African wild dogs or painted dogs or painted dogs are just a few of the names given to these fascinating animals. In the article below Nicholas Dyer explores how this severely endangered species have suffered from the names they have been given and might be saved by being given a name that causes a more positive reaction from humans.
What’s in a name? Dogs or wolves, painted or wild
Posted in African Geographic on November 23, 2018 by Nicholas Dyer
GUEST POST by Nicholas Dyer
“Lycaon pictus has many names in English. Among them are ‘African wild dog’, ‘wild dog’, ‘painted dog’, ‘Cape hunting dog’, ‘African hunting dog’, ‘hyena dog’, ‘ornate wolf’ and ‘painted wolf’.
It seems somewhat ironic that so many names have been given to this creature when so few are left on our planet.
Indeed, some argue vehemently that ‘African wild dog’ is correct and others’ painted dog’, and increasingly the name ‘painted wolf’ has its fans. But are any of these correct, does it matter, and what is the background to Lycaon pictus’ many English names?
To stay on neutral ground (for the moment) I will refer to Lycaon pictus as ‘Lycaon’ throughout this article.
First, where did Lycaon’s scientific name came from? When Lycaon was first ‘discovered’ in 1820, it was thought to be a type of hyena and given the name Hyaena picta by Dutch zoologist, Coenraad Temminck. But he was wrong.
Seven years later, the British anatomist and naturalist Joshua Brookes established that the animal was a Canid, and Lycaon gained its current scientific name, Lycaon pictus.
These two distinguished gentlemen did not really discover anything, as the Lycaon has been around for longer than we Homo sapiens and they were indeed not the first humans to see them.
The word ‘Lycaon’ has its origins in Greek mythology. Lycaon was the King of Arcadia who decided to test Zeus’ omniscience by serving up the roasted flesh of his son to see if he would notice. Zeus did notice and, understandably annoyed, turned Lycaon into a wolf and restored his son to life.
So the best translation for Lycaon is ‘wolf-like’. And pictus is simply the Latin for ‘painted’. Hence ‘painted wolf.’
Dog or Wolf?
So is Lycaon a dog or a wolf? Well, in fact, it is neither, although one could just about say it is closer to a wolf than a dog. This is because all of our domestic dogs are descendants of the Eurasian wolf (Canis lupus), including our great dane and beloved chihuahua.
From a scientific standpoint, they are all in the same family known as Canidae. Within this, there are two relevant branches (or genus) to look at here – Canis and Lycaon.
In the genus Canis (which means dog in Latin) exist the wolves and their descendants – our domestic dogs. Canis also includes the coyote (Canis latrans), dingo (Canis lupos dingo), and the highly endangered Ethiopian wolf (Canis simensis). And while phylogenetically different, Canis includes all jackals (Canis adustus, aureus and mesomelas).
Meanwhile, our Lycaon pictus is alone in its own genus called… Lycaon. The species is only very distantly related to a wolf or a dog, and there is no chance that you could interbreed a Lycaon and a Canis.
Indeed, while they share many physical characteristics, there are significant differences too. Lycaon only has four toes on its front feet and does not have a dewclaw. Also, its dentition is completely different from a wolf or a dog.
So, to call Lycaon’ dog’ or ‘wolf’ is not correct from the perspective of either taxonomy or phylogenetics.
A History of Hate
Some argue that the name ‘dog’ has been detrimental to the species. For over 100 years, Lycaon has been terribly persecuted by man, reducing their numbers from 500,000 to 6,600 in less than a century.
They were considered vermin by European settlers anxious to recreate their European farming systems across Africa. Ignorant farmers highly exaggerated Lycaon’s threat to livestock and a systematic programme of extermination was carried out through much of southern Africa.
In Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), a five-shilling reward was introduced in 1916 for proof of destroying a Lycaon, and the bounty was increased periodically until it was finally abolished as recently as 1977.
Many argue the name ‘wild dog’ denigrated Lycaon to a dangerous feral animal, a mundane creature of no interest to anybody and certainly not worth conserving. Rhodesian farming journals are littered with suggestions on how best to exterminate the beleaguered creature.
Indeed, when I tell people that I spend most of my time following three packs of ‘wild dogs’ on foot, I am regularly faced with two questions. “What breed of dog is it?” and “Are they mongrels that have escaped from villages and gone wild?” And many of these questions come from people who live in Africa!
Given this, it is understandable why some argue that the name ‘dog’ has played its part in hastening them towards extinction.
In many ways, Lycaon has already gone through a rebrand. From being considered vermin, a small but increasing number of people are getting to know the species, and while not yet up there with the Big 5, Lycaon is among the top attractions for safari-goers.
And these new aficionados see them for what they are. Fantastic hunters, yes, but more importantly, incredibly social animals that demonstrate fun and loving interactions inside their intricate packs.
From my past career in marketing, I ask myself whether the word ‘wolf’ would be more appealing to the millions yet to discover them and would this, in turn, support their conservation?
There is undoubtedly a considerable revival across Europe and America supporting the conservation of their native wolves. Increasingly, they are no longer demonised but better understood and welcomed as Europe and America’ re-wild’. Could the rapidly improving associations around the name ‘wolf’ help Lycaon?
I am not the only person to think so. Sir Richard Branson recently wrote about Lycaon:
“One of the reasons their numbers plummeted alarmingly was because people thought of them as vermin. They were known as wild dogs, and this name helped to cast a negative light on them.
“As somebody who has always been interested in branding and marketing, if we could get everybody to call them painted wolves, it would make quite the difference to their reputation, and therefore their survival. Many people have begun to realise the beauty of them, and their numbers have grown back. Long may it continue.”
Sir Richard Branson
The erstwhile named simian fox (Canis semensis) was also known as the simian jackal, red fox, Abyssinian wolf and Abyssinian dog. It faces similar threats to Lycaon and is Africa’s most endangered carnivore. In this case, the much closer genetic relationship to domestic dogs increased the risks of hybridisation as there has been clear evidence of interbreeding between the species.
A concerted effort to ‘re-brand’ the creature to the ‘Ethiopian wolf’ has played a significant role in bringing this beleaguered creature to the world’s attention and improving support from conservationists and researchers alike.
Somehow, the name ‘wolf’ conjures something more special, wild and vulnerable than ‘dog’.
The Attenborough Effect
In Sir David Attenborough’s new epic documentary series Dynasties, the BBC spent two years filming Lycaon in Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe. Their film features the same packs that are in my book Painted Wolves: A Wild Dog’s Life. I spent many days and hours photographing Lycaon alongside the talented BBC team.
I also spent many hours discussing Lycaon’s name with the film’s producer, Nick Lyon. To us, it became apparent that choosing the name ‘painted wolf’ had considerable advantages, having quietly debated many of the arguments in front of our cameras and peacefully sleeping Lycaon.
This is not the same as trying to rename the lion or the elephant. Painted wolf is already one of the many accepted English names for Lycaon. And we should recognise that this creature is almost totally unknown by any name in the wider world, barring a small band of safari-goers and conservationists.
The BBC is now about to bring this incredible creature into the living rooms of an estimated billion people who don’t know they exist, let alone what they should be called. But they are about to discover them and fall in love with them as the ‘painted wolf’.
What’s the Objection?
Perhaps what is most surprising to me is the reaction I get when I call Lycaon the painted wolf. It ranges from “It’s not a wolf, it’s a dog!” to the furious, adamant and hostile. More mentally agile people are interested in the reasons and happy to engage in the debate with their points of view.
Scientists and conservationists legitimately worry that fragmenting the name undermines their efforts to increase awareness of the species and raise funds for research and conservation. This fear is very understandable. They have put in a lot of time and effort to build awareness of the species, and their concerns should be respected.
Yet, here again, there is no unanimous agreement. On one side, some feel everyone has settled on ‘African wild dog’ as the correct name. Yet there are others, who would insist that the name is and should be ‘painted dog.’
So to claim, as some might, that there exists a unanimously agreed English name for Lycaon is not correct. While I believe there are strong arguments for using ‘painted wolf’ as a legitimate alternative, I also accept that it is vitally important to link this name to what scientists and conservationists prefer to call them; whether wild or painted dog.
Regardless of everyone’s views, the reality is that Sir David Attenborough, beloved and trusted worldwide, will enter people’s homes in just under two weeks and call these creatures’ painted wolves.’ He will reach a substantial worldwide audience previously oblivious to their existence.
