Large carnivores don't tend to be on friendly terms with one another.
That basically universal truth was on display recently in a remote corner of Mana Pools National Park in northern Zimbabwe. Three safari guides with African Bush Camps and some of their guests witnessed a lioness kill a young African wild dog near Kanga Pan.
The big cat's attack was brazen: the lioness stalked close to a large pack of wild dogs in heavy woodland, then charged right into their midst. As the dogs scattered, the lioness snatched a part-grown pup and loped off with it dangling from her jaws.
In a video released by African Bush Camps, all three guides expressed their amazement at the spectacle: something none of them had seen in decades of collective experience in the bush.
Rare as it is for people to actually see a violent drama like this play out, there's certainly precedent for it. As the biggest terrestrial carnivore in Africa (and a social one at that), the lion's at the top of the predator pecking order. Looking to cut down on the competition, lions readily kill spotted hyenas, leopards, cheetahs – and, yes, wild dogs, which in many areas are the least abundant large carnivore to begin with.
Wild dogs are mainly hunters of small to midsized antelope such as impala, but they'll try their luck with animals as large as wildebeest and zebra. That means, diet-wise, they overlap more with spotted hyenas than with lions. The cackling carnivores are notorious kleptoparasites of wild dogs, sometimes trailing a hunting pack and then attempting to drive it off the kill (they have good reason to shadow the dogs, which have a famously high hunting success rate).
One-on-one, wild dogs aren't much of a match for a burly, bone-crushing hyena, but a large pack is quite capable of defending its spoils. Showing off the same well-oiled coordination they use so effectively to hunt, wild dogs in a team can impressively gang up on a hyena or two – and even square off against a small clan, as this footage from Kruger National Park shows:
As the Mana Pools incident demonstrates, lions are a much more serious threat. Rather than merely stealing their kills, the big cats often take down the dogs themselves. In 2014, a dramatic series of photographs from Sabi Sands Game Reserve in South Africa showed lions ambushing a pack of dogs as they forded a river, and killing the alpha male.
Indeed, lion predation in some regions is a leading cause of natural mortality for the endangered wild dogs. A 2014 study in South Africa's Hluhluwe-iMfolozi National Park showed that packs did their best to avoid areas where lions roam, and where territories overlapped, the dogs would emerge at different times of the day to steer clear of the big cats.
Interesting research from Botswana's Okavango Delta suggests lions will actively "eavesdrop" on wild dogs. Researchers played recordings of wild-dog twittering to groups of lions and spotted hyenas. Lions almost invariably headed for the direction of the playback; hyenas were less likely to do so. Intriguingly, lion groups with males also readily approached the sounds of whooping hyenas, while groups with only lionesses usually didn't, perhaps judging a tangle with a hyena clan too risky without the size and strength of male lions in the mix. In the case of the wild-dog chatter, by contrast, lions followed up regardless of whether males were present.
But do wild dogs ever turn the tables on lions? Probably not very often, but under certain circumstances – an injured or ailing lion, or one caught alone by a very large pack – it does happen. In his classic 1972 monograph The Serengeti Lion, field biologist George Schaller notes a few instances, including one in which eight wild dogs killed an adult male lion after a lengthy fight.
Between murderous lions and thieving hyenas (not to mention habitat loss, diseases like canine distemper, and a long history of persecution by humans), it sure ain't easy being a wild dog out there.
Top header image: Marie and Alistair Knock, Flickr