A night at the dogs in the depths of Botswana

'Lions and rhino have had their day. Now it's the turn of the wild dog.' Jill Crawshaw joins an expedition to save an unpopular species from extinction, and falls in love

"LIONS ? Oh they're boring - completely overrated animals, mutually aggressive, rather stupid and inefficient hunters and killers.

"Wild dogs are a different story. Beautiful, intelligent, much more socially responsible too, and efficient - you can almost call them humane killers. Whereas a lion will start munching his prey from the back end while it's still alive, a pack of dogs will disembowel their victim, tearing out the heart, guts and liver first, which kills them instantly."

In the Big Cat versus dog argument you could hardly expect John McNutt to be unbiased. Lions are the natural-born enemies of wild dogs, and he's spent the last nine years of his life trying to save them from extinction.

Born in Seattle, where he was incidentally at school with Microsoft's Bill Gates, he chose the animal instead of the technology business, studying for a PhD in animal behaviour from the University of California. For his thesis, and funded largely by the Frankfurt Zoological Society and other conservation charities, he began the Botswana Wild Dog Research Project in 1989 - and has been living in a small field research camp near the Moremi Wildlife Reserve since then, monitoring packs of wild dogs. His wife, Canadian anthropologist Lesley Boggs, has been with him there for five years.

The wild dog or Lycaon pictus, whose name means "painted wolf", is one of Africa's most endangered species - "more so than the rhino" reckons John. In the last few decades it has disappeared from 19 countries and is near extinction in all but a handful, with only three sustainable populations remaining in South Africa's Kruger National Park, in the Tanzanian Selous Wildlife Reserve and about 700 or so in northern Botswana.

Tracking down John and Lesley in their lair proved to be almost as elusive as catching a glimpse of the dogs themselves. If Robinson Crusoe had lived in Okavango Delta instead of a desert island, their tiny simple bush camp is probably what he would have come up with.

Hidden among dense groves of leadwood trees and thicket, where heat wraps you round like a blanket, four tents comprise sleeping quarters, an office - they've also dug out an underground office for coolness in the fiercest summer temperatures - and living quarters. I spy several signs of civilisation; a spice rack in the kitchen, an old bath placed discreetly behind a reed fence, though it's not connected to the water supply which comes from a borehole. There is also a tiny enclosed playroom, and I gulp with amazement as the third member of the family totters out barefoot clutching a toy golf club and giving a plastic ball an unsteady whack into the Kalahari sand - the couple's 18-month old son, Madison was born in Canada, but has lived here since he was six months old.

To get to the camp that morning by Land Rover we've already skirted a herd of potentially edgy elephants, noted vultures circling overhead and driven through a pack of mischievous baboons. "We keep an eye out for snakes and scorpions, but at least there's no danger from traffic - or people," says Lesley who has recently recruited Ute from Germany to act as a kind of Crusoe-nanny to help keep Madison safe and entertained.

"We'll even put up with tourists" Lesley adds, "providing they're committed to our research. We had one American couple who paid $1000 (pounds 610) a day."

Luckily, if you want to catch a glimpse of wild dogs and meet the McNutts, there is a less expensive alternative - though no visits to Botswana's highly inaccessible Okavango come cheap. I'm practically sand-bagged by fatigue when an open Land Rover meets the last of four flights for the transfer to Chitabe, the new private reserve and camp part-owned by photographers Dave Hamman and Helene Heldring.

If the research camp seemed primitive, Chitabe must be the creme de la creme of safari camps. In an idyllic copse of Marula and leadwood trees, teak-floored double tents with en-suite showers and WC's no less, are linked by a raised wooden boardwalk to an immaculately thatched open-sided dining room with 28 staff pampering eight guests with Earl Grey or Lapsang Souchong tea, scones with cream, copious free wine and three-course meals. There's even a small plunge-pool, though in the dry season the elephants are likely to compete for water.

"Isn't it all - well... a bit designer boutique-ish?" I query the camp manager Robin Matthews, sinking gloriously into the Ideal Camp-style comforts.

"It's all right for an old hand like you," he concedes graciously, "but there are no boundary fences, animals such as lions, leopards and elephants can and do wander freely through the camp, and we find that first-timers are nervous both of them as well as snakes and insects."

