BBC One released its fourth episode of their critically acclaimed series Dynasties last Sunday at 20:00. Thus far the world-renowned Sir David Attenborough has guided us, the viewer, on three adventures that have included incredible footage of the life and times of a family of chimpanzees, penguins and lions. All expertly commentated stories entailing their fight for survival in a brutal but natural world.
We are extremely excited for this fourth episode as it takes place in an area of Southern Africa that we are very passionate about, having spent numerous days on incredible walking safaris in the magical “Garden of Eden” that is Mana Pools National Park, Zimbabwe. Sean, partner at Wild & Isle, has in fact witnessed these very same Painted Wolves successfully hunt and take down a baboon, while on foot, on his previous trip to Mana Pools National Park. But what is a painted wolf and why is so little known about it by first time travelers to Africa’s majestic shores? Where is this Mana Pools that seems to be on the tip of all safari goers tongues right now?
The Painted Wolf is also referred to as a Wild Dog, Cape Hunting Dog or African Painted Dog. Their distribution was once all over Africa but their numbers have declined significantly over the past 100 years. They are currently listed as endangered by the IUCN with only 6600 remaining in the wild. They were seen as pests by farmers in the early days of European settlement and persecuted for their stock raiding exploits. In these modern day times Painted Wolves are limited to small pockets of wildlife sanctuaries and reserves on the continent.
Being hugely successful hunters, their kill ratio sits at around 80%, with interesting and extraordinary social dynamics they are wonderful animals to spend time with. They are becoming a firm favourite with safari enthusiasts worldwide! Packs can number in excess of thirty individuals at a time! The care and social cohesion shown amongst the pack members makes for interesting viewing, often much more so than sleeping lions (lions sleep for around 20 hours a day). With these big numbers hunting can often be a daily, or even twice daily, occurrence.
Nick Lyon, and his team from the BBC, spent numerous hours observing and tracking the livelihoods of a resident pack while shooting Dynasties – Painted Wolf. His team often started tracking at 3 am, watching out for crocodiles and other wild animals constantly, to get the footage they needed. This is what he had to say about the exercise:
After following [them for so long] we got into sync with the packs, and we understood their habits and routines. This would let us get ahead of the pack, get into position in advance and make big decisions that were gambles but paid off, because we had grown to understand these packs so well. When Sir David Attenborough met the painted wolves it was approaching the end of the day and we were many hours away from camp. Just as he delivered his line to camera, the pack stood up and went to hunt not to be seen again, but we got the take. Sir David nailed it. The painted wolves got to recognise us too and were completely relaxed having us around. It was like they totally accepted us being there with them. It’s been such a privilege and it allowed us to get some extraordinary insights into their lives.
Julian Brookstein, professional Zimbabwean safari guide, had the following to say about Painted Wolves and why they are great to follow on foot:
Mana is one of my favorite places to do walking safaris. Its open vistas and flowing canopy of trees makes it a very beautiful place to walk. One of the highlights of this amazing park is defiantly the Painted Wolves. There are currently six main packs in the park, numbering around one hundred in total.
They thrive in this area, benefiting from the abundant prey, and can often be found hunting twice a day. Unlike the cats, Painted Wolves use stamina to catch their prey. They can hold an impressive pace of around 50 km/h for extended periods, reaching top speeds of 70km/h in bursts, and basically run their prey to exhaustion. This is a very effective form of predation, making them the most successful predator in Africa. Being the best at what they do will attract others keen to cash in on their hard work. Hyena can often be seen following dogs on the hunt knowing that the chances of a free meal are particularly good. Vultures, Hooded Vulture in particular, will actually fly directly above dogs as they are on the hunt, always sure of keeping them in site. It is therefore a great way of keeping in touch with the Painted Wolves while they are on the hunt. The generally open nature of the Mana Pools flood plain makes it one of the better places to see these nomads of the bush, particularly to see them hunt which is always a thrill! Painted Wolves will generally hunt in the early morning and late afternoon when the weather is cooler. The best way to be present to see a hunt is to be patient and sit with them in the late afternoon, then move with them as they become increasingly active as the day cools down.
So now that we have a slightly better understanding of what a Painted Wolf is, and why they are so special, we need to ask ourselves, where is Mana Pools and why was it chosen for the filming of Dynasties – Painted Wolves?
Mana Pools National Park is situated on the Zambezi, the river that separates Zimbabwe and Zambia. It is found in a region known as the Lower Zambezi downstream from the famous Victoria Falls. The word “Mana” translated from Shona to English means four due to four pools, within the reserve, that were formed by the snaking pathways of the mighty river. It is an area that is both wild and unbelievably beautiful! A place where the “Old Africa” of Hemingway still has its roots. An enchanted forest forms part of the Lower Zambezi floodplain and is made up of Winterthorn Trees that dwarf the local elephants and present cathedral-like lighting over golden hour that makes for spectacular photographic opportunities. A few larger bull elephants can be seen doing an incredible balancing act by standing on their back two legs to reach up and gather nutrients from the top branches of these Winterthorn trees.
Lions, leopards and hyena rule this region and, in the drier winter months, large herds of buffalo make their way from inland to quench their thirst at the river. It is a brilliant walking destination where Zimbabwean Professional Guides (arguably the best in Africa) will help one to experience all of these incredible daily events in a safe and exciting manner. Mana Pools is also the home of some strong Painted Wolf populations and is seen as a safe haven for these wonderful creatures. It was therefore an obvious destination for the Dynasties – Painted Wolves documentary to be shot.
Besides the amazing wildlife viewing, on foot and by vehicle, many lodges in the area offer the added thrill of tiger fishing and the relaxation of a boated sundowner cruise to view the area from a different perspective.
We, at Wild & Isle, can never speak more highly of Mana Pools and what it has to offer in terms of a safari experience. Especially for those clients that sit on the more adventurous side of the safari spectrum. It is an extremely beautiful part of the world and the wildlife experiences are close and exciting. We have some wonderful ideas, camps, specials and itineraries on offer for Mana Pools so please have a look and contact us for more information on visiting this region. We are also lucky enough to have some incredible guides that can be booked to add an extra dimension to the experience.
It is highly important to book early to avoid disappointment as it becomes more popular. We also recommend visiting in the drier winter months (July to October) to increase your likelihood of viewing game as they move down to the river from the escarpment when water dries up there.
Please do enjoy the showing of Dynasties – Painted Wolves as well as the other remarkable stories in this new David Attenborough series. Knowledge of these special areas, and their wildlife, needs to increase for us to help save them from disappearing for good.