The right front paw of a wild dog. We found this single imprint in a sandy spot that was bare of vegetation. But we found more, when we looked around carefully – six, eight, maybe ten more sets. Their paws are soft, so their sign is easily missed…

We had been wondering why the bush had been so strangely empty of medium-sized and smaller ungulates for something like the last two days – almost no zebra, no hartebeest, no impala, no kudu, no waterbuck, no wildebeest, no eland… The ones we did glimpse seemed unusually skittish. The wild dog spoor explained it.

I have often remarked that to me some of the most satisfying bush experiences are not in chalking up dramatic sightings of the big five or of great milling herds. It lies in long and patient observation and in seeking the small disturbances and hints, the subtle signs that can be deciphered by but few humans but weave rich tales of the ways of the bush and the animals.

As most will know, wild dogs run in packs and, when not bordered by other packs, can roam over huge areas, so that they are almost nomads. Where they arrive they strike fear into the animals they might target as prey. It is as if the awareness of them spreads like a posting “gone viral.” The game seems to become almost panicky. Those that can, the non-territorial ones, leave the area.

And well they should. The wild dogs are the super endurance athletes of the bush, and its deadliest killers. The pack is usually led by an alpha male or female or both, but it functions like a single organism when hunting. Once one of the alpha pair has nominated a prey animal the killing machine slips into relentless pursuit and it is usually just a question of how long the chase will be. The bringing down is bloody and drawn out and, to us, ruthlessly cruel. The exhausted animal is dragged down and torn apart alive.

The mere thought assaults our sensibilities. But in the bush there is no room for sentimentality, for compassion, or clemency. There is no negotiating, no quid-pro-quo, no buying off, no compromise. There is only the brutal reality of survival. But, it seems to me, there is no more (than survival). There is no self-aggrandisement, no boastfulness, no greed, no vindictiveness, no dishonesty – well, except, perhaps, to an extent in the mating game. Animals are often subtler than we think. And, if we leave Nature alone there are no excesses.  Just a inexorable, self-correcting balance, totally impersonal and perfected over the eons of the life of our earth…


  1. Unfortunately I have never seen them in the wild, but was fortunate enough to work at De Wildt (Ann van Dyk) Cheetah and Wildlife Centre for five years. They are beautiful, very misunderstood animals. Would also rather see them and cheetahs in the wild than the big five.

  2. Agreed!
    There is, ‘no room for sentimentaliy’ in the wild.
    A privileged and priceless sighting that I still yearn to witness!
    They are very beautiful spellbinding animals!

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