Painted wolves are notoriously elusive and have a vast home range, so seeing them isn’t always easy. The best time for sightings is after they’ve denned, when the pups come out and the pack stays close to home, usually between August and early November.
Even if you don’t spot one, you’ll still learn a lot about them. Thomas Mutonhori, a ranger and researcher for the Zimbabwean NGO Painted Dog Conservation, joined us for dinner at Nyamatusi, giving guests a fascinating insight into his work.
Mana is currently home to seven packs, some of which are collared for closer research purposes. Thomas had named our three sisters as pups – Poet apparently has a P-shaped marking on her back, Tray has a pattern like a tray and Lylie was named after a friend.
The remnant of Blacktip’s pack were still together, with most of last year’s pups surviving. But, following her death, Mana’s painted wolf population is in flux.
New packs might wander outside the safety of the park, so Thomas is researching the tolerance of nearby communities. However, lions and hyena are still the biggest threat that they face.
Driving into camp that evening, Thomas had seen our Three Degrees heading in Nyamatusi’s direction – but those grumpy lions were still around, too. I spent a nervous night wondering if something terrible might have happened to them.
On our last morning, Nick had a hunch our wolves might be further east in the Nyamatusi area, where their aunt Tammy had denned two years ago. They were moving on quickly, however, so the chances
of seeing them would be slim.
We walked through woodlands of cathedral mopane and baobabs, and through dense ‘jesse’, a thick bush where branches flick in your face and you can’t see elephants lurking. But the baked earth finally revealed wolf tracks, heading towards the dry Mbera II riverbed.
Then we saw the sisters walking along the sand river, their white tails flicking away the flies. We moved closer, eventually crawling along
the sand and lying on our tummies behind a fallen log with our Three Degrees just ten metres away.
Poet was on her own again, Tray and Lylie curled up together. Tray’s collar was covered in fresh red blood.
Poet raised her head and, for a moment, looked directly at me. Her spirit and charisma; her boldness and beauty shone through.
“She’s on an incredible journey,” Nick said, as if reading what was going through my mind. “Her future’s uncertain, but she’s strong.”
Then Lylie went back onto the bush Tinder, weeing around to leave her scent and narrowly missing Poet. As if to say sorry, she nuzzled her older sister and they started to play, a bundle of fur and fun rolling around together in the sand.
While we watched them for the last time, I pondered their future, hoping that their constant advertising for males would eventually pay off and form a strong pack with a new generation of pups. And perhaps Poet would continue the dynasty as their alpha female, as formidable and successful as Blacktip, her now famous late mum.