The Painted Dogs of Africa

[words Narina Exelby / photograph © Dale Morris, The WideAngle]

The gentle, early evening sky was deceptive: there was no peace in the twilight. If your ears hadn’t tuned in to the primordial crunching of bones, if your nose hadn’t picked up the sweet stench of steaming grass as it clung to the remnants of late afternoon, and if you hadn’t seen the hyena on the other side of the road, you would not have been aware of the brutal urgency of the wild. But the hairs on the back of your neck prickled as Africa’s night lay in wait. The bush held its breath as a white-backed vulture glided onto the branch of an acacia tree and settled, its neck hooked forward. Tension lurked somewhere between peripheral vision and instinct.

All attention was on the pack of wild dogs next to the road as they tore flesh from the fresh carcass of a male impala. Bones were crunched and guts were slurped. Ribs exposed. The stomach was ripped open and grass, not yet digested, steamed as it met the air. Raw, guttural Africa. The painted dogs didn’t notice the hyena – nobody did – until it was right between them, a desperate look in its eye, thrusting its mouth into the dead prey. The mottled dogs whined and yelped and jaws snapped – as if frightened, not fierce. Yet they drove the intruder back.

It slunk away, lurking under a bush on the other side of the road. The wild dogs returned to their kill and continued crunching bones and slurping guts. They didn’t seem to notice the collection of vehicles around them.

Minutes later, the hyena was back. This time there was an explosion of yelps and ribs and carcass and dust;  tearing flesh as legs and tails flailed. Two on one. Dead body torn. Three on one. Desperation. Hyena and impala lost in a swirl of dust. High-pitched cries and yelps and whines. And then it was still; once more, the hyena had been driven away, minus his supper.

The dogs, three females in a row, buried their noses in the exposed ribcage, front legs crouched, lapping up the liquid inside. But suddenly they lost interest. Together they turned their backs on the carcass and walked into the twilight. Not one looked back.

After a while, four hyenas morphed from the thicket; they kept a low profile behind the vehicles. The wild dogs had long since left, yet the scavengers searched for courage to approach the impala. At last they gathered confidence, crossed the road and quietly dragged the ram far off into the long grass. The early evening was still; night had won its battle in the sky. Flat grass and a trail of blood were all that was left of the twilight drama.

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