This is one reason why I have formed the Painted Wolf Foundation together with the well-known Lycaon conservationist Peter Blinston and leading African wildlife conservationist Diane Skinner.
Peter runs the well-established and respected Painted Dog Conservation, responsible for Lycaon’s welfare in Hwange and Mana Pools National Parks in Zimbabwe. He is also the co-author of our book Painted Wolves: A Wild Dog’s Life.
The objective of the Painted Wolf Foundation is to raise the awareness of Lycaon worldwide and raise funds for those organisations working to conserve the species across Africa. There is no universal organisation raising funds or awareness under the banner “Painted Wolf”, and it is a critical opportunity to capture the interest that is building for this neglected Lycaon.
A Success Story
The Painted Wolf Foundation has the support of many’ wild dog’ and ‘painted dog’ conservation organisations who fully understand the rationale of using the painted wolf name, and we hope to support them in turn.
We have also received tremendous help from major wildlife conservation organisations around the world, including WCN, Tusk, the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation and Virgin Unite. Each provides critical support to Lycaon and don’t refer to them as wolves. But they do understand and support our strategy.
And last year I visited the International Wolf Centre in Minnesota which has embraced our efforts to save their wolves’ distant African cousins, and they have used their substantial networks to promote our work and raise Lycaon’s awareness.
So far, our efforts have raised a total of US$200,000 using the painted wolf name. We do not intend to cannibalise donations from existing wild and painted dog donors, but know that we can find new support from those who fall in love with this creature thanks to our awareness programme, my articles and pictures, our book and of course the BBC film.
As far as we are concerned at the Painted Wolf Foundation, we are not DOGmatic about what people choose to call Lycaon, but we have firmly sided with the name painted wolf for all the reasons discussed. Indeed, Painted Dog Conservation is not going to rebrand, and neither is the African Wildlife Conservation Fund going to stop calling them African wild dogs. Yet we can, and do, all work well together.
This is because we all recognise that the threat to Lycaon is serious and goes well beyond what people call them. Snaring, disease, road kills and shrinking rangelands are Lycaon’s real threats. Their name is at best, a side-show.
The Painted Wolf Foundation has a primary aim – to put Lycaon on the top table of conservation along with the elephant, rhino and lion. It’s where they belong, and the name that’s on their invite is our least concern.
Finally, it should also be remembered that this whole debate is what we call them in English. The Germans and Dutch call them ‘hyena hounds’ while the French and Spanish refer to them as Lycaon.
And let’s not forget the multiple names they have in local African languages whose names for Lycaon go back to before we English speakers even knew that they existed. This concept has been beautifully illustrated in Lin Barrie’s incredible work of art, “What’s in a name?…”
And to complete Juliet’s quote from Shakespeare’s play: “…that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
Not that I have ever come across a sweet-smelling painted wolf.”
The following FAQs about Painted dogs come from the website of Painted Dog Conservation, https://www.painteddog.org/. Do yourself a favour and browse this website for a great deal of information about this species but also about how this organisation is tackling protection and rehabilitation of painted dogs in a variety of different creative ways.
FAQs about the painted dogs
Q. IS THE ALPHA MALE THE BIGGEST MOST AGGRESSIVE DOG?
A. No the best word you can use to describe the alpha male (and female) is personality. They are born leaders and it’s this characteristic that makes them an alpha.
Q. WHO IS THE TOP DOG IN THE PACK?
A. The alpha female is the top dog. The rest of the pack support her and provide for her pups.
Q. CAN PAINTED DOGS BREED WITH DOMESTIC DOGS?
A. No they are too genetically distinct from domestic dogs, rather like human beings and baboons!
Q. IS A PAINTED DOG THE SAME AS A WILD DOG?
A. Yes. We like to use painted dog as the common name but the species has been given many common names, such as Cape Hunting Dog, Painted Wolf, African Wild Dog, or Wild Dog.
Q. FOR HOW MANY YEARS DO PAINTED DOGS LIVE?
A. 7-9 years of age is typical in the wild, though with the threats of snares its unusual for us to see a 9 year old dog. In areas such as Mana Pools, where there are no snares, then the alpha females can live to 11 or 12 years.
