African wild dog (Lycaon pictus)

Also known as: Cape hunting dog, painted hunting dog
French: Cynhyene, Loup-peint, Lycaon
Spanish: Licaon
GenusLycaon (1)
SizeHead-body length: 85 - 141 cm (2)
Weight18 - 34 kg (2)
Top facts

The African wild dog is classified as Endangered (EN) on the IUCN Red List (1).

The African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) is one of the world’s most social and distinctive canids. The short, wiry coat is coloured in blotches of yellow, grey, black and white (2) and gave rise to the African wild dog’s scientific name of Lycaon pictus, meaning ‘painted wolf-like animal’ in Greek (3). The hair is short on the limbs and body and longer on the neck. Each African wild dog has a unique colouration pattern, and this is used by researchers to identify individuals (2). The body is thin and muscular, the tail is bushy with a white tip and the legs are long (2) (4). Males are slightly larger than females (2). Unlike the other canid species there are only four, rather than five, toes on the front feet (2) (4). The African wild dog has large, rounded ears, which probably help with heat loss as well as keeping track of pack members by picking up long distance vocal signals (2) (4).

The African wild dog was formerly present throughout sub-Saharan Africa, although it was never locally abundant (2) (4). This species is today restricted to fragmented populations mainly in southern and eastern Africa (2) (4). Potentially viable populations currently exist in Botswana, Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe (2) (4).

The African wild dog inhabits a range of habitats, including the plains, semi-desert, bushy savannah, woodlands and upland forest (2).

African wild dogs are highly sociable and exhibit a very unusual social system; within their packs, dogs of the same sex are closely related to each other but not to individuals of the opposite sex, and only the dominant male and female will breed (4) (5) (6). Packs vary in size from 2 to 27 individuals and new packs are formed when subgroups of the same sex (usually siblings) disperse and join up with a subgroup of the opposite sex (5), leading to the unusual configuration of the pack. Only the dominant female will give birth to pups, and births may take place throughout the year, although they are more common between March and June (2). Litter size is the largest of any canid, averaging ten pups (2); these are born within dens where they remain for around three months (6). Initially the mother will stay with her pups and when members of the pack return from hunting they regurgitate food for her. As the pups get older however, all pack members help with feeding and ‘baby sitting’ of the young dogs (6). Juveniles are fully independent at 16 to 24 months (6) but remain with their pack, females are more likely to disperse, usually leaving in a sub-group with their sisters once they reach two years old (6).

Outside of the breeding season, African wild dogs are nomadic and wander over large distances in search of prey; home ranges can be as large as 5,000 square kilometres, but are often restricted to areas of less than 200 square kilometres (2). These dogs are carnivorous and hunt their prey by cooperating closely in a group (2). This strategy enables them to hunt prey comprising antelope and ungulates much larger than themselves, to include kudu bulls and wildebeest weighing up to 250 kilograms, as well as ensuring their hunting success is much higher than that of other large carnivorous species (2). Packs set out to hunt in the cool of dawn and dusk, avoiding other predators such as lions. The victim is pulled to the ground and the group descends to feed; pups in the pack are allowed to eat first (6). 

African wild dogs require large home ranges to support viable populations and recent habitat fragmentation has caused a population decline (4). African wild dogs traditionally have a reputation for attacking livestock, and despite this rarely occurring in practice, they are therefore often persecuted wherever they come into contact with humans (2) (4). In addition, road accidents and incidental snaring have recently become an important cause of mortality (2). These wild dogs are susceptible to disease; particularly those carried by domestic dogs such as canine distemper and rabies. A final threat that keeps African wild dog populations low is competition and predation with the other large carnivores of the African savanna, such as lions and spotted hyaenas (6).

The current population of African wild dogs is estimated to be less than 5,500 individuals (2). The majority of dogs are found in medium sized populations, which are extremely vulnerable to sudden environmental change. Due to their expansive home ranges, large areas of contiguous habitat are the key to the survival of this species and it is estimated that protected areas need to be greater than 10,000 square kilometres in order to prevent detrimental contact with local human settlements (2) (4). Consequently even most of the larger reserves cannot fully contain African wild dog packs, leading to clashes with humans (2). Preventing persecution through education is also a priority of the conservation action plan (2) (4), in an effort to preserve this most intriguing and unique canid.

More information on the conservation of the African wild dog:

Authenticated (30/03/05) by Claudio Sillero and Gregory Rasmussen, IUCN/SSC Canid Specialist Group.

  1. IUCN Red List (November, 2008)
  2. Sillero-Zubiri, C., Hoffmann, M. and Macdonald, D.W. (2004) Canids: Foxes, Wolves, Jackals and Dogs: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. IUCN/SSC Canid Specialist Group, IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK.
  3. Painted Dog Project (March, 2005)
  4. Woodroffe, R., Ginsberg, J.R. and Macdonald, D.W. (1997) The African Wild Dog: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. IUCN/SSC Canid Specialist Group, IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK.
  5. Creel, S., Mills, M.G.L. and McNutt, J.W. (2004) Demography and population dynamics of African wild dogs in three critical populations. In: Macdonald, D.W. and Sillero-Zubiri, C. (Eds.) The Biology and Conservation of Wild Canids. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  6. Creel, S.R. and Creel, N.M. (2002) The African Wild Dog: Behavior, Ecology and Conservation. Princeton University Press, New Jersey.