Preying solitaire: Kubu’s story

(Neil Jordan & Krystyna Golabek)

“Kubu” is a lone African wild dog. On first thought, such a strange state of affairs clearly exonerates her - and any research data collected on her – from contributing usefully to our understanding of wild dog social behaviour. But on reflection, second thoughts are sometimes more insightful than their impetuous predecessors. While Kubu’s story is clearly atypical for such a highly-social species as African wild dogs, it might be argued that through her blurring of many established ‘facts’, the real pressures, drivers and constraints of ‘normal’ wild dog social behaviour are brought into sharper focus.

We thought that the story that follows, although long, was worth sharing in its entirety. Such as it is, Kubu’s story rebukes some wild dog social norms and maybe helps us better understand aspects of the species ’social’ behaviour as a whole.

Rules are for society; Kubu goes solo

In the beginning

In June 2009, deep in the mopane woodland of Moremi Game Reserve, Kubu was born into the Mankwe pack amongst a large litter of ten jostling siblings, and was labelled in the dry numbers and codes of science as “MWF0908”. The eight pup, a female, born into the Mankwe pack in 2009. We don’t name wild dogs until they reach the relatively safe age of a year, as over half of wild dog puppies are lost in this time. MWF0908 was, we thought, no exception in this respect, disappearing from the pack before she could be informally named. We were to discover however, that MWF0908 was unlike the unlucky majority. This young wild dog turned out to be an incredible survivor.

Pups at the den

On Easter weekend 2011 one of our research team photographed a lone female dog at Kubu pan, and we named her after that location. Her coat patterns were just about visible enough through the mud to add her to our database, and we were even able to match her to a dog photographed earlier that year (April) in Chitabe, some 40km and a river crossing away. But as yet we hadn’t quite connected all of her dots.

Return home

Collarless, and highly mobile, Kubu was not seen for another four-months when she was, quite unexpectedly, found resting with the Mankwe pack.  It was so strange to see an immigrant female completely integrated with the rest of the pack, especially the resident females, and so we were prompted to return to our photo database once again, and we matched this individual to “Kubu” and Kubu to a fuzzy picture of the six-month old MWF0908 from the 2009 pup photos. Where had she been?!

Resting at home

Far from the young pup she’d been when last seen with the pack, Kubu had clearly picked up a few life skills during her gap years. Over and above her stay-at-home littermates, she was an extremely accomplished hunter, often leading the pack as the initial ‘ears-back, head-lowered’, conspicuous approach towards the prey began. More often than not Kubu was one of the first dogs to bring down prey, and she was very good at it. Was she making up for lost time, ‘paying to stay’, or just doing what came naturally and putting into practice everything she had learned during her time away?

For a while Kubu seemed settled. While her surviving siblings Thuto, Thuso and Colly chose to disperse at the standard age (28-months for the two males, and 22-months for the female), Kubu stayed on and set about helping her dominant older sister, Masego, raise a new litter of pups with a male named Dotski. This small pack of three was not exactly optimal, and finding enough food without being ambushed by lions or otherwise succumbing to stochastic events was always going to be challenging. But with ample enemies on the outside, it was with some shock that we were soon to observe Kubu herself playing the role of “the enemy within”.

The enemy within

In the breeding season of 2012, Kubu departed the pack again with her new RVC GPS collar betraying her position at an obscenely intrusive resolution of five-minute intervals. We followed her signal and found her with a group of three males and later, as we waited back at the Mankwe den, we witnessed Kubu return, leading the new trio of males closely behind her. As the four rushed in, Kubu immediately attacked her dominant older sister Masego, and the males ran-off the  dominant male, Dotski; his radio-signal fading to a distant beep through the autumnal mopane woodland. 

The new males trotted back to the den and, as Kubu lunged and snapped at a cowering Masego, preventing her from accessing and feeding her own pups, the males were seemingly unsure of what they should do. Unlike lions, there is no direct benefit for immigrant wild dogs to kill the offspring of the usurped male; wild dogs in Botswana breed but once a year, and killing the pups does not bring the female into heat any faster. In fact it would actually be detrimental due to the positive effects of larger group size; more eyes, noses and satellite ears to scan for danger and, in the future, more legs to run down prey and provide for the pack. In this scene of intense struggle and high stress, it was insightful to watch the diminutive pied pups running at the new unknown males, begging furiously for food, while Aztec, Zulu and Viking, as we named them, tiptoed around them very unsure of what they should do. It brought to mind a couple of young men left holding a hungry screaming baby.

 

Access denied

The following day I found Masgeo and Dotski resting away from their den, where instead lay the three males watching intently as Kubu sniffed, licked and attempted (unsuccessfully) to suckle the pups.  Occasionally she pulled herself away from her self-appointed extra-parental care duties, to socialise with the males, performing an intense series of shoulder-lifts so characteristic of newly-formed pairs. It seemed that Aztec was Kubu’s chosen suitor.

