Photography and story: Nicholas Dyer
In early November 2019, Nick Dyer led an exclusive nine-day photographic safari in Hwange and Mana Pools National Parks in search of the elusive painted wolf.
Limited to six people and staying with African Bush Camps, it was action packed from start to finish. Join the excitement day-by-day as Nick recounts this experience illustrating the story with his photographs.
Photographing painted wolves is generally extremely rewarding. Unlike other predators like lions, they are highly active animals, and what makes it so much fun is that they simply love to play.
However, I find the main challenge is that, being diurnal, painted wolves are most active in the early morning or late afternoon when there is little light. This means that, when they are charging around, I am often fighting to get a high enough shutter speed, wide enough depth of field and low enough ISO. Since all of these settings require light, I often have to sacrifice one for the other to get the best exposure.
But, sometimes, conditions are perfect.
We are approaching the Mana River just after first light. This has been made possible by the fact that our new camp is now much nearer.
“There they are!”, points Henry. Out of the thick bush trots the pack of pot-bellied painted wolves. Their hunt has obviously been successful and they are heading back to their usual spot.
We quickly step out of the vehicle and follow them on foot, keeping quiet and a respectful distance. They drop down onto the river bed and I creep forward to scout our best vantage point.
“We can quietly position ourselves on that sand bank over there.” I say. It was a perfect spot. Just far enough away so as not to cause the wolves any concern and yet with an unspoiled view of a pool where they will hopefully come and drink. The sun was rising up to the right of us and starting to warm the scene.
As we crawl into position, the painted wolves sit panting on the cool sand. Quad, one of the males stands up and goes to the water’s edge to have a drink. While he is slurping away, Vincent charges through the water and launches a surprise attack on the unsuspecting Quad. Gamma, another male, joins the fray and soon the whole is in the water and pandemonium erupts. They are charging and chasing and jostling and jumping and bouncing and barging and splashing and spraying… and explosion of joy and fun.
They storm up and down the bank and along the ridge directly above us. The pups are beside themselves with excitement and team up to ambush the adults and then each other. This is what I love about the painted wolves. A pure celebration of joy and elation, just because they are with each other.
I notice through all this that Whisky, the alpha, remains reasonably aloof to the fun and games and watches on with detached interest. Her mother, Blacktip, and grandmother Tait were the same. Perhaps it is the preserve of the alpha female to maintain some dignity, while all about her are losing theirs with total abandon.
The pack remains oblivious to the rapid machine gun fire of seven high powered cameras. In the back of my mind I wonder how many photographs we will take this morning. Most likely well into the thousands and way beyond what could have been achieved in the days of film.
Eventually, the wolves’ energy peters out although the pups continue to play a while longer. One by one they climb up the bank to find some shade in which to sleep.
“Let’s leave them now to rest.” I suggest. “They have given us an incredible display and we don’t want to outstay our welcome.” I believe that being tolerated by animals on foot is a tremendous privilege and we have a huge responsibility to show restraint and respect and give them their space and time and not be too greedy.
Late that afternoon we return to the painted wolves who, as expected, have remained by the Mana River all day. We position ourselves quietly on the opposite bank to which they are sleeping, waiting for them to wake and perform their greeting ceremony when they wake up.
This ritual is performed both morning and evening and is always a treat to photograph. Although they have been sleeping on top of each other all day they wake up and greet each other with exuberant energetic enthusiasm; it is as though they have not seen each other for years. But given the outrageous November heat, they don’t rise until after the sun has disappeared and the light fading.
Compared to this morning’s display, it seems more subdued, but still lovely to sit and watch the adults drink and the pups play with each other. At any other time, in any other park, this would be considered an unbelievable sighting. I think sometimes we get spoilt in Mana.
About Nicholas Dyer
Nick is an award winning wildlife photographer, the co-author of the acclaimed Painted Wolves: A Wild Dog’s Life and Chairman of the Painted Wolf Foundation. His passion is for painted wolves and he has spent the last seven years following the packs in Mana Pools on foot. He now leads Painted Wolf Safaris so people can get to experience and understand these enigmatic and endangered creatures.
Learn more about the Painted Wolf
Join me on my annual ‘Walking with Wild Dogs’ safari with African Bush Camps and enquire below. For the itinerary details, visit African Bush Camps’ website.
Please contact me if you would like to discuss creating a bespoke and unique painted wolf adventure