The routine for Chitabe follows a similar pattern to that of most of the scattered camps in the Okavango Delta. "Old Africa's Last Refuge", National Geographic calls it, "a geographical freak of watery wilderness marooned in the driest place on earth, the Kalahari Desert". Fed by the rains from the Angolan Highlands, but constantly under threat from human predators, the Okavango nurtures a vast range of animals and some 600 species of birds. Our aim is to notch up as many of them as possible, as well as, hopefully, finding a pack of wild dogs.

Morning tea arrives at 5am, though we've already been thoroughly awakened by the trillings, whoopings and burblings of Cape Turtle doves, grey lowries and francolins, and the barking of quarrelsome baboons. The bush may be as remote as you can get, but in the morning it's as silent as the full-blown chorus of Aida turned up at at top volume. By 6am, we're setting off in the open Land Rover into the hypnotic beauty and brilliance of an African morning, bouncing over soggy floodplains, termite mounds, acacia woodland and mopane scrub whose butterfly-shaped leaves are Beluga caviar for elephants.

It's the rainy season and game is harder to spot among the green lush grasses and foliage, and Chitabe camp has previously been a hunting reserve, making the animals more wary of humans on their patch. But we manage to clock up wildebeests with their calves, warthogs, waterbuffalo, giraffe and my own favourite, impala - the bambis of Africa - of which there are plenty. There needs to be - it's a rough life being an impala since everything seems intent on eating you; impala form 85 per cent of the wild dogs' diet, and they are also easy meat for lion, leopard and just about every other predator.

Meanwhile woodland kingfishers flash between the bushes, lilac-breasted rollers loop-the-loop to show off to their mates, and we score a triumph spotting a rare wattled crane, before returning to a huge brunch and cold beer back at the camp at midday.

After the siesta, evening drives start around 5pm when the bush begins to stir again. Dusk is already beginning to fall as we suddenly catch sight of dark blotches loping towards us on the track ahead. We move off the track and gradually a pack of nine wild dogs comes into focus. No wonder they call them painted dogs - each one is handsomely marked in his own strip of tawny gold and black in a variety of abstract designs.

Sleek and well-fed, they're clearly not hunting, so we follow them slowly until they decide to call it a day in an open meadow. As the sunset goes through a ravishing performance we quietly observe their nightly ritual - some keeping guard, others, probably the younger siblings, romping, licking, yapping, whining and tumbling among the reeds. Wild dogs are sociable and co-operative pack animals where only the dominant male and female usually mate each year, though their offspring are nurtured by all the members of the pack.

And then, in one of those close encounters of the most magical kind, a dog appears inquisitively from round the back of the vehicle and briefly locks eyes with me. He has a little nibble at one of the tyres and I half expect him to cock his leg as my own spaniel Jake would do back home. But he's obviously unimpressed, can't be bothered to leave his mark, and he saunters back to his mates.

I'm unlikely to see the dogs again - apart from in the breeding season wild dogs are nomadic and can cover a vast territory - but I've the feeling I've started a new love affair and can instantly understand John McNutt's fascination with this much-maligned species.

"Until now they've had a really bad press," claims John. "Lions are represented as 'majestic', King of the Beasts, noble, brave and all that other rubbish.

"But dogs are always described as being 'savage' or 'vicious', with a bad image that goes back as far as Little Red Riding Hood. Farmers shoot them as vermin. We're trying to get some attention for their plight.

"There are definite fashions in animal conservation. Rhino, cheetah and elephant have all had their day. Now it's time for the wild dogs to have their turn."

botswana fact file

GETTING THERE

Information on the Botswana Wild Dog Research Project from: Private Bag 13, Maun, Botswana.

The author travelled via Air Zimbabwe as a guest of Africa Exclusive, Hamilton House, 66, Palmerston Road, Northampton NN1 5EX. Tel: 01604 628979.

The firm can organise stays at Chitabe as part of a tailor-made inclusive holiday. An all-in two-week itinerary with stays in Chitabe and other Delta Camps, or combined with Zimbabwe, Namibia, South Africa or East Africa costs pounds 2,800.

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