Breaking the mould

While the drive to be dominant breeder is understandable enough, such a series of events is highly unusual in many respects. First it is unusual for an older female to have been dominant over a younger sibling, where younger dogs feed first and are socially dominant over their elders (with the exception of their parents as the dominant pair). Second it’s unusual to have a related dominant pair actually raise pups (though it’s possible that an itinerant male fathered the pups). It’s also unusual to see a dominance change within a pack, but is that even what we had observed?  Might we better describe what we witnessed as another pack ‘kidnapping’ the pups? However we name it, all of this is exceptionally unusual behaviour for wild dogs, but as we’ve seen so far, such events seem to follow Kubu around.

Unfortunately all of these pups ultimately died, and Kubu’s males left her, preferring to join a three female group recently widowed from the neighbouring pack. Her highly intrusive GPS collared failed us prematurely and we lost track of her lone wanderings later in 2012.

But then she came back.

The Kubu effect

In September 2012, Kubu was associating with an unusually blonde dog called Savile, but again this match was short-lived, Savile making a similarly smart numerical assessment (perhaps!) as the Mankwe males by joining several females from the Santawani-based Apoka pack, presumably preferring the security of multiple females to a singleton. (Savile himself fell victim to the numbers game later on, and was usurped by five males before the breeding season in 2012 came around).

Simultaneously, the males of the Apoka pack, having split from their sisters following the death of both of their dominant parents in late 2012 early 2013, were available, and Kubu made her move, but failed and spectacularly so! Having trailed the pack on the periphery for a while, Kubu was caught off guard and was suddenly turned upon by the males who attacked her, inflicting quite a few wounds before she was able to run away, slowing to a limping trot and licking her wounds only after she had put about 800m between her and the unwelcoming males. This attack was extremely strange behaviour, and we are still unsure why dispersing males would behave so aggressively to a potential suitor. In the absence of any better alternatives, why had they behaved so strangely? Why not accept her, at least in case of no better option came along in time? We started to put these strange ‘decisions’ and events down to “the Kubu effect”, an unexplained phenomenon that seemed to follow her around like a bad smell.

Unfortunately, the Kubu effect also doomed her recently-fitted new radiocollar which was damaged in the incident, switching on and off intermittently ever since. Despite these difficulties, Kubu was seen, mostly alone, except one afternoon when her “never give up” attitude was on display again as she trailed the hostile Apoka males close to Mababe village, about 35kms from where they had attacked her. This latter meeting was in even less conducive social circumstances as, in the meantime, the males had joined two females and formed a new pack. Another breeding season passed Kubu by with no genetic reward for a lot of energetic effort.

 

Alone again

Since late 2012, Kubu has continued a life alone. She has clearly become, from necessity, a supreme huntress. For example, we observed her chase an adult male impala right through our research camp and pull him down in the flood plain just out front.  Wild dogs are a twitchy species at best, and usually reach peak levels of paranoia at kill sites; feeding quickly and nervously owing to the threat of ambush by lions and hyaenas attracted by the ‘death cries’ of the prey. But again Kubu bucks the trend. We saw her sleeping out the heat of the day right next to the impala she had killed but not finished eating yet.

Table for one

Bushmeat roulette

Of course “Wild dogs don’t scavenge, eating only what they kill”. While that is generally true, they, like any other species, will take the opportunity when it arises or when circumstances dictate it is necessary. Last month we found Kubu scavenging from an enormous elephant carcass, again playing “bushmeat roulette” with the risk of ambush by other carnivores attracted by circling vultures and the ever increasing smell. Having fed well here, we expected Kubu to take it easy for a while, and so we were surprised to follow Kubu on a “mousing” mission, foraging intently in an old log before pouncing and catching a dormouse in a style reminiscent of a red fox hunting mice. So in only one week Kubu has expanded the known diet of African wild dogs at both ends of the scale, enriching our knowledge and satisfying her hunger to varying degrees. But Kubu of course is not done there. Back at the elephant carcass, where she has returned a number of times to feed, our knowledge was expanded again when we saw her eating an attending white-backed vulture we suspect she killed; one of heaving mass squabbling noisily over this behemoth of a meal.

Kubu feeds at elephant carcass

Clearly there is much we can learn from Kubu. Perhaps she will eventually successfully reintegrate into wild dog society, or maybe she is one of those animals that embarked on a different life history strategy. Only time will tell if Kubu is a successful a social pioneer or a mutant misfit? (Not to suggest that those two conditions are mutually-exclusive). Whatever the outcome, Kubu is interesting for her differences, and we will continue to follow her and to record these differences, and the challenges that they present her with. Her story, like any other, is no more than a series of anecdotes, but I it tells us much about the ecology and social behaviour of ‘normal’ African wild dogs. Though single African wild dogs can survive, they very rarely thrive, and in that sense, despite all of her aberrant behaviours; usurping her sister, kidnapping the pups, surviving alone for years, scavenging, lone-hunting, Kubu may well be a true symbol of the struggles and survival of African wild dogs as a species.