This noble looking beast is a wolf;
Which is all well and good, until you stop to consider that this noble looking beast is also a wolf;
And so, for good measure, is this;
The dogs that share our lives are nothing more and nothing less than wolves. They are not just very similar, or first cousins. They are the same animal. The more astute among you may have noticed that they don’t really look like wolves. But they are. They are a subspecies.
This is easier to get your head around when you bear in mind that when we picture wolves these days, we immediately think of Arctic wolves, star of that all-time classic, the three wolf moon shirt.
Arctic wolves are a specialised subspecies of wolf. They are huge and shaggy, adaptations that allow them to survive their harsh environment. The progenitors of our pets would have looked more like this;
That’s an Arabian wolf. And here, to make the connection a bit clearer, is an example of what a primitive domesticated dog would have looked like.
That’s a dingo. Dingoes are feral dogs. They are domesticated animals that have escaped and returned to the wild. And they give us a fairly good idea of what the earlier domesticated dogs might have looked like.
But that’s not what most dogs today look like. There is, you see, something a little odd about dogs. They are plastic. Rubber. Silly putty. In just a few thousand years, we have produced such different looking beasts as Great Danes and Chihuahuas, Mexican hairless dogs and poodles. We haven’t done this with cats, or sheep, or pigs, or cows. We’ve messed with their size and shape a little, but even the difference between a Shetland pony and a shire horse pales to insignificance next to the yawning gap between an Irish Wolfhound and a pug.
What makes this even odder is that wild dogs aren’t very varied at all. Jackals look just like foxes. Foxes look like coyotes. Coyotes look like wolves. Nature seems to have struck on a winning design and just messed around with the size and the colour. There are of course a few exceptions. There are Maned Wolves, which look like normal dogs whose legs have been stretched on Photoshop.
There are Raccoon Dogs, which look like they are exploding very slowly.
There are Bush Dogs, which appear to be evolving into weasels with obesity issues.
And there are Fennecs, which prove that Mother Nature is actually a pre-teen girl who wuvs to cuddle.
So why am I going on about dogs? It’s time for another Lowveld post. And there are dogs in the Lowveld.
Yes, there’s a weirdo again. Termites are deceptive little creatures. You hardly ever see them, but they are very much around. If you had a weekend free, and rounded up all the humans in the world and all the termites in the world, and shoved them onto a scale, the termites would be heavier. But don’t worry, we’re catching up fast.
When nature provides a bounty like that, creatures will move in and take advantage of it. And one of those creatures is a dog. The Bat-eared Fox.
To make the Bat-eared Fox, nature has taken the classic dog shape and shrunken it. But nature appears to have been a bit lax. She’s forgotten about the ears and the tail. Bat-eared Foxes are tiny. They weigh about as much as a big domestic cat. But their ears are huge. They look like satellite dishes, and with good reason.
The bulk of the Bat-eared Fox’s diet is made up of harvester termites, but it also eats other insects, scorpions, lizards, and the occasional small mammal or bird. And it finds most of its prey by hearing it. Which is quite simply breath-taking. Those huge, silly looking ears can hear insects. Under the ground. The next time you find yourself near a termite’s nest, stick your ear to the ground and see how you do. Even Tonto from the Lone Ranger could only pick up buffalos and trains.
And then they dig. Phenomenally. People who keep them as pets have to give up on their carpets. They can dig through termite mounds, which are as hard as concrete, so if just one cockroach makes its way under your lush pile carpet, which is not as hard as concrete, and starts making an unholy racket, it’s time to think about putting in tiles instead.
There’s a good reason for that huge, fluffy tail, too. The Afrikaans name for the Bat-Eared Fox is the Draaijakkals, which means “the turning jackal”. The wild dogs of the Lowveld are not without enemies. They are small enough to fall prey to large birds of prey, and are a tasty snack sized meal for creatures like hyenas and leopards. Which is a problem, because the Bat Eared Fox is not particularly fast. But it has a trick up its sleeve. The Bat-Eared Fox can turn 90 degrees at a full gallop without slowing down. The tail is there for the same reason as a squirrel’s; it helps with balance. It also acts as a decoy. If everything goes according to plan, whatever is chasing the fox will overshoot the mark, giving it just enough time to escape into its underground den.
Here’s a couple doing it for fun;
The bat eared fox is, you might have noticed, an unreasonably cute little beast. And that doesn’t stop with its appearance. It gets married for a start. Bat eared foxes form happy little couples and settle down to a life of cheerful monogamy, happily raising their little families and never being separated by more than a few hundred paces. They are also one of those rare animals that remain playful throughout their lives.
