In the heart of Botswana’s Okavango delta lies a gem of nature – a place teeming with game and a huge abundance of predators – lions, leopards, hyenas. Once there were plenty of wild dogs living here, but with such fierce competition from other predators their numbers decreased until only one small pack – two males and a female remained. Then, the two male wild dogs disappeared – most likely victims of the ever-increasing population of lions. The female wild dog was left all alone to fend for herself in a hostile world. Her name is Solo. For the first six months, Solo wandered the park hunting by herself, avoiding the fearsome predators which would kill her given half a chance.
Wild dogs are team players, born to run with the pack, but now Solo was all by herself. Solo eventually gave up calling for her missing mates, and observers assumed she would wander away in search of new ones. But instead, Solo settled on the island of Mombo and started behaving in a very surprising way. She made friends with young spotted hyenas. As if this wasn’t unusual enough, Solo began associating with several families of black-backed jackals. It seems her instinctive desire to be part of a pack was driving her behavior.
It may appear improbable for a wild dog to form such a close bond with hyenas and jackals, but this relationship works and brings benefits to each of them. Solo is a superb hunter and regularly chases down impala. But now instead of hunting with a pack of dogs, Solo is accompanied on her hunts by her motley pack of hyenas and jackals. Her friends get a reliable supply of food courtesy of Solo. They in turn help warn Solo of approaching lions that would otherwise try to kill her. So close is Solo to her hyena friends that when she comes into estrous she even presents herself to them for mating.
But it’s Solo’s relationship with the jackals that is most surprising. Over the last few years, Solo has helped the jackals raise their pups, frequently regurgitating food to them just as she would her own pups. At first the adult jackals were wary of this strange interloper and tried to chase Solo off by biting and attacking her. But once she started feeding the pups, the jackals accepted her. Now Solo often spends the day resting close together with the jackals and the pups have grown extremely close to her. Spending so much time with the jackals has its benefits for Solo’s favorite food, impala, do not seem to recognize the danger as long as she is among her jackal friends. Often the impala venture unwittingly close, making it easier for Solo to catch them.
As the dry season sets in, rain pools on the island of Mombo dry out — forcing the animals to wander away to the edge of the swamp. Solo is now forced to leave her jackal family and home and go in search of food. In doing so, she comes across a new family of jackals with tiny pups. So strong is her desire for her own offspring that Solo kidnaps the young pups, preventing the parents from getting near to them. The adult jackals may be traumatized, but the pups love Solo for she feeds, grooms, and protects them; even chasing away her old hyena friends that wander dangerously close. Living in a land of lions, Solo benefits from her friendships as the jackals are forever alert to approaching danger. But when a pack of wild dogs suddenly appear, Solo has to make a choice – to stay with her adopted family or join her own kind.
Tune in to A Wild Dog’s Tale this Sunday at 9P on Nat Geo WILD