What's South Africa's most endangered carnivore? It's the wild dog - and there are only 250 left in the Kruger
Nadine Dreyer heads out with some Bulls rugby players and the Endangered Wildlife Trust for a wild-dog conservation mission in the Kruger National Park
The aerial beeps softly, then goes quiet. A few more beeps. Silence. We are in the southwest of the Kruger National Park near Phabeni Gate on a winter's afternoon. The mission: to observe the monitoring and collaring of wild dogs.
Among the convoy of three game vehicles are a couple of Bulls rugby players and their coach. I wonder idly how their skills would compare against a pack of African wild dogs. Being the long-limbed marathon runners that they are, wild dogs would easily outpace even rugby's finest. They have a vast range and can easily run over 50km in a day.
Then there's the question of rugby tackling techniques. I don't know how much the average Bulls forward weighs, but it's obviously substantially more than a wild dog, which clocks in at around 22kg. However, working as a pack they are able to bring down kudu and zebra, animals that are many times their own weight. No wonder wild dogs hold up the trophy as Africa's most successful hunters.
THINGS GET TENSE
But I digress. As we drive along on our quest, I notice the guys from the Endangered Wildlife Trust's carnivore conservation programme, who are leading our expedition, seem a bit tense. Quiet but tense. Even though at least one member of each of the 10 packs in the park is fitted with a radio collar, the blasted carnivores are not playing ball this afternoon. Beep beep beep. Nothing. More elusive than a Grace Mugabe PhD.
When you consider there are only about 250 wild dogs left in this game reserve the size of Israel, it's no surprise they're so hard to locate even with radio collars. Also it's winter, the season when mothers give birth and the adults tend to hang around their den guarding the pups. One of the endearing things about this species is that both male and female will help raise the young as if they are their own.
A PAIR APPEARS
Well, you know what they say about patience. Our vehicles split up and eventually a pair of wild dogs is spotted. Hallelujah! The EWT guys can relax. We race against the setting sun to get glimpses of the duo before the dark sets in. Through dense grass we see them devouring an impala. Wild dogs eat at a ferocious pace to avoid attacks by hyena and lion. Back at the den, they'll regurgitate food for the pups and any adults on guard duty.
There are fewer than 450 wild dogs left in South Africa, making them our most critically endangered carnivore. They have been eradicated from 25 of the 39 countries that formed their historical range in Africa.
In 2016, catastrophe struck. Several wild dogs in the southern Kruger were observed coughing and vomiting before suffering agonising deaths. The body of a pregnant female was found with 18 foetuses and an entire pack was wiped out. Tests revealed they had been infected with canine distemper caught from feral dogs.
Unlike rhino, severe threats to the survival of the wild dog don't often make headlines. They have been vilified as vermin who prey on livestock. They have been poisoned, run over and shot. Their dens have been blown up with pups still inside.
After the 2016 disaster, Kruger authorities, along with the Endangered Wildlife Trust, agreed that emergency measures were needed to save the species. Now one dog in every pack is collared and several vaccinated in an ongoing project to monitor their health.
ALL HANDS ON DECK
Kruger is so vast that if you travelled every tourist road you would only see 4% of its magnificent landscape. Add the service roads forbidden to visitors and you would still only see 8%. To help with the collaring programme, visitors were asked to photograph every wild dog they spotted and this played an important part in locating them.
A BUSY DAY FOR VETS
The next morning, we spot vultures gorging on the carcass of a hippo. It is thought that the hippo was shot by poachers who had mistaken it for a rhino.
We bump into two state rangers and an elephant snoring peacefully on its side in a thicket. The darted elephant has an ugly red weal around one leg, where a wire snare has eaten into its flesh.
The state vets are having a busy morning. They locate a collared wild dog, a female, near the Phabeni pack's den and dart her.
The San, or Bushmen as they prefer to be called, are said to have eaten the hearts of wild dog to become more efficient predators.
Bloods are taken before the Phabeni female is woken up with an injection. It takes only a couple of moments and she's running off to resume her role as part of a pack. For now.
• Dreyer was invited to join the Vodacom Red Wild Dogs tour, hosted jointly with the Bulls rugby team and the Endangered Wildlife Trust.