Many people believe that the oldest living descendants of dogs are wolves. Though these people are not entirely incorrect, as the domesticated dog did evolve from wolves, they are missing a key point in the evolutionary chain. Dogs evolved from wolves, but what did wolves evolve from?
To our surprise, there are canines on this planet who have been around longer than wolves by tens of millions of years. Not only is this species more ancient, but it has remained unchanged for millions of years.
These dogs are the Wild Dogs, or Painted Dogs, of Africa.
The Origin Of The Painted Dog
The African painted dog’s ancestry can be traced back to 40 million years ago. The first original canine – Miacis – which resembles something that looks like a cross between a cat and a weasel, is a direct ancestor of the African painted dog. There were two other evolutions of the Miacis before the African Painted Dog, called Daphaenus and Cynodictus. These canines became what we know today as bears, civets, dholes, South American bush dogs, and the African wild dog – Lycaon Pictus. From these creatures came wolves, dogs, foxes, and fennecs.
To this date, the African Painted Dog remains the oldest, unaltered species of canine. Peter Blinston, Managing Director of Painted Dog Conservation, knows this fact all too well.
Painted Dogs have no close relatives.
Life In The Wild
The majority of African painted dogs are currently residing in Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Tanzania.
In the wild, African painted dogs live in packs. They are family dogs, who follow a very strict hierarchy system. For example, when the alpha male passes away, it is not the next strongest pack member who takes control. Only a direct descendant of the alpha will lead the pack – the deceased alpha’s son. Packs range from couples to groups of 30 dogs.
In Martin Clune’s documentary “A Man and His Dogs: Part II,” Clune visits an African dog conservation center. This is where he discovers the dogs’ true nature, and how they differ so greatly from the domesticated dogs we know as pets. As an older female attempted to join the young pack, recently released from captivity, she was immediately attacked. The dogs began to kill her as Martin Clune watched in horror.
There’s nothing stronger than the pack.
Luckily, the conservation officer broke up the fight, and later brought the old female back into captivity for “retirement.”
Living Among Humans
African painted dogs have lived alongside humans for thousands of years. However, they have never been domesticated. The average painted dog will do anything, at all costs, to avoid human contact. They are private creatures, who have no interest in living the life of a house pet. To them, humans are merely “in the way.” On the other hand, humans have respected and sometimes worshiped the African painted dog for years.
One story has it that the dog tamed man – not the other way around.
Unfortunately, the ignorance of humans is the silent killer of the African painted dog. More often than not, dogs are found tangled in snares, trapped in wire set out for hunting, or hit by negligent drivers. Poachers are the worst killers when considering the African painted dogs, as the animals are often considered a “nuisance” to farmers and villagers.
The African painted dog may be the oldest living canine on the planet, but their numbers concern conservationists that the dogs may not be around much longer. With less than 5,000 in all of Africa, we may see the end of the African painted dog in our lifetime.
The Painted Dog Conservation in Zimbabwe is a source of the dog’s largest protection service. This organization dedicates their work to preserving and protecting the species. They have enlisted the help of Anti-Poaching Units, who traverse the plains and forests for traps set by poachers, or signs of hunting within the region.
The Painted Dog Conservation also tracks and monitors packs, to ensure that they are safe, and to monitor the number of painted dogs in the wild. Packs are radio collared to monitor behavior patterns, hunting success, and cause of mortality.
As well as an Anti-Poaching Unit and pack monitoring, the Painted Dog Conservation has a rehabilitation center for injured or sick dogs, and a program that focuses on reintroducing them to the wild. No dogs are kept in captivity longer than needed. While in rehabilitation, the dogs serve as educational tools for the Painted Dog Conservation’s Community Outreach, and Children’s Bush Camp programs.
Community Benefit With Painted Dog Conservation
Peter Blinston, and the Painted Dog Conservation, have worked tirelessly to create education and conservation programs, in order to protect the dogs from extinction. The Painted Dog Conservation truly believes that, for the survival of the dogs, they must educate children on their integral importance.
The Children’s Bush Camp is a program in which children from nearby villages and towns are brought to the Painted Dog Conservation, and educated on the dogs. They are supplied with meals, running water, shelter, computer education, and books. Some children experience all of these “luxuries” for the first time.
It’s like Disneyland to them – it’s the highlight of their lives.
“They visit, usually for the first time in their lives, Hwange National Park on a game drive, during which the role each species of wildlife plays in its natural community is emphasized. Having learned about such vital roles, children are led to conclude that extinction is bad for the environment.
Since the program began, nearly 4,000 children’s lives have been touched, and parents are saying that their children are teaching them about what they learned at the Bush Camp, saying, “We are realizing the importance of conserving”. – Painted Dog Conservation
The Painted Dog Conservation also enlists the help of local adults, who are in need of income. Using wire snares and supplies gathered by the Anti-Poaching Unit, locals create pieces of art that are sold to help raise money for the centre. These workers are paid a fair wage, and given the opportunity to provide for their families, many of which live in poor conditions.
Thanks to the Painted Dog Conservation, hundreds of dogs have been rehabilitated, and thousands are kept safe from the dangers of poachers.
Though there are only 5,000 African painted dogs left in the wild, the species hangs on to a thread of hope. Through education and conservation, the African painted dog may survive the human race.