An amazing animal encounter in South Luangwa

Often the most memorable experiences on safari are watching incredible interactions that happen between different animal species.

One morning we were lucky enough to witness a standoff between a herd of elephants and a pack of African wild dogs. It was early in the year and we were driving beside the Luangwa River when we spotted the breeding herd of elephants.



What caught our attention was that the elephants were not foraging peacefully, but were bunching together in a tight group with the young ones in the centre for protection. This was a pretty strong clue that they had sensed predators nearby.

I was pretty sure that with a bit of patience we would discover some lions in the vicinity. This is because lions are the only predators that pose any real threat to elephants, as they are the only ones really big enough to hunt them. Even then, it usually takes a concerted effort, with the lions targeting young or weak elephants.

As it turned out, the cause of the elephants’ consternation was in fact a pack of African wild dogs, or ‘painted wolves’, that came trotting up the track. They were clearly on the hunt but were stopped dead in their tracks by the angry mama elephants.

The elephants began mock charging the dogs, spreading their ears and trumpeting loudly. A mock charge is intended to be intimidating and I can tell you from personal experience, it really works! Elephants employ this tactic when they want to chase off a threat but don’t really want a physical conflict.

Wild dogs are relatively small. They rely on stamina to run their prey to the ground. A large dog will weigh in at just over 35kgs so even in numbers they pose almost no threat to elephants at all. So it was really intriguing to see elephants  react to them in this way.

Elephants are extremely protective of their young, and it’s likely that they decided to play it safe and give the dogs a demonstration of their prowess just in case. In this area of the national park, elephants often cross the river and raid nearby villages for food too. So it’s possible that they may have encountered domestic dogs on these forays and associated them with being threatened and chased out of crops.

The hungry dogs, however, did not pay too much attention. They changed direction, looped around behind us, giving the elephants a wide enough berth and continued with their hunt.