Q. DO PAINTED DOGS ATTACK PEOPLE?
A. No. There has never been a case of painted dogs attacking people in the wild.
Q. HOW MANY PAINTED DOGS ARE LEFT? ARE THEY ENDANGERED?
A. Sadly, yes, very much so. Fewer than 7,000 painted dogs are left in Africa. They have disappeared from most of the countries in which they previously existed. Painted dogs are one of the most endangered animals in the wild.
Q. HOW MANY DOGS ARE THERE LIVING IN HWANGE NATIONAL PARK?
A. Hwange is one the last strongholds of painted dog population in Zimbabwe and Africa, with a total number of individuals upwards of 160 — and rising, thanks to conservation efforts of PDC.
Q. WHAT DO THE DOGS EAT – BOTH AT THE REHAB CENTRE AND IN THE WILD?
A. At the rehab centre we feed them cow and goat meat. In the wild, painted dogs’ especially enjoy duiker, kudu, and impala, and these make up 80% of their diet. Painted dogs are carnivores, meaning they only eat meat. They do not scavenge for food as hyenas do.
Q. TELL ME MORE ABOUT WHAT THE DOGS LOOK, SOUND, AND SMELL LIKE!
A. Painted dogs have a strong musky odour, which is emitted from their entire body. They have beautiful, large, rounded, erect ears — this gives them a very acute sense of hearing. They only have four toes, unlike pet dogs which have a fifth toe (painted dogs are not related to domestic dogs). They also have different calls, some of which sound like birds. The most well known call is the “HOO” call, which can be heard from many kilometres away.
Q. WHAT’S THE GESTATION PERIOD FOR A PAINTED DOG?
A. Painted dogs breed at the coldest time of the year which is typically May/June in Zimbabwe. After 69 to 72 days of gestation, the female pack leader, also known as the alpha female, gives birth to her pups.
HOW BIG ARE THEIR LITTERS?
Normally, only the leading female of the pack, also known as the alpha female, has pups — she can give birth to one litter of 2 to 18 pups.
HOW LONG DO PUPS STAY WITH THEIR PARENTS?
The alpha female gives birth in a den — a hole — to provide the pups with shelter and safety. The pups suckle for three to five weeks but after three weeks they start to eat solid food as well which the pack members regurgitate on demand. When the pups are about 12 weeks old, they will leave the den and follow the pack. At the age of two to three years the pups will leave the pack to form their own pack with other dogs from another pack and have pups themselves.
Q. ARE THEY A KIND OF HYENA? THEY LOOK VERY SIMILAR.
A. No, although the two are often confused. The social structure, behaviour, and taxonomy of the two are very different. In fact, hyenas are more closely related to cats and mongooses than dogs. However, the two do come into contact; hyenas (and lions) try to steal food from the painted dogs, which then go hungry. Lions do not only try to steal food, they also kill adult dogs and their pups. Painted dogs eat very quickly so that other animals can’t steal their food — they can finish an impala in less than 10 minutes! The dogs share a kill without fighting, and pups always feed first.
Q. DO THE DOGS STEAL LIVESTOCK FROM FARMERS?
A. No — the dogs prefer their natural food like impala, kudu, and duiker over cattle and goats. However, farmers do still shoot the dogs. We’re working hard to change this cultural perception and help farmers and wild dogs live together harmoniously.
Q. HOW FAST CAN THE DOGS RUN?
A. When they go hunting they can reach speeds of up to 65 kilometres (40 miles) per hour when chasing their prey!
Q. ARE THEY DIURNAL OR NOCTURNAL?
A. Painted dogs are mainly active during the daytime. They usually hunt early in the morning or late in the afternoon. During the heat of the day they will rest in a cool and shady place.
Q. WHERE DO PAINTED DOGS LIVE?
A. Painted dogs used to be widely distributed; today they are only found in Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Botswana, and South Africa. Fewer than 700 dogs are left in Zimbabwe. Most of the Zimbabwean painted dogs live around Hwange National Park, the Zambezi Valley, and Gonarezhou. The dogs are not seen repeatedly in one place because they are nomadic; they have a home range as large as 750 square kilometres (466 square miles), and can cover 30 kilometres (about 19 miles) in a single day. The dogs live in groups called packs. Though packs can have as many as 49 members, because of poaching, only much smaller packs are seen.
