The scene was set for a three part performance, and the whole extravaganza unravelled like any drama should. The only difference was that this was a real life bushveld sighting, not a film – and popcorn wasn’t included.
On a morning game drive from Rhino River Lodge led by ranger Frances Hannah, the air was crisp against our skin, and the blankets crept up slowly as we sped off in pursuit of Zululand Rhino Reserve’s new addition – the wild dog. The valley was shrouded in a thick cloud of mist; the rising sun was straining through the fog to reach our cold noses and trees stood silhouetted against the light.
The dogs had been spotted running across the plains but had disappeared into the thick bushveld. By now they could be anywhere. We manoeuvred the cruiser along winding roads, hoping to catch a glimpse of white fur at the end of a tail; our beacon of hope.
On our way up from the river, we heard the warning call of the vervet monkeys. The dogs were new to the reserve, but these monkeys knew the lingo. They were alarm calling from the tops of the trees, singing out to anyone who would listen that danger was near. We swung the cruiser around, and as we neared the river, there they were – all six dogs were scaling down the steep rock face of the mountain, edging towards the dry riverbed.
Soft padded paws kicked up sand as they sprinted towards us, excited by the fuss we were making over them. A flurry of patches and big black ears circled our cruiser momentarily and then they were off in all directions. We began reversing but by the time we were over the lip of the river, the dogs had vanished, and the hot pursuit began again!
We swung around and began to climb the mountain slope until we saw a big grey, lumbering roadblock hurtling towards us!
You could smell him before you saw him. His frame blocked out the morning sun as he towered over us, urine gushing out between his back legs, temples shiny with oily secretion and his trunk snaking towards our vehicle, investigating what this foreigner wanted in his wilderness. Once the formalities were over, he continued his hefty walk down to the soft river sand where he started devouring the lush vegetation on the bank’s edge.
The road opened to a wide open plane, and there in the middle stood six wild dogs, circling four sub-adult cheetah. The dogs chattered excitedly amongst each other, their tails erect in the air, white tips saluting the morning sun. This was the classic dogs versus cats scenario, but in the wild.
The cats grouped together with their backs to each other while keeping the dogs at swiping length. Hair stood up on their spotted backs and their teeth glared sharply as the dogs closed in.
Guide Frances explained the reasons behind the intense behaviour, “The wild dog and cheetah interaction was as tense as it was because the wild dogs are still finding their paws and are essentially ‘house shopping’. So when they find themselves in another predator’s territory by chance, they will either turn in the opposite direction or stand strong and face up to them… it all depends on the predators they encounter. They would have run from lions if they were caught in their territory, for example, but they stood their ground when faced with cheetahs.”
Wild dogs each have specific rank within their pack, and as one of the excited smaller dogs at the back rushed forward, the dogs piled onto it to reaffirm the hierarchy. As the dogs battled with their inner politics, the cheetahs seized their chance and retreated to a thorny bush, which they used as a barricade.
The battle continued between the curtains of bush until the dogs admitted defeat and energetically moved along, bouncing off each other’s adrenalin. We all took a deep breath; the sun was warming our skin and we were elated to have found the dogs in such an eager state!
It was a morning full of action fit for the silver screen that guests were lucky enough to witness.
Blog post originally published on Africa Geographic