The Best Places to see Painted Dogs

Josh Wright

30 Nov 2018

africa's fascinating canines make their debut on the small screen

The BBC Natural History Unit’s new documentary series Dynasties has been captivating audiences across the nation. The programme follows much-loved species like the African lion, Bengal tiger, chimpanzee and emperor penguin, but these marquee names also share the spotlight with a lesser-known member of the animal kingdom. The painted dog – also known as the painted wolf, African wild dog and African hunting dog – is a highly social canid that lives in packs of between two and 27 individuals. Once found throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, Lycaon pictus is now an endangered species. The population was estimated at just 6,600 adults in 2016, only 1,400 of which were reproducing adults.

Even in large, well-protected reserves and places where populations are stable, African painted dogs live at low population densities. As a result, sightings are more difficult to come by than they are for other species, like lions in the Masai Mara or elephants in Kruger. However, there are a number of strongholds in southern and eastern Africa where painted dogs can be seen relatively reliably – if you know where to look. Spotting these animals on the hunt or rearing their pups is a thrilling experience, and offers an alternative to safari-goers who have already ticked off the Big Five. For those who want to make painted dogs the focus of their safari, bear in mind that the shoulder season of May/June is one of the best times to see them, as this coincides with their denning season (which is great for dog-lovers and less taxing on your wallet).

Botswana

The Okavango Delta in northern Botswana contains probably the largest and most stable painted dog population in all of Africa. This vast lattice of rivers, wetlands, grasslands and floodplains provides rich habitat for a huge number of species, including zebra, crocodiles, hippos and the Big Five. Few places in Africa offer a greater extension of wilderness for painted dogs to roam than the Okavango, where the packs – which are dominated by a single breeding alpha pair – can take advantage of a profusion of prey. On our Painted Dogs of Botswana safari, you’ll have the chance to spot the species on game drives, walking safaris, boat cruises and mokoro journeys.

Tanzania

Tanzania's Selous Game Reserve is four times larger than the Serengeti, yet it's largely undiscovered by tourists. Here painted dogs have a Swahili nickname, chaka-chaka - “the ones that trot” – referring to the loping gait that they maintain for miles, running down their prey in a ruthlessly coordinated team pursuit. As a mostly trackless wilderness covering an area larger than Switzerland, finding the roughly 800 painted dogs here can be difficult, but the denning months of July and August offer great opportunities to see the animals as they rear their young pups.

Another option is travelling during September and October, which constitute the last months of the dry season. At this time of the year, antelope congregate in large numbers around the remaining water sources in Selous, which attracts plenty of painted dog packs looking to feed.

The same timings also apply to Ruaha – Tanzania’s largest national park – which holds Africa’s third-largest painted dog population. Both Selous and Ruaha feature in this safari which allows you to experience the bush in two tented camps, partake in game drives, walking safaris and boat safaris, and end your adventure with three nights on the idyllic island of Zanzibar, off the coast of Tanzania.

Zambia

South Luangwa National Park is undoubtedly the best place to see painted dogs in Zambia, as the park boasts favourable hunting and breeding conditions for the species. With no nearby cattle farms, South Luangwa’s painted dogs suffer from little human-wildlife conflict. Elsewhere, farmers have been known to poison dens or even shoot them on sight, while interaction with unvaccinated domestic dogs can transmit harmful diseases.

The presence of the Zambian Carnivore Programme is also a boon for the population, which now numbers over 200. Since 1998, the non-profit organisation has rolled out a variety of conservation efforts such as de-snaring, vaccinations and land-use planning which benefit all predators. The work done by the staff of ZCP and other organisations in Africa is vital to the welfare of the painted dog, which after the Ethiopian wolf is Africa’s most endangered carnivore. This 6-day safari is a great way to see them take on prey in South Luangwa like the impala, puku and waterbuck.

South Africa

With more than 20 national parks and reserves, South Africa has a variety of options for safari-goers seeking encounters with painted dogs, but it is one of the lesser-known areas which presents perhaps the best opportunity to see them. Madikwe Game Reserve is home to an abundance of wildlife, including a healthy painted dog population which can trace its lineage back to a founding group of six individuals who were introduced to the reserve in 1994.

As with other locations, your best chance of seeing them is when the females whelp, during which time the pack must hunt in the vicinity of the den until the pups are old enough to travel. After this time, packs maintain a nomadic existence, making them more difficult to spot. You can see the dogs roam among the grasslands and rugged Tshwene Tshwene hills of Madikwe on this safari.

Zimbabwe

Both the Painted Dog Research Trust and Painted Dog Conservation are headquartered in Zimbabwe. Roughly 700 painted dogs live in the country, 150 of which can be found in Hwange National Park. In recent years, anti-poaching patrols and de-snaring initiatives have helped to stabilise a population once under increased threat by human-wildlife conflict.

Mana Pools National Park is another excellent place for sightings, a UNESCO World Heritage Site teeming with wildlife that has been the site of numerous painted dog conservation efforts. If the lakes, floodplains, riverbanks and prime walking-safari territory of Mana Pools appeal to you – they should do for Dynasties viewers, as this is where the painted dog episode was filmed – take a look at this trip led by award-winning wildlife photographer Nick Dyer. For those seeking Hwange’s open grasslands, try this itinerary on for size, which also includes visits to Zambezi National Park and Victoria Falls.

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