Image credit: Johan Van Zyl

Nestled within the heart of Africa lies South Luangwa, a wildlife sanctuary renowned for its dense populations of iconic African species. In addition to boasting good numbers of some Big 5 members, South Luangwa is also a top destination for African wild dogs, one of the world’s most endangered carnivores. Here, amidst the sprawling plains and meandering rivers, wild dog packs roam freely.

The Naming Conundrum: A Species by Many Names

Image credit: Kenneth Coe

After hundreds of years and many name changes, it appears that we are no closer to reaching a consensus on what to call a “wild dog”. Even its common names are the subject of debate. With it called the African wild dog, African hunting dog, Cape hunting dog, painted hunting dog, painted dog, spotted dog, ornate wolf, painted Lycaon, as well as the painted wolf, many conservationists feel that it is in need of rebranding. Undoubtedly, its coat represents a masterpiece of nature, while its habitat remains rooted in Africa.

“In Nyanga, our local language, African wild dogs are known as ‘Mimbulu’.”

Patrick, senior guide at Shenton Safaris

Where the Name Originates From

Native to sub-Saharan Africa, Lycaon Pictus, the largest indigenous canine on the continent, holds a significant place in both the natural world and human culture. Its distinct traits, including specialized teeth, unique coat colors, and unmistakable ears, set it apart from other canids.

Image credit: George Turner

In Greek mythology, Lycaon, a king of Arcadia, tested Zeus by serving him roasted human flesh. As punishment, Zeus transformed Lycaon into a wolf. “Pictus” means painted, reflecting the wild dog’s distinctive appearance. Originally misclassified as a hyena, Lycaon Pictus was later recognized as one of the canids, enriching the cultural tapestry surrounding this fascinating species.

Image credit: Robin Lee

Conservation Concerns: A Precarious Status

Image credit: Isak Pretorius

The African wild dog holds a precarious status as one of Africa’s most endangered carnivores, listed as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN 2002).

Over the past five decades, the wild population of Lycaon Pictus has experienced a drastic decline, with estimates ranging from 6,600 animals left in the wild. Historically, wild dogs were viewed as vermin by colonial authorities, leading to large-scale eradication efforts. In Zambia alone, approximately 5,000 wild dogs were killed between 1945 and 1959. Persecution continued in some African countries until the mid-1980s due to beliefs that wild dogs suppressed antelope numbers.

Image credit: Robin Lee

Image credit: George Turner

From Ancient Texts to a Journey of Survival

Image credit: Johan Van Zyl

The earliest written reference for the species appears to be from Oppian, who wrote of the Thoa, a hybrid between the wolf and leopard, which resembles the former in shape and the latter in colour. Solinus’s Collea rerum memorabilium from the third century AD describes a multicoloured wolf-like animal with a mane, native to Ethiopia.

Scientifically described in 1820 by Coenraad Jacob Temminck after examining a specimen from the coast of Mozambique, the African wild dog has since faced numerous challenges to its survival, including habitat loss and fragmentation. However, conservation efforts offer hope for the species’ continued existence, with the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW), Zambian Carnivore Programme (ZCP), and Conservation South Luangwa (CSL) working tirelessly to protect and preserve their habitats.

Image credit: George Turner

Image credit: George Turner

Image credit: Matt Armstrong

The Mythological Significance of African Wild Dogs

Image credit: George Turner

  • In Ethiopian folklore, wild dogs are believed to possess mystical powers, with tales recounting their ability to ward off evil spirits and protect communities from harm.
  • In ancient Egyptian culture, wild dogs were revered for their hunting prowess and depicted in art and hieroglyphs as symbols of strength and agility.
  • Among the Ndebele people of Zimbabwe, wild dogs feature prominently in oral traditions, often symbolizing courage, loyalty, and resilience in the face of adversity.

Cosmetic palette from the Naqada III period depicting African wild dogs, Louvre.  Image credit: click here

Image credit: Isak Pretorius 

“In Zambian culture, African wild dogs are considered symbols of good luck when spotted.”

Philemon, guide at Shenton Safaris

Image credit: George Turner

As we reflect on the rich history of the African wild dog, let us also recommit ourselves to its conservation, preserving not just a species, but a vital part of Africa’s natural heritage. In doing so, we honor the legacy of these remarkable creatures and secure a brighter future for all who call the wilds of Africa home.

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About Megan Woolley

Megan Woolley has written 38 post in this blog.