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  • Writer's picturePWC Team

Walk with the Dynasties Painted Wolves

Since 1997, husband and wife team – Nick and Des Murray – have been guiding in Mana Pools. Together they created what is known today as Bushlife Safaris in Mana Pools National Park, one of the most beautiful national parks in Africa.

Nick is well respected in the industry for his wealth of knowledge. He is a qualified Zimbabwean Professional Guide, one of the most prestigious game-guiding qualifications in Africa. He has worked throughout Southern Africa – spending a lot of time in Zimbabwe and travelling through Mozambique, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Tanzania. His most passionate project is the Bushlife Painted Wolf Conservancy and his specialty is Walking Safaris, which offer a very unique experience compared to the Traditional Safari.

Nick & Des' Family With  Sir David Attenborough

There’s nothing like your first encounter with a dangerous wild animal on foot: the excitement, fear and thrill of this primal experience is much more memorable than a game drive where you simply tick off the big five! Escaping the confines of your 4×4 and exploring the bush on foot opens a whole new world to what safari is all about. It gives one a new perspective of wildlife, as you, yourself, become part of it. You realise how much work it is just to stay alive in the bush, and you can feel how vulnerable animals further down the food chain feel. At any given moment they, or you, could become prey, which gives you a new sense of respect! One of the best camps in Zimbabwe to experience this is Vundu Camp, situated in the heart of Mana Pools National Park, underneath a beautiful forest of riverine trees.

Working and helping the BBC Earth crew film “Dynasties Painted Wolf” was one of the most exciting projects Nick and Des have ever worked on. With over 850 days of filming over 4 years, the crew became firm friends with each other – and the dogs! The normally very shy painted wolves started to recognise the crew and were completely relaxed, which allowed a unique insight into their behaviours and daily activities!

Nick Murray & Sir David Attenborough
Nick Murray & Sir David Attenborough

The main task for Nick and his head guide, Henry was to keep track of the painted wolves as it is a huge area that they cover. One of the most stressful times that Nick can recall is when he had to help find the den of the Vundu Pack in time for the BBC crew to return to film them…and he did it, with only 3 days to spare! Nick has spent so long tracking painted wolves that he knows the exact routes the wild dogs travel in the wet season to get around, and Nick showed the BBC crew how to navigate through tough terrains and mazes of streams and rivulets, to arrive right next to the pack!

Henry Bandure’s bush skill set is also simply phenomenal. Henry is able to look at a paw print in the sand and understand how long ago the pack had passed, by how much sand had blown into the print or by what type of tiny insect had walked through the print after it had been made. Henry could even tell which pack it was by the smell of its dung – and more amazingly he could do that whilst driving! That particular skill allowed the BBC crew to find a pack that had been lost overnight, and to get into position just in time to film one of the key moments in the whole story.

Henry Bandure & Sir David Attenborough
Henry Bandure & Sir David Attenborough

No story would be complete without its own cast and star to which Tait, one of the most “famous” painted wolf, takes center stage. There are only 6,600 painted wolves left in the world, and their numbers are decreasing. To date, 280 are from Tait’s own bloodline which is a significant contribution to the future of this endangered animal – an incredible 4% of all wild dogs are from Tait! Tait has ruled her pack uncontested for eight years in Mana Pools, where she has reared eight litters of pups. Two of her daughters now rule packs of their own and live on either side of Tait’s territory. Together they are a formidable dynasty. Nick Murray was the head guide for the episode and he has known Tait her whole life. As described by Nick Lyon, the episode producer, “Our guide, Nick Murray, has known Tait her whole life. She’s incredibly trusting of him. The fact that it was Nick who introduced us to Tait transferred her trust for Nick to us”. This becomes even more exceptional when you find out that Tait, the painted wolf, is actually named after Tait – Nick’s daughter! The Painted Wolf dynasty is definitely intertwined with the Murray family dynasty. Nick and Des named their daughter, Tait, because they wanted a short name and something memorable. Tait is from Scottish and northern English heritage, and is a nickname for a cheerful person, from an Old Norse word meaning ‘cheerful’or ‘gay.’

Tait, alpha of Vundu pack
Tait, alpha of Vundu pack

Researchers and film crews followed two packs of painted wolves for nearly two years and documented more than 170 prey kills — the vast majority of which were impala and baboon. After about a year of observation, the researchers noticed that both packs began to show a preference for baboon over the larger and more rewarding impala. Most predators in the animal kingdom know better than to go after prey that could seriously hurt them, but Africa's painted wolves don't seem too concerned about that. Baboons have surprisingly become a favourite on the menu - a primate species that's well-known for retaliating violently against its predator.

The researchers suspected that the painted wolves changed their food preference because there are fewer circumstantial risks of going after a baboon versus an impala. For example, extensive elephant movement across the floodplain during the wet season leaves large, deep footprints in the mud that, once dried, become hazardous obstacles for the painted wolves to sprint over when chasing impala at full speed. Compared to impala, baboons are relatively slow runners, so painted wolves don't have to chase a baboon far before catching it.

Painted Wolves Feast

But that doesn't mean baboons should be considered easy prey — they definitely know how to defend themselves. Photos from the researchers who were working with the BBC depict painted wolves with some gruesome baboon-battle scars due to the baboon’s sharp, 2-inch-long (5 cm) canine teeth.

When did this change of menu come about? Researchers believe that baboon hunting in these two particular wolf packs likely started around 10 years ago and came about because of the original alpha female of one of the packs. Both the painted wolf packs, the researchers studied, include descendants of the baboon-hunting female. There are five other painted wolf packs in Mana Pools National Park, and a safari guide has reported seeing one of those packs feed on a baboon. This suggests that hunting baboons is a learned behaviour that may eventually disseminate to other packs.

Mana Pools painted dogs

Painted wolves, also called African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus), are the underdogs of African carnivores. They grow up to 30 inches (75 centimeters) tall at the shoulder and weigh up to 55 lbs. (25 kilograms). Despite their gorgeous markings, adorably goofy-looking ears and charismatic behaviour, these wild canines are poorly understood and are one of the world's most endangered mammals. Although they are modest in stature, painted wolves are masterful hunters, capable of taking down swift and agile antelope and impala that are about twice their size. In the big parks they are protected, but where they range close to humans they still suffer the consequences – caught in snares or hit by vehicles. Catching diseases off domestic dogs also takes its toll. It is also important to consider that there are several other African carnivores that enjoy having impala on their menu, and wouldn't mind adding a side dish of painted wolf.

We can only hope that as a result of their new stardom, the conservation of Painted Wolves’ will become more of a talking point. We thank not only the BBC for bringing their plight to the world’s attention, but also the people who made it possible for them to film them in such a manner as to enable those far away from the wilds of Africa to understand how unique, important and significant Painted Wolves are.

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