dog tracking in the wilderness
Step outside the safari vehicle and you have to reconsider mankind’s claim to the pinnacle of the food chain. We’ve gone on a handful of bush walks — always with an armed ranger, and usually with the hope that we would not come across anything more imposing than a warthog. So the prospect of creeping stealthily through the bush to get closer to a pack of wild dogs was at once alluring and a tad unnerving.
Cats may rule the animal kingdom, but African wild dogs are no joke. Second in size among canids only to the gray wolf, wild dogs will ruthlessly stalk their prey until the hunted animal gives up and falls down from exhaustion. Although adults typically weigh no more than 60 pounds, a pack of wild dogs can take down much bigger animals, including buffalos and elands.
Unfortunately, there are so few of these animals left in the wild that they are Africa’s second rarest predator, with no more than 5,500 scattered throughout the continent (the dubious distinction of number one in this category falls to the Abyssinian wolf, of which there are less than 500, surviving only in Ethiopia). In Kenya, it is incredibly rare to see wild dogs. We happened upon a pack in Ol Pejeta once and the guides, who tour that conservancy every day, said they hadn’t seen them in more than a year.
Sosian, which abuts Ol Pejeta, stacks the deck in its guests’ favor. A handful of the dogs that roam this remote corner of northern Laikipia are collared, making it possible to track them, though the tracking devices are far from foolproof as we well knew. Wild dogs roam so far that seeing them at Sosian is also never a guarantee, and even when the guides do manage to locate their whereabouts, actually getting close to them can prove rather challenging.
Our first morning in Sosian we found the dogs almost an hour’s drive from camp. They had made a kill, which made their location easier to pinpoint, but they were deep in the bush. After skillfully maneuvering around some smaller shrubs, our driver gunned the engine and drove the LandCruiser over a small tree. We consoled ourselves with the thought that the car did far less damage than an average elephant. Besides, we were too busy photographing the dogs, which polished off the remains of an impala before going down to the river where we could not follow.
After tracking lions and birding the next day, we decided to look for the dogs again before heading back to Nairobi. This time we found them high on a ridge. The thicket was even denser here and we spent half an hour trying to follow them into the bush. We caught fleeting glimpses of their colorful hides as they ran circles around us, always just out of photo range. We had gotten close to where our guide thought their den might be only to watch them regroup and run single-file back out towards the road. Fortunately, retracing our tracks was easier than making headway into the thicket and we got lucky as the dogs raced back and forth along the main road a couple of times before plunging back into the bush.
At this point, we were joined by another vehicle, driven by Steve, a former Sosian guide who had opened his own conservancy on nearby land. Our guide consulted with Steve and decided on a flanking maneuver that put us in front of where the dogs were headed. We waited until one of the guides spotted them. Then Steve grabbed his rifle, motioned for his guests to follow him, and set off into the bush. Not wanting to miss the fun, we scrambled out of our car and followed suit.
D drew sharp rebuke for wondering aloud as we walked whether wild dogs bark. The only sound we had heard them make was a high-pitched whine when they fought over scraps of impala and communicated their presence to each other in the thicket. We got the answer as soon as we drew near. The dogs let us approach within about 100 feet before emitting low, menacing growls to signify their displeasure at our company.
In hushed whispers, our guide told us that when they are alone adult wild dogs will walk up to humans. This time, however, the pack included young puppies, and the older dogs were protective of their brood. We stood still, holding our breath, but once they had seen us the game was up. The pack leaders rounded up the puppies and they headed deeper into the bush, leaving us with one more indelible memory of Africa’s unique beauty.