I apologize if anyone felt cheated by Part One of my Best of 2023 collection. This is the first time I’ve left a teaser like this and kept my favorite image separate from the rest of the collection. But as I mentioned in the last post, I have a couple of good reasons for this. I swear.
First, it’s not just one photo that comprised my top moment of the year. It was, in fact, several, because there were multiple animal encounters that combined to create this special moment. And that moment occurred over eight days during my September Zambia tour. I published my Zambia Birds collection a while ago, but it’s taken me a bit more time to get back to the rest of the images from that trip. So I figured I’d share the images from this special moment, and allow that to lead into more comprehensive sharing of the remainder of the Zambia collection. Enough preamble. Let’s get to it.
September 5 – 12: Eight Days of Dogs
There were many reasons I wanted to lead a tour in Zambia following my successful scouting trip in 2021. Among them was the opportunity to find and photograph African wild dogs. This species is one of the world’s most endangered canids, with fewer than 7000 individuals estimated to remain in the wild. During my scouting trip, we spent a day with a large pack in Lower Zambezi National Park, an encounter highlighted by a dynamic buffalo hunt, and I later got to photograph pack with pups in South Luangwa. I hoped we’d have similar luck this time, and in fact, wild dogs were high on the list of some of my clients as well. Little did we know what was in store. Not just a day full of wild dogs, but a full week!
It all started in Lower Zambezi. On our final morning at our first camp, we headed out for a short game drive in hopes of tracking down the dogs that had been teasing us with footprints the previous two days. We were driving up one of the dusty tracks inside the park when what should round the bend? The pack, on the move with several pups in tow! Due to the narrow confines of the road and a line of vehicles already tailing our quarry, it was difficult to come away with any decent pictures. It wasn’t until the pack arrived at an open plain and proceeded to chase some baboons and impala through the brush that we had more room to operate. Once they finally reconvened and settled down to rest, we could snap a few pictures of the family together.
It would be our only opportunity to see this pack, so we were thankful for the sighting. The small group of adults had actually splintered off from a larger pack that claimed territory closer to our next camp. So we set our sights on them the next day… and the days that followed. What transpired next were some excellent sightings. Though I’ve never seen an active wild dog kill, we did witness a dramatic standoff between the pack and a pair of waterbucks.
If you haven’t heard, wild dogs are efficient predators. They will often take down much larger prey, and a large pack can consume an antelope in a few minutes. In spite of the odds, the waterbucks held their ground, keeping the water behind them as a barrier. The dogs only made half-hearted attempts at testing the antelopes’ defenses before getting distracted. Which was fine with us, as we had some nice opportunities to take portraits, environmental shots, and even document more action as the younger dogs chased each other playfully.
We continued to run into the pack in our final days exploring Lower Zam. At one point we counted over twenty individuals (and we believed they had small pups stashed somewhere up in the hills). One evening, the pack was on the move, eager to hunt. An aborted attempt at impala didn’t offer up any photos, but the dogs did cross paths with elephants a few times. This bull was not happy to see them (though dogs aren’t really a threat to a full grown elephant), and it quickly scampered up the hill.
It got dark quickly, so we didn’t have many more chances to photograph them that night. But at one point they settled down for a rest with a nice background of bulls, so I squeezed out a few shots at a slow shutter speed.
It was time to depart the Lower Zambezi and head to South Luangwa National Park for the second half of our tour. We couldn’t believe our wild dog luck to that point, but our first game drive in South Luangwa reminded us that we might not be done with them. We found another pack lounging in the road near camp that evening. Later, while we enjoyed a Sundowner along the banks of the Luangwa, the dogs marched past us in the darkness, walked down to the river, and challenged a hippopotamus herd!
The next morning, we stumbled upon a few of the dogs in some dense bush. They were lounging around a bit, occasionally getting up to play and run (if you haven’t figured it out yet, wild dogs are very social creatures). Soon we noticed another party on the scene: spotted hyenas. During my previous Zambia visit, I had seen a pack of hyenas following wild dogs. Hyenas are notoriously effective scavengers, and often manage to barge in to steal kills from leopards and even lions if they have an advantage in numbers. They’re larger than wild dogs and can hold their own against even a large pack.
The dogs didn’t have a kill in this case, but the hyenas kept approaching. And what happened next shocked me. A hyena and dog met in the brush, and proceeded to touch noses and sniff each other in an amiable manner for several minutes.
Even our guides had not witnessed such behavior between these two rivals. The detente was short-lived, however. While the dogs didn’t seem to mind the hyenas’ presence to an extent, whenever the outsiders tried to approach and get friendly, the dogs showed the limits of their tolerance. Eventually, they gave one of the hyenas a few nips and chased it off. The play date was over.
The next morning produced even more action. I was fortunate to be in the vehicle that stumbled across the wild dogs first that day. It turned out we just missed another peak moment—arriving within just a couple minutes of a puku (antelope) kill—but we were still in for a show. The dogs were busy with their breakfast when we showed up.
They were drawing quite an audience. Not just us. Hooded Vultures (known for following wild dogs around… they like to eat their poop!) and, you guessed it, hyenas had arrived. One of the hyenas strode in boldly. It was not welcomed with open paws.
A couple times, the larger invader muscled its way in and got hold of the carcass before being repulsed by a few members of the pack.
Ultimately, the hyena pulled the prize away. A few of the dogs did their best to defend the remainder of their meal. A tug of war ensued…
They split the spoils. The hyena ended up with a rib cage, and the dogs eventually tired of the affair and settled down. We saw them later that day, and indeed, a few more times over the next couple days. At one point they even chased a leopard out of their territory.
By the time they traveled back south, away from our final camp, we’d enjoyed eight straight days of wild dog sightings. We’d watched them interacting with baboons, waterbucks, impalas, elephants, puku, hippos, and even elephants. The variety of sightings and behaviors we witnessed in this time was remarkable. It was the unquestioned highlight of my Zambia trip, and ultimately, my favorite (extended) photo moment of 2023.
I have finished processing my Zambia images now, so if you’d like to check out the rest of my wild dog photos from the trip, head to the photo archive.
If you’re interested in joining me on my next Zambia adventure, I’m planning to return in 2026.
More Year in Review Content:
Purchase PHOTO/23, my annual photo yearbook. This year’s issue is 68 pages and contains dozens of images from my various adventures, including my Best of 2023 selections and a preview of the yet-to-be-published Zambia and Borneo collections. $19.99 for the print magazine, $6.99 for a digital copy. Purchase a copy of PHOTO/23 here.