An African wild dog teasing a large spotted hyena. Scan of a slide taken in December 1998. South of Lower Sabie, Kruger National Park, Mpumalanga, South Africa.
Painted wolves. They were the most successful hunters on the savannah. Their success was such as to outstrip competitors who received greater veneration, more applause. They were nobody’s symbol, unlike the lions, who could really only claim success ten percent of the time. Eight out of every ten times they went hunting, painted wolves were successful.
Packs are important on the savannah. It is a wild place, after all. Not only are there other predators, but the scrub itself carries other risks. The young are protected in such packs, and there is a clear hierarchy. For the longest time, the success of the wild dogs, these painted wolves, was masked by the fetish for feline hunters.
The cats got the glory, some of the painted wolves muttered in their deliberations. Just as they needed agreement on when to hunt, and how, they felt the relationship with this image problem ought to be a collective concern. If painted wolves could only hunt by collective agreement signalled by sneezing, and thus voting in favour of the sortie, it became clear that dealing with the unflattering comparisons the image of lions and leopards called forth also needed group input.
Hierarchy was inconvenient, of course, despite what the lore said of order and ordering in the pack. Rebellion was a form of pack suicide, the older wild dogs knew, but the adolescent pups were insistent. Things had to change. If they were the most successful, why were lions and leopards lauded as regal? Why was their success obscured by the speed of the cheetah? No, they insisted, things had to change.
As is the wont of rebels, some of the painted wolves wandered off to make their own deliberations. They were clear that leadership had to change. Their discontent was vocal, their ire at the injustice of appeals that they listen to reason unmistakable. It was so voluble that they barely noticed the snigger of a hyena nearby. By the time they began to plot how to change the dynamics in the wild dog pack to get their way, the hyena could no longer contain its mirth.
The dogs confronted the hyena, demanding to know what was so funny. Hyenas, known for the success with which they steal the spoils of other predators on the savannah, were also pack animals. They had long envied the painted wolves their success, and this hyena saw an opportunity to foment further discontent among these rebels. Yes, he agreed, it was unfair that the lions were considered regal and lethal, despite their poor performance. And indeed, it was an injustice that the speed of a cheetah or the mere fact of having a spotted pelt should elevate the leopard above such masterful hunters.
In a process, or a series of processes that is still obscure to most who look back into the not so dark back of not so distant times, the hyena infiltrated the renegade wild dog pack. And of course, because hyenas are also pack animals, he brought some of his own kind along, convincing the rebel wild dogs that they would be valuable. But the rebels remained members of the original pack of painted wolves, and by some stealthy process, that pack incorporated the hyenas.
Hybridity, some of the original wild dogs felt, was good. There were things to be learned from these new quadrupeds. Despite their sagging hind-quarters, and those irritating laughs, they had some valid points, some insisted. And look, the sceptics were told, the success rate for hunts had not really declined.
But there were some vigilant she-dogs who were less convinced. They had had to rebuff the inappropriate attentions of the hyenas, who laughed and said they were only joking. Also, they saw the inappropriate role models the hyenas became for the pups. Order could be abandoned, and increasingly was, for the sake of expedience. The wants of the individual were superimposed on the needs of the pack. This could not end well.
But the alpha dog was tired of the squabbles, and also, had been injured in a terrible battle with a pack of lions which some wild dogs said had been orchestrated by the hyenas. They were not good for the pack, some muttered and sneezed. Change was needed, back to an older way of being, a more authentic way of being wild dogs, those most successful hunters of the savannah. The old alpha dog wandered off into the scrub one night, as he was wont to do on occasion, and that was the last the pack saw of him.
New leadership, new times. It was not quite as obscene as choosing a hyena to lead, but the new alpha wild dog was rather close to the hyenas, and seemed to place an inordinate amount of trust in their advice. Some among the pack had begun to notice that the hyenas were not really good at hunting, or not as good as they were. They were content to run alongside the pack, but were not really involved in the actual kill. Also, they tended to bully the younger wild dogs during the voting-sneezing phase. And worst, they were first to grab and stuff their gullets, not sharing the way older dogs did with pups.
The catastrophe, of course, was the decline in the success rate. The sharp decline could not be ignored. Whereas there was a time when eight out of every ten hunts bore results, it had now been some time since they could even guarantee a kill on six of those ten forays onto the savannah. Still, pups had to be fed, and these were in no shorter supply than before. During the last season only half of the hunts brought enough meat for everyone.
The lions were still praised. The leopard lazed unconcerned in the tree. And the cheetah was no less swift in its sprints. As for the hyenas, true to their nature, they saw the light, or in this case, the twilight of the good time they had had with the wild dogs, and quietly one evening, slipped away. The wild dogs were once more a pack of painted wolves only, but much reduced in skill.
And then the marabou stork brought news from across the horizon: fences were going up, the climate was changing, and the world of the painted wolves was about to become much smaller. The good times were over, and there seemed little hope of their return in time to save the pack from its own folly. And nightly the pack could hear the distant laughter of the hyenas, who had got away, and had a new plan to ensure their survival.