On paper, Black Backed Jackals should be cute, too. But they’re not. Black Backed Jackals are serious little customers. They are models of sober efficiency, like those tidy, compact little men who grow up to be captains of industry or Napoleon.
And they are very efficient indeed. Black Backed Jackals are one of those rare creatures that can take anything mankind can throw at them and thrive. And mankind throws quite a lot at them. Outside of nature reserves, they are shot on sight. They are set upon with dogs. They are poisoned, and caught in gin traps. They are at war with the farmers of South Africa.
And they are winning. No-one has ever succeeded in wiping them out from an area. They make Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox look like an amateur. It is always easy to paint the farmers in these situations as villains, but things are not all that simple. They may look a lot like them, but Jackals are not foxes.
Jackals eat everything. Fruit, insects, rodents, carrion, whatever they can find. But at certain times of year, they specialise in newly-born buck. Take them out of the nature reserves, and they replace those buck with lambs. And, because sheep happen to be some of the less intelligent creatures on the planet, the occasional adult, too. The farmers are simply trying to protect their livelihoods.
But there might just be a rather surprising solution on the horizon. Like the Bat-eared Foxes, Black Backed Jackals are monogamous. They mate for life. Unlike the Bat-eared Foxes, jackals are territorial. To hold a territory takes a mated pair. If one of them is injured or killed, they can no longer drive off any interlopers. For generations, farmers have been unwittingly breaking up territorial pairs, inviting interlopers in to try and take over. Lots of interlopers.
It turns out that the best thing for driving off jackals is jackals. As is often the case in wars, the best solution in this case might just be a cease-fire. Leave your territorial pair alone, and you are dealing with two jackals. Kill one of the pair, and you invite in a whole lot more. But this is not a perfect solution. There is still the small matter of those lambs.
Happily, these aren’t really issues down in the Lowveld, Where the jackals can go about their business unmolested. All the things that make them such a problem for farmers make them champion survivors in the bush. They are smart, and resourceful, and brave. Stupidly brave. They are one of the few creatures which will steal from a lion kill with impunity, rushing in under the lions’ noses to steal scraps. And they will cheerfully take on hyenas that threaten their cubs, with one of the pair distracting the much bigger invader while the other rushes in to nip at its heels.
And that would be just about all for the jackals, except for one other thing. Jackals give us insight into how the social system of wolves evolved. The core of the jackals’ social structure is the mated pair. They set up a home territory and raise their cubs. Raising cubs is no easy task. The two parents have to defend their territory and collect enough food for themselves and their cubs. Which they also have to protect from the vast multitude of creatures which are keen on eating them.
It’s heavy going. Most of the cubs don’t make it. But the jackals have a way of improving their chances. They get a helper in. One of the cubs from a previous litter sticks around and helps to raise his or her younger siblings. This works for the parents because they have an extra pair of hands (or set of teeth). And it works for the helper because in protecting their siblings, they are protecting their own genes. Or rather 50% of them.
And that is precisely what a wolf pack is. It’s a pair of happily married dogs whose kids never leave home. Instead of keeping one of their adult offspring around, they keep all of them. So next time you hear a bunch of young men who spend their days in the gym, their nights in nightclubs, and every moment in between on their hair refer to themselves as “the wolf pack”, you can smile quietly to yourself and move on with your day knowing you’ve met a bunch of mama’s boys with separation issues.
The other guys.
The Black Backed Jackal is not the only jackal in the Lowveld. There’s another one, called the Side-striped Jackal. And that’s just about all there is to say about them. They’re there.
For some reason, the poor neglected Side-striped Jackal is completely overshadowed by its Black Backed cousins. Most visitors to the bush don’t even know they exist. They’ve been pretty much ignored by science, too. The full extent of Side-striped Jackal studies seems to have involved shooting the odd one to cut it open and see what it had eaten. Quite a bit of fruit, apparently.
The consensus seems to be that the Side-striped Jackal is pretty much exactly the same as its cousin, except that it favours a more thickly wooded habitat. And that’s it. This may well become the first animal in the world to be ignored into extinction. In fact it might have happened already, and nobody noticed.
Wild Dogs are disappearing.
Huge efforts are being made to preserve what remains of their population, but the tragic truth is that Wild Dogs seem to have evolved specifically to fail to adapt to the world mankind has created. They just don’t belong here.
A bit of background before we get to the depressing stuff;
Wild Dogs are Africa’s version of wolves. They are the largest dogs in Southern Africa, and live in large packs. They specialise in hunting smaller buck like impala, but can bring down buffalo at a push. But what they really specialise in is raising pups. Like wolves, Wild Dog packs are made up of a mated pair and a bunch of helpers. But they have taken things a step further.
