled me out of my trance. Looking at them through my longer lens, made the moment even more special. I looked into their beautiful, soft hazel-brown eyes, the bloody faces, the intensity… I was convinced that this is as good as a Tuesday will ever get!

Last ones standing

“This population is extremely important since it is one of the last free-roaming wild dog packs in South Africa. They are not confined by borders or fences or reserves and enter and leave the area naturally,” explained Reilly. It is clear that she has spent a lot of time with “her” dogs as she is a fountain of knowledge about their behaviour and pack dynamics.

The current Waterberg pack consists of 12 adult dogs and seven young pups that are being raised in a well-protected den. The pack usually roams an area of 65 000 hectares, or about 55 properties in private ownership. This massive roaming area makes it particularly difficult to see the pack, and apart from tracks on a dusty farm road or the remains of their kill, they were really like ghosts. This pack – boasting a 100 per cent survival rate, almost unheard of for African wild dogs – has adapted extremely well to moving as far under the radar as possible and, unless they den in a specific place, they are rarely noticed.

It is during this denning period – when there are pups, like now – that there is an opportunity for the WWDI team to keep a close eye on them. It is also in this period that the eco-tourism project gives nature lovers the opportunity to get up close and personal with this special pack. Thanks to the conservation project, three dogs from the pack have been equipped with tracking collars, with which their movements and behaviour are monitored. Not only do the collars provide valuable research data, but they also serve as a deterrent to those who consider the African wild dogs as a nuisance that must be persecuted and killed. If, for example, it is claimed that the herd is responsible for livestock or game losses, that available GPS-data now makes it easier to determine whether the pack was indeed close to the relevant farm at that stage.

And, of course, knowing where the dogs are allows the WWDI to invite people to experience a “kill” in the field as we did on both days of our visit. Proceeds from the project are ploughed back into the community, with farmers being financially compensated for any losses as a result of kills on the farms. “This way, we hope to show that the dogs do not have to be seen as a threat for the farms’ sustainability and, as I said, the data collected also helps a ton to show the community where the pack hunts,” explained Reilly.

During the evening at the lodge, sitting around the campfire, I was quiet in gratitude. Gratitude to be able to call excursions like this my “job”. Grateful to people like Reilly and her team. Grateful to Toyota who leads the way in this important work. Grateful that I can play a small part in this. Simply grateful.

Toyota & the dogs

Toyota South Africa Motors is supporting the conservation of the endangered African wild dog population living in the Waterberg, Limpopo by providing a Toyota Hilux DC 4×4 and operational funding to the WWDI for the next year.

The funding and Hilux will be used by the WWDI team to monitor the Waterberg wild dog population in the field and meet with community members to spread awareness, provide education, and further the understanding about the wild dogs and the human-wildlife conflict that occurs.

Toyota’s Manager of Internal Communications, Karen Strever, explains: “We are so privileged to be involved in this project, and we truly hope that we can make a difference – no matter how small – in the preservation of our natural wildlife. The support for WWDI is a practical way in which we can help in the relentless task of protecting these national treasures. Toyota has also been involved in a number of similar initiatives, including antirhino poaching.”

About the Waterberg Wild Dog Initiative

The WWDI spreads awareness, gains accurate information, educates, mitigates conflict, and works with community members to protect and conserve the endangered, freeroaming African wild dog population living in the Waterberg in Limpopo, South Africa. Their eco-tourism project leverages the opportunity to view a pack of Waterberg wild dogs while they are relatively stationary in the area during their denning season and uses the funds raised to mitigate the impact of the pack on the private properties hosting them.

*For bookings, contact the WWDI at bookings@waterbergwilddogs.org.za or via WhatsApp: +27 73 791 6249.

Did you know

African wild dogs are an endangered species due to habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, disease, and conflict with humans. In South Africa, there are fewer than 650 known dogs, many of which are confined to formally protected parks and reserves. Here are some interesting facts:

  • African wild dog packs have an 80 per cent success rate when hunting, thanks to high levels of communication.
  • African wild dogs generally live to the age of 11 when living in the wild.
  • The African wild dog has incredible hearing, with muscles allowing its large, rounded earsto swivel.
  • African wild dogs use abandoned underground warthog and porcupine dens to give birth in.
  • Pups are given priority over dominant pack members for feeding.
  • Following a hunt African wild dogs will regurgitate meats for any pups in their litter. A litter can be anything from two to 20 pups.
  • African wild dogs hunt every day – sometimes twice a day – as they require more food relative to their size than lions do.
  • The African wild dog lacks a fifth digit on its front feet.
  • The African wild dog is called several other names, including “painted dog” or “Cape hunting dog”. Its scientific name, Lycaon pictus, translates to “painted wolf”.
  • No two African wild dogs have the same markings and colouration.

Status: Endangered

Population: Estimated 6 600 (worldwide)

Scientific Name: Lycaon Pictus

Size (adult): 60 to 70cm (height); 76 to 102cm (length)

Weight (adult): 18 to 30kg

Max speed: Up to 70km/hour

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