African wild dog Lihle may only have had three legs, but her contribution to wildlife conservation in Africa can never be underestimated. Some have suggested that there should be a statue of her to celebrate the courage and care she displayed during her short life.
During lockdown, wild dog expert, Cole du Plessis retold the moving story of this remarkable wild animal. He told of the lessons she has imparted about nature and the lengths that vulnerable creatures like her go to, to ensure survival, often against overwhelming odds.
WILD DOGS IN SOUTH AFRICA
Wild dogs are the most endangered carnivore in South Africa with around 450 left in the country. They are also the second-most endangered carnivore in Africa, extinct in all but a few countries.
Cole will tell you that as coordinator of the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Wild Dog Range Expansion Project, he tries to keep emotions under check, but admits that sometimes it is not easy.
LIHLE, THE THREE-LEGGED WILD DOG
It was while he was monitoring a small group of relocated wild dogs in Zululand, named the Super Six, that he came across Lihle, still nursing injuries after losing her hind leg in a poacher’s snare.
“What amazed me was that despite her injuries, the pack never turned on her. In many ways she became their chief nursemaid, always looking after the younger ones and making sure that everyone stayed together.”
Being so close, du Plessis was able to monitor their ongoing behaviour.
“You soon learn that wild dogs have a strong family structure, individual personalities and a die-hard need to put the pack first. They are playful, intelligent, nurturing – a true example of the underdog story. Even if packs separate to different dens, the family bond remains.”
It was during one of his monitoring sorties that he realised the Super Six were nowhere to be seen.
“Then I saw Lihle. She was making an alarm sound as though she was calling me. I followed her into the bush only to find that a number of dogs had been caught in snares. I immediately called for assistance and within a couple of hours we were able to remove the snares and attend to the injuries, even though we did lose one of the dogs. Without Lihle, we may never have been able to save any them.”
The pack went on to produce several litters, increasing the numbers from the original six to more than 80. Since the early days of the project, the progeny, including Lihle’s own litter, have been reintroduced into a number of reserves in South Africa and in Mozambique’s Gorongosa game reserve where they hadn’t been seen for 60 years.
Sadly Lihle lost her life when she was taken by a lion. “Her end was natural and not in a snare,” says Cole. “Sad, yes. But I can sort of except that.” Today Cole’s rescue dog has the same name, which in Zulu means a beautiful personality.
FACTS ABOUT THESE ANIMALS
African wild dogs weigh about 30kg and can only run 70km/h. While they don’t have the advantage of strength or speed in the wild, they do have each other and this is what makes them incredibly successful.
They hunt together, play together and look after one another. In cases where an African wild dog is sick or injured, the pack will nurture it to health and even bring food to him/her if needed. These attributes make them unique.
About African Wild
The African wild dog (Lycaon pictus), also called the painted dog, or Cape hunting dog, is a canine native to sub-Saharan Africa. It is the largest indigenous canine in Africa, and the only extant member of the genus Lycaon, which is distinguished from Canis by dentition highly specialised for a hypercarnivorous diet, and a lack of dewclaws. It is estimated that about 6,600 adults including 1,400 mature individuals live in 39 subpopulations that are all threatened by habitat fragmentation, human persecution and outbreaks of diseases. As the largest subpopulation probably consists of less than 250 individuals, the African wild dog is listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List since 1990.
The African wild dog is a highly social animal, living in packs with separate dominance hierarchies for males and females. Uniquely among social carnivores, the females rather than the males disperse from the natal pack once sexually mature. The young are allowed to feed first on carcasses. The species is a specialised diurnal hunter of antelopes, which it catches by chasing them to exhaustion. Like other canids, the African wild dog regurgitates food for its young, but this action is also extended to adults, to the point of being central to their social life. Its natural enemies are lions and hyenas: the former will kill the canids where possible whilst hyenas are frequent kleptoparasites.
Although not as prominent in African folklore or culture as other African carnivores, it has been respected in several hunter-gatherer societies, particularly those of the predynastic Egyptians and the San people.