How Painted Dogs Became Safari’s Hottest Sighting
Who needs the Big Five when you can spot this colorful canid?
It’s early—although maybe not early by safari standards—as our Land Rover pulls out of camp at 6:30 in the morning on my last day in Zambia. Cool winter sunlight creeps up and over the hills. Visibility stretches for miles across the tributaries, thickets, and expansive plains of South Luangwa National Park.
This park is bordered by the Luangwa River on the east and the steep Muchinga Escarpment to the north and west, and thanks to an arabesque network of lagoons that ebb and flow with the seasons, the valley teems with wildlife. I’ve been on safari all over Southern Africa, yet have never encountered such diversity and concentration of game. In less than a week I clocked: 10 playful leopards, doing everything from crawling up and down trees to napping and mating; a pack of howling baboons chasing an intruder leopard out of their roost; a family of elephants fording the river with their calf in tow; zebra and giraffes galloping; and a number of rare birds including Pel’s fishing owl. Since I’m staying with the Bushcamp Company, which is the only operator with camps in this portion of the park, it feels like the only thing I haven’t seen all week is a single other tourist. So by my last day, the week having been such an embarrassment of riches, I feel pretty blasé about baboons and nonplussed by zebra.
My guide Fannuel and I have settled into a knowing, unspoken routine. Not much needs to be said. We drive through the park in search of game, keeping our voices hushed and slowing to admire a parade of elephants or tower of giraffes, getting out of the vehicle to stand under a baobab tree, or poke at puddles of quicksand—but today, about 40 minutes into our morning drive, Fannuel stops the car and raises his hand in silence. I can tell that this is something different, something rare. Something we haven’t seen yet.
“Painted dogs,” Fannuel whispers. I’ll confess—I was intrigued by seeing some wild dogs, but it didn’t pump adrenaline in quite the same way as a leopard or lion sighting. Nonetheless,
I turned my head to follow Fannuel’s line of sight. “We are extremely lucky,” he says. “To see the dogs is a very rare thing.”
A pack of them lay out in a clearing, stretching under the morning sun, pups sparring with each other playfully as the adults watch. We sit and watch the pack for a few moments before the dogs move through the bushes and disappear. I can’t help but notice how cute they are. When I returned to camp that night, I used what little wi-fi I had to start down a rabbit hole of research. As it turns out, painted dogs are one of the things that safari visitors most want to see.
The Lycaon pictus has the lean, leggy build of certain American domesticated breeds (Basenji comes to mind), but is more closely related to wolves. They’re the size of a labrador but can run with the speed of a greyhound. You can distinguish them from other canids via three distinctive features: a fluffy white tail; whimsically round “Mickey Mouse” ears; and a mottled coat which can be black, brown, red, or white (no two dogs have the same exact markings). They travel in packs, have excellent social and communication skills, and for that reason are vicious hunters. For decades, they were known commonly as “African Wild Dogs,” treated less like the important apex predator that they are and more like a pest. It was not uncommon for field guides as recently as the mid-1900s to call them vermin and insist they be killed on the spot. After decades of being hunted and suffering habitat loss, the population dwindled to under 6,000 dogs on the continent. Today, they are one of the most endangered species in Africa.
“The position among people in Africa was generally that wild dogs were dangerous and should be eliminated,” said Dr. Hillary Madzikanda, a director with Painted Dogs Conservation in Zimbabwe, when I reached out over email to learn more. “Like any predators, Painted Dogs play an important role in the ecosystem by eliminating sick and weak animals. Dogs are an indicator species that thrive in balanced, healthy ecosystems.”
To confront the dwindling population of dogs throughout the continent, the scientific and conservation communities banded together roughly twenty years ago and decided to try and “rebrand” the species to change the way people think about them. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly who is responsible for the change or when it happened, but Dr. Madzikanda insists it was his organization’s executive director, Peter Blinston, who was instrumental in the decision. Rebranding the common name of the species changed the way people thought about these animals—from tourists, to the safari guides educating those tourists, to Africans living on the ground with these dogs day to day. Calling something a “wild dog” feels almost pejorative, like a domesticated dog that’s gone wild; calling it a “painted dog” insinuates a certain mystique. Over the years, the Lycaon pictus slowly became less of a dangerous nuisance and began to relegate into the strata of Africa’s more revered, mythical predators like lions, leopards, and cheetah.
“Rebranding the dogs was a deliberate approach to save the species, and has worked well,” said Dr. Madzikanda. “It was a way to soften the image of the species.”
Today, Lycaon pictus populations across Africa have stabilized. Just this summer, African Parks announced the historic relocation of 14 painted dogs to Liwonde National Park, effectively reintroducing this endangered species to Malawi. Recognition as an endangered species has not only “softened” the image of the species, but made it a rare and exciting safari sighting, as well—and South Luangwa National Park is one of the best places to spot the dogs in the wild. Bushcamp Company founder Andy Hogg told me there has “definitely been a lot of interest” from visitors wanting to see the dogs. During his 2019 safari season, dogs were seen by guests on 91 out of 153 days, which means a stay with the Bushcamp Company equates roughly to a 65 percent chance of seeing Painted Dogs.
“The way they coordinate and run down their prey is wonderful to watch,” said Hogg. “One particularly rewarding experience in recent years was when the region’s main pack started denning very close to one of our bush camps. It was a real privilege to be able to witness the pack behavior daily and watch the new pups as they left the den and eventually grew big enough to join the adults in their hunting activities.”
I’m lucky enough to have traveled Africa several times, and venturing into the bush is always an educational experience (elephants do this, lions do that), but nothing has captured my imagination quite like that chance encounter with the painted dogs—they’re vicious and adorable, they look like the dogs we have back home, but are also nothing like them at all. And color me ignorant, but I have to admit that hearing them called “painted dogs” and not “wild dogs” piqued my curiosity. And that, after all, is what the soul of safari is all about—discovering things face-to-face that you probably wouldn’t have discovered within the four corners of a page or a screen back home.