By Nicholas Dyer
In the far north of Zimbabwe lies a paradise, moulded against the meandering flow of the mighty Zambezi River. It is protected in the south by a rugged escarpment that forms a natural boundary between humanity and the creatures that lie within. This is Mana Pools National Park; a pristine wilderness, a little Eden and a protected sanctuary where animals can live their lives far from the ravages of mankind.
Within this community of rambling elephants, grazing antelopes, prowling cats and foraging baboons, roam some very remarkable creatures – the painted wolves. The exact numbers are uncertain, but three packs are gaining considerable notoriety as the BBC rolls out its series ‘Dynasties’, estimated to reach up to a billion people.
Tait, the alpha female of the Vundu Pack, is one of the legends of Mana Pools. Born in 2005, she lived until the ripe old age of ten and, having had many successful litters, her strong genes flow through much of the existing population. Her two daughters, Blacktip and Tammy, are now successful leaders of the Nyakasanga and Nyamatusi Packs who roam the floodplains where Tait used to rule supreme.
The BBC film is about this ‘dynasty’ and tells the story of the interaction between Tait and her daughter Blacktip and a shift in dominance as Blacktip pushes her mother into the lion infested Nyamatusi Wilderness Area and the consequences that unfold. Beautifully narrated by David Attenborough, Nick Lyon, the producer, describes the film as Game of Thrones in the African bush.
I first met Tait on my first visit to Mana Pools in 2013. A very kind Zimbabwean guide invited me to accompany him on foot as we followed her pack on the hunt. I remember this as being one of the most incredible experiences of my life and planted the seeds of a deep love for this animal that turned into an obsession and perhaps an addiction. Since that time, I have spent over 360 days following these packs and Mana Pools has become more my home than anywhere else I currently know.
The painted wolf, also known as the African wild dog and painted dog, is without a doubt Africa’s most enigmatic predator. They are incredibly social animals and live their lives caring for each other and their pups. They mostly compete with submission rather than by dominance and aggression as demonstrated by, for example, lions.
I put much of this down to the fact that they are led by an alpha female. She is the only one to breed and plays the role of pack leader, hunt commander and gentle mother. As hunters they are Africa’s most efficient predator with up to 80% of their hunts successful.
But what is most endearing about them is that they are incredibly playful. They sleep all day then wake to perform a greeting ceremony which seems to me to demonstrate a show of unbounded joy, just for simply being with each other.
Yet these creatures have not had it easy. In 1916, the Southern Rhodesian government introduced a five-shilling reward to anyone who handed in a painted wolf tail. This bounty increased over the years and only ended in 1977. Across the whole of sub-Saharan Africa the painted wolf was treated as vermin and now the population has dwindled, from 500,000 a century ago to only about 6,500 today. It is a tragedy.
Equally tragic is the fact that so few know they exist, let alone know much about them. Many of those that have heard of them believe the painted wolf to be a feral ‘dog’, escaped from towns and villages across Africa. Few know them to be the unique and remarkable creature they are, only distantly related to our domesticated pooches.
The BBC film will do much to raise the awareness of the painted wolf, bringing the lives of this fantastic animal into the living rooms of millions. Building awareness of these animals is key to their conservation.
It is why I have set up the Painted Wolf Foundation, together with Peter Blinston, head of Painted Dog Conservation and Diane Skinner, a leading African wildlife conservationist. Our aim is to raise the awareness of this incredible creature and support organisations in the field across the whole of Africa.
In only two months we have raised $200,000, much from the book that I have written with Peter. Painted Wolves: A Wild Dog’s Life is my story of how Tait, Blacktip and Tammy live far from the ravages of mankind, and gives Peter’s deep insight into conserving the painted wolves near Hwange where they fight for survival in their conflict with humanity. It covers 300 pages with over 220 of my very best photographs.
With one of the largest populations in Africa the painted wolves of Zimbabwe are something for the nation to celebrate. The BBC film, our book and the Painted Wolf Foundation are bringing them to the world’s attention. This will no doubt help the country’s tourism industry, but hopefully the beleaguered painted wolves as well. – © NZiRA Travel Zimbabwe, Issue 10
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