If the entire point of your existence is to raise the pups of a single female, you don’t really need more than one female. In fact, having lots of females around just causes problems. If a subordinate female mates and has pups, the peaceful co-existence of the pack is disrupted, and the alpha female tends to kill them off anyway. But the Wild Dogs are working on the problem. They’re cutting down on females.
For every female Wild Dog born, two males are born. This leaves the dogs in a situation where there are lots of handy helpers around, and fewer competing females, so everyone can focus on raising the pups. And those male helpers are very good at raising pups. If the female dies when the pups are as young as a month old, an all-male pack can successfully raise them to adulthood.
Pups are like crack to Wild Dogs. They adore them. They are protected by sentries and the whole pack brings food back from kills for them. In their stomachs. Yup, the Wild Dog version of “I love you” is to vomit up half chewed meat.
So in love with pups are they that they compete with each other not by fighting, but by trying to be the most pup-like. This can, rather distressingly, lead to bouts of competitive food begging. And vomiting. And begging. And vomiting.
All this vomiting is good news for sick or injured Wild Dogs. The healthier dogs will look after them just as they do the pups. Unlike lions, which will cheerfully allow their own cubs to starve to death rather than give up a meal.
So if they are such successful animals, why are they disappearing?
It is, you’ll be staggered to learn, our fault. It all started with bad PR.
This is an Aye-aye;
Aye-ayes are not doing very well. No-one knows how many are left in the wild. Some say 60, some say about a thousand. No-one says “lots”. Ever see one on a T-shirt?
How about this guy?
Wild dogs are not objectively attractive. People have tried to pretend that they are by renaming them “Painted Wolves”, but no-one was fooled. They are a funny, patchy mottled colour. They are lean and rangy. They have humourless, baleful looking faces.
And this is the competition;
But there’s more. Wild Dogs are too good at hunting. Lions, leopards and cheetahs suck at hunting. Lions succeed at about 30% of their hunts. Wild Dogs are sitting at 80%. Wild Dogs are so good at hunting that they can, in game-rich areas, set regular mealtimes. They hunt by chasing down their prey over 5km or so.
This led our earliest conservationists to come to a rather remarkable conclusion; Wild Dogs were bad for conservation. They were just going to eat everything. And so, right up to the 1960’s, Wild Dogs were shot on sight. In game reserves.
The Wild Dogs’ method of killing their prey didn’t help. They literally tear their prey apart. Big cats are much nicer. They choke their prey, and thus deserve to live.
Or at least that’s what the official line was. The truth is a little uglier. Game reserves were set up not as places for animals to live out their lives in peace. They were set up as reservoirs in which to keep big game so that there would be enough to hunt. No one wanted to stick a dead Wild Dog up on the wall, so there was simply no need for wild dogs
Wild Dogs now have very good PR. We all love them. But it might be too late. Their numbers are already critically low.
But that’s not all. Wild Dogs need space. Lots of space. They are not territorial, and move around over huge home ranges. Space is a luxury wild animals can no longer afford.
There’s more. The major killer of Wild Dogs is lions, which take out the pups. Wild places are no longer that wild. We have set up artificial water points, and boosted the number of prey animals to unnatural levels. Which means there are more lions. In more places. The Wild Dogs can no longer find safe places to raise their pups.
And there is, of course, more. The dogs are getting sick. They die of rabies and all the same diseases that afflict our domestic dogs. Without the benefit of vets. In truth, they are not all that more susceptible to disease than other predators, but there are fewer of them, so every loss counts. And if the numbers in any given pack get too low, the whole pack disintegrates.
There is, however, light at the end of the tunnel. A new idea has been growing in Africa. Transfrontier parks. These are huge wild areas along the borders of countries where the Wild Dogs will finally find the space they need. And they aren’t as intensively managed, so the numbers of competing predators are not unnaturally high. Maybe, just maybe, our dogs are going to make it.
I implied earlier that Wild Dogs are ugly. They are. When they’re standing still. But to see a wild dog run is to see a thing of beauty. I’ve seen a cheetah attempt a kill. That footage you see on the TV is played in slow motion and has a cool soundtrack. In real life, a running cheetah is just a blur, and a short-lived one at that, ending with an exhausted cat flopped on the ground like a badly-cut rug. Watching Wild Dogs run is like watching ballet. They are blindingly fast, but they move with an easy, loping grace that eats up the ground effortlessly. They look like they could last forever.
I hope they do.