(© Ian Plant) During a recent trip to Botswana, I had the pleasure of witnessing a remarkable natural spectacle when I came upon a pack of African wild dogs sparring with a female gemsbok. The pack, numbering at least ten dogs, had just killed the gemsbok's baby, but she wasn't ready to give up her calf just yet. She stood guard, fighting off the dogs, for almost two hours.
Every now and then, a bold dog would lunge for the baby, but the mother would drive it off. Even with their large numbers, the dogs weren't eager to take on the enraged mom (and her large, pointy horns) unless they absolutely had to. Instead, they decided to bide their time, wearing the gemsbok out until she eventually lost interest.
While several dogs kept the mother occupied, the rest of the pack relaxed and played. One of the dogs had a bad wound on its foreleg; other members of the pack came over and gave the dog constant attention, licking its wound to keep it from getting infected. Although the wound looked bad, the dog seemed unfazed, running around, jumping, and mock-fighting with its pack-mates as if nothing had happened.
Finally, the pack got more restless, eager to eat the fallen baby gemsbok. They pressed the mother further, trying to snatch the carcass out from under her watchful vigil. She bravely drove away the pack a number of times, but finally their persistence paid off. They managed to drag the body away, and the mother eventually moved on.
At this point, the dogs attacked the carcass in what can only be described as an all-out feeding frenzy. It was amazing how quickly they devoured the gemsbok. Within minutes, almost nothing was left. [Warning, some of the pictures that follow are rather graphic and bloody.]
This was clearly a satisfying meal for the dogs, something that would ensure their survival in the days to come. Once they had their fill, their faces red with blood, one by one the dogs began to drift away from what little remained of the carcass.
Within minutes, however, each dog would return to gnaw on the remains, tearing the gemsbok completely apart and scattering pieces of bone and flesh across the salt pan. The eating took on a more leisurely pace, now that each dog had (mostly) satisfied its appetite.
The alpha of the pack was keenly interested in what I was doing, stopping every so often to check me out. The dogs seemed completely unconcerned by my presence, but they were clearly curious about the large white machine I was riding in. I wonder if they were trying to figure out if they were hungry anymore, and whether I would be good to eat.
I consider myself lucky: the African wild dog is an endangered species, primarily because of habitat loss and poaching, so a sighting such as this is a rare and special event. It was a real thrill to get up close and personal with these beautiful animals—in some ways so similar to the familiar domestic dog, but in so many ways completely different.
Even though I witnessed a bloody spectacle, what I will remember most was the loyalty, camaraderie, and affection these animals displayed towards one another. They were a tightly-knit social group, closely cooperating to ensure the safety and survival of the pack. Of course, once the feeding began, all bets were off—it was every dog for itself!
All images: Canon 5DIII and 70D cameras, Canon 200-400mm with built in 1.4x converter.