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African Wild Dog – The Painted Wolf of the African Continent

African wild dogs eating

The African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) known as the painted African wolf is a member of the Lycaon genus and also a member of the Canidae family.

The African wild dog can be found today in only a reduced number of African countries, mostly due to habitat fragmentation and loss, human persecution, and due to several diseases.

Short history of the African Wild Dog

The oldest writing about African wild dogs comes from the Greco-Roman poet Oppian that lived in the second century during the reign of the Roman emperors Marcus Aurelius and Commodus.

He considered that African wild dogs are hybrids between a wolf and a leopard.

The first scientific description of the species was made in 1820 by the Dutch zoologist and museum director Coenraad Jacob Temminck, but he mistakenly named the animal “Hyaena picta” considering that the African wild dog specimen taken from the coasts of Mozambique that he examined is only a species of hyena.

Seven years later (in 1827), the British anatomist and naturalist Joshua Brookes finally considered the African wild dog as a member of the Canidae family and he renamed it Lycaon tricolor (Lycaon comes from the Greek word ‘lykaios’, which means wolf-like).

Many names are used today in the English language to name the African wild dog (Lycaon pictus), such as: painted dog, African wild dog, Cape hunting dog or painted wolf.

In the past, the African wild dog used to roam in the entire area of the Sub-Saharan and also in Central, East, West and South Africa.

However, due to a massive habitat loss, hunting, poaching and infectious diseases, the African wild dogs can be found today only in a small number of African countries.

African Wild Dog Taxonomy

The oldest fossils of Lycaon pictus dating 200,000 years ago, have been found in the HaYonim Cave in Israel.

Today, a number of five subspecies of Lycaon pictus are recognized by the MSW3 (Mammal Species of the World).

1. Chadian wild dog (Lycaon pictus sharicus) also known as the Central African wild dog or the Shari River hunting dog is a subspecies of African wild dog that still lives today in Chad.

2. East African wild dog (Lycaon pictus lupinus) is a subspecies of wild dog that lives in East Africa.

This dog is smaller in size compared to its cousins, and has a darker fur.

The East African wild dog can be found today in small numbers in South Sudan, northern Kenya, and maybe northern Uganda.

However, in southern Tanzania, we can find today a larger population of East African wild dogs in the Mikumi National Park and the Selous Game Reserve.

3. West African wild dog (Lycaon pictus manguensis) is a subspecies of wild dog that is classified as Critically Endangered by IUCN because only about 70 adult individuals are left today in the wild.

Only two subpopulations of West African wild dogs have survived and live today in the Niokolo-Koba National Park in Senegal and in the W National Park that includes countries like Burkina Faso, Benin and Niger.

4. Cape wild dog (Lycaon pictus pictus) also known as the Cape hunting dog or the South African wild dog is the African wild dog that lives in Southern Africa.

This is the nominate subspecies of African wild dog living today in northern Botswana, northeastern Namibia, western Zimbabwe, the Kruger National Park in South Africa and in Zambia in the Luangwa Valley and in the Kafue National Park.

Includes larger and more colorful individuals (compared to their East African cousins).

5. Somali wild dog (Lycaon pictus somalicus) is a subspecies of African wild dog that is similar to the East African wild dog, but is smaller, has a different fur (shorter and coarser) and a weaker dentition.

Can be found today in northern Somalia and in Ethiopia where is protected.

African Wild Dog Characteristics

African wild dogs are taller, and stronger dogs compared with the other members of the African Canidae family, they reach a shoulder height between 24 and 30 inches (60 to 75 cm) and a weight between 44 and 55 lbs. (20 to 25 kg).

Females are slightly smaller in size than males.

Wild dogs have small round ears and hey lack the dewclaws.

The fur of the African wild dog is also different from the fur of the other canids because consists only of stiff bristle-hairs without underfur.

The colour of the fur has an extreme variation (combines colors such as brown, yellow, black and white) and serves as visual identification between members of a group because wild dogs can recognize each other at a distance between 165 and 330 ft (50 to 100 m).

The tail is usually brown at the base, black in the middle and white at the tip.

African Wild Dog Behaviour and Social Organization

The bonds created between the members of a wild dog group are even stronger than the bonds between members of a lion pride or between members of a hyena clan.

Wild dogs need to stay together and help each other because they are much smaller in size compared to lions, hyenas, leopards and cheetahs, so they always need to work together to survive in the territory of the large carnivores.

A group of wild dogs could consist of 2 up to 27 members that live together with their pups, and usually a group has three times more males than females.

Males in the group are usually led by an older male, and the females are also led by an older female.

As in the case of wolves, a wild dog group is led by a dominant pair that typically monopolizes breeding.

Young males remain in the group, while the young females usually leave the group to join a new group and the females from that group can be evicted.

The evicted females will join another group and so on.

The migration of the females from one group to another prevents inbreeding between the members of a group that are related.

Breeding in the group is strictly limited to the dominant female, and the litter can contain between 6 and 16 pups (10 on average).

Pups can eat solid food at the age of 3 to 4 weeks.

When the pups reach the age of 8 to 10 weeks, the adults will automatically leave the den and the pups will need to follow them during the hunts.

African Wild Dog Hunting and Feeding

African wild dogs are primarily diurnal predators like cheetahs, but they always attack using the power of the group.

They usually prefer medium-sized prey such as antelopes, and they don’t kill the prey like lions do, they start eating right away after ending the chase and usually when the prey is already exhausted.

African wild dogs need to eat the prey very fast because they are hunting in the territory of the lions, hyenas and leopards, so they can lose their prey right away if they start wasting time killing the prey.

The prey dies slowly while being eaten alive, but the feast takes only a few minutes, and the body of the prey disappears almost entirely in the belly of the dogs.

African wild dogs regurgitates the meat to feed the pups.

Competition from other predators

Being smaller, wild dogs cannot compete against lions, hyenas and leopards, but always staying with the group, the force of the group is the one that protects them and ensures the food for all the members of the group.

African wild dogs can be killed by lions (lions usually kill smaller predators to reduce competition), they can lose their prey in favor of lions, hyenas and leopards.

They can end up being injured or killed while hunting dangerous prey such as buffalo, zebra, warthog and rhino.

However, when the group of wild dogs finds a hyena they can try to kill it also to reduce competition.

African wild dog cubs are the most vulnerable members of a group, and this could be the reason why they are protected by all the members of the group.

African Wild Dogs Conservation

The African wild dog is classified today as endangered by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, because the current population is estimated at roughly 39 subpopulations containing only 6,600 adults.

Luckily, they are protected in Ethiopia and can be found in many African National Parks in Southern Africa and South East Africa.

They can also be found in Sub Saharan and Central Africa.

African wild dog range

African wild dog range and distribution.

Article written by:

Darius Savin is a lifelong animal lover and protector and the chief editor of Checkmember. He writes and edits articles and is also the creator of the distribution maps for all the creatures featured here.