Testing the Waters of Predation: Wild dogs and Lechwes in the Okavango
In wildlife documentaries, sequences of predation are usually edited so as to leave in only the most dramatic sections, in order to keep a fast pace and preventing us viewers from zapping away to a different TV channel. But predation is often a complex process, and there is a lot to learn about the behavior of both predator and prey from the other, less straightforward moments.
Last september we went in search of the bigt cats in the Okavango Delta (Botswana) but as a bonus we ended up spending a lot of quality time with the amazing african wild dogs (Lycaon pictus). One late afternoon we witnessed how a pack of African wild dogs chased a small group of lechwe antelopes. The speed and agility of both parties were of course a tremendous thing to behold, but other things were perhaps more surprising.
One might think that just the appearance of the wild dogs in the horizon would spread terror into the hearts of the antelopes, which would flee at the first glance of the carnivores. But in this case, predators and prey were well aware of each other for quite a while, and neither party would start to run immediately. A channel of the delta lay between the two groups, and each party seemed to be calculating the possibilities that the dogs could cross the water fast enough to catch an antelope. If the water is deep enough, then there is no point for either predators or prey to waste precious energy running.
The antelopes seemed to feel rather safe in their bank, but some of the dogs decided it was worth attempting a chase. I was familiar with the notion that there are different personalities within any group of social carnivores, so the fact that some dogs took the initiative while others followed more or less reluctantly was not all that surprising. More unexpected was the fact that not all the antelopes had the same idea regarding the need to escape. While 3 lechwes ran away, with the dogs in hot pursuit, one of them remained discretely behind among the tall reeds.
But the most surprising part came a while later, when the dogs finally gave up chasing the 3 runners and returned to the area where the fourth antelope had remained. The dogs gathered in front of the single antelope, and while some of them seemed almost impatient to cross the water, others looked much less convinced. It was the antelope who first started to run, but it was actually moving parallel to the water margin, using a pronk and a strange low-headed, display trot, as if trying to show the dogs that it was too fit to be worth pursuing. Then it noticed that the dogs were serious and it turned 90 degrees towards the water. But as soon as it reached an island it stopped to look back. Only when it saw the lead dog charging across the narrow channel did it decide to plunge into the next, deeper channel. And once it emerged on the other side, it resumed its pronking and display trotting.
This incident reminded me how complex and constant the communication can be between predator and prey. They observe each other, read the signs, and in many cases the decision of if and when to run is not nearly clear-cut. Seeing the “dance” that dogs and lechwes displayed that afternoon, one might feel that their interaction was almost a sport. And yet it could have turned into something much more bloody in the blink of an eye.
But perhaps the strangest thing was to watch the total indifference displayed by an openbill stork that was looking for its aquatic prey in the channel, so close to all the action that at times it seemed like the predators or the prey might run over it. Neither dogs nor antelope were interested in it, so why fly away? Energy is precious in nature. Waste is unthought of. That is an urgent lesson for us humans to learn.
You can watch the whole thing in video here: