African Wild Dogs resting on the shores of Lake Masek at Ndutu, Tanzania.

African Wild Dogs resting on the shores of Lake Masek at Ndutu, Tanzania.

The wild dog is one of Africa’s most interesting predators. It is a rare animal, its numbers having been systematically reduced over the past few decades as a result of human pressure. It has long been viewed as something more than a pest, having preyed on livestock and becoming mortal enemies of the Maasai and other tribes in the eastern and southern sections of the continent. Their collective efforts to exterminate it have come far too close to success. Wild dogs are also territorial, and because they are so wide ranging, they require more space than other predators. As humanity expands into protected areas, they are gradually squeezed out of existence. They remain one of Africa’s most endangered species.

The wild dog has also evolved in another way. As its physical numbers have dwindled, its names have proliferated. In recent years it has been referred to as the spotted dog, the painted dog, the hunting dog, the painted wolf and the ornate wolf. These “friendlier” designations were calculated to portray the animal as something less fierce and intimidating than its traditional reputation would imply. The hope was that the name change would alter historic views of the dogs, and possibly serve as the initial step in rehabilitating their fearsome image.

Wild dog at Lake Masek, checking out a wildebeest skull.

Wild dog at Lake Masek, checking out a wildebeest skull.

Because of the efforts of some dedicated conservation organizations, the African wild dog may be making a comeback. Reports from the Samburu area in central Kenya indicate that sightings are much more frequent, and the numbers seem to be climbing in the Serengeti as well. Still, the visitor to East Africa should have no real expectation of seeing these animals … which is why the opportunity to photograph them at Ndutu in February of this year came as a complete surprise.

Enjoying Lake Masek.

Enjoying Lake Masek.

There were seven dogs in the pack … initially they slept on the mud flat near the water at Lake Masek, rising from time to time to yawn, stretch and drink. Toward sunset they became more active, splashing in the shallows and turning a couple of laps around the land rovers before disappearing into the bush. The guides discussed the matter at some length and finally determined that it had been eight years since the last sighting of wild dogs at Ndutu. Once again I was lucky, but doubt seriously that I’ll ever see these animals again in the wild.

More sleeping dogs lie on the mud flat in the late afternoon.

More sleeping dogs lie on the mud flat in the late afternoon.

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