FAQs about Painted Dog Conservation (PDC)
Q. HOW LONG HAS PDC BEEN HELPING PAINTED DOGS?
A. Painted Dog Conservation (PDC) was founded in 1992. The aim of this project is to protect the painted dogs, also known as African wild dog, through action and education — this is even more crucial now, as the painted dog is facing extinction.
Q. HOW DO YOU IDENTIFY SPECIFIC DOGS IN THE FIELD?
A. No two dogs have the same coat pattern, which makes it easy to identify them. What they do all have is tan markings with a black stripe on their head and a white patch at the end of their tail.
Q. I CANNOT HELP IN PERSON AND AM UNABLE TO MAKE A DONATION, IS THERE ANY WAY IN WHICH I CAN HELP?
A. PDC tries to inform as many people as possible about the dogs. You can help simply by telling other people that painted dogs are endangered and facing extinction, and helping us spread the message. Follow us on our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram platforms and/or subscribe to our newsletter to get the latest news and share.
Q. HOW EFFECTIVE ARE THE COLLARS YOU USE, AND HOW MUCH DO THEY COST?
A. The Painted Dog Conservation project monitors the movement and number of packs. To follow the dogs, we fit them with protective retro-reflective collars. These VHF collars help us to efficiently and effectively monitor the dogs and locate them when responding to emergencies. A single collar costs about $800.
Q. HOW ARE POACHERS PUNISHED?
A. When our anti-poaching units catch poachers either in the field or by means of a tip-off, they effect a citizen arrest and hand the individual/s over to the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP). The police then proceed to make the formal charge that leads to prosecution and conviction.
Q. CAN I SEE THE DOGS AT YOUR REHABILITATION CENTRE?
A. Yes, if there are any at the given moment.
Q. HOW MANY DOGS ARE AT THE REHAB CENTRE?
A. We cannot guarantee that any number of dogs will be present at the Rehabilitation Centre. We don’t intend to keep dogs there longer than needed; they are brought in for specific treatment that we cannot give them in the wild — hence the need to bring them in — but we release dogs back into the wild as soon as they recover, and as soon as possible.
Q. WHEN CAN I VISIT EITHER THE PDC REHAB FACILITY OR VISITOR CENTRE? WHEN ARE THEY OPEN?
A. Our Visitor Center is open 7 days a week from 8am-5pm. Anyone is welcome to walk in and learn about the dogs and the Hwange ecosystem under the guidance of a knowledgeable and experienced tour guide.
Q. DO YOU OFFER GAME DRIVES TO GO AND SEE THE DOGS IN THE WILD?
A. We don’t offer these since we are a conservation organisation and not a tour operator; however our supporters and donors are offered the opportunity to go tracking for the dogs with our research team whenever they are in Zimbabwe. For more information on this please contact us on email@example.com.
Q. WHY DO POACHERS KILL THE DOGS?
A. Unfortunately there are some people in Africa who illegally poach wild animals. Painted dogs get caught in their traps and snares and die a cruel and horrible death.
Painted dogs are incidental victims of these snaring/poaching activities. Poachers intend to kill antelopes, buffalos, and other wild animals either to feed themselves or to sell the meat and make money. The dogs also get caught in these traps and snares — hence our anti-poaching unit, which is dedicated to finding and removing the snares in the bush (and where possible arrest the perpetrators to prevent it from happening again).
Q. WHY DO YOU CAPTURE THE DOGS? DO YOU KEEP THEM PERMANENTLY AT YOUR REHAB CENTRE?
A. When a dog is badly injured, we capture it and take care of it at our Rehabilitation Centre until it has recovered, then we release it back into the wild. We never keep a dog longer than needed and aim to release each and every dog as soon as we can. Sometimes, a dog’s injuries are simply too great or complex for us to treat them in the field.
Q. I THINK I SPOTTED A PAINTED DOG! WHAT SHOULD I DO?
A. If you are lucky and see painted dogs please report this to Painted Dog Conservation via email on firstname.lastname@example.org or via any of our social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) or in person at our Visitors Center.
“Painted dogs are so easy to fall in love with, just one encounter is enough to change your life forever.”
— PETER BLINSTON- PDC EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR