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The Wolf-dogs of South Africa

WOLVES HAVE haunted the dreams of humans in cold northern climates for centuries but it was in Africa, where they do not occur naturally, that they fulfilled the nightmare of becoming manhunters – thanks, as usual, to intervention by mankind.

In the forests of Tsitsikamma, on South Africa's southern coast, lies a sanctuary for wolves that were once part of a bizarre scheme to turn the cold-weather carnivores into manhunters on an African battlefield.

About 40 animals live in roomy pens that allow them to live as close to a natural life as is possible in a region where temperatures reach 30C.

"They have adapted to the climate by moulting twice a year," says Antonique Simmons, a guide at the Tsitsikamma Wolf Sanctuary. "In the north they only moult with the arrival of spring."

The origins of the wolf packs lie in a scheme to breed 'super dogs' whose sole function was to chase down guerrillas fighting the apartheid regime in the 1980s.

Landmines

The guerrillas would set ambushes for South African troops, place landmines on strategic roads and attack outposts. With the attack sprung, the insurgents would flee north, on foot, to the safety of their camps in the Angolan bush.

“[The guerrillas] would carry vials of adrenalin with them, and amphetamines," recalls Johan Pretorious, a former dog handler who took part in the pursuits.

"When they knew we were on the way they would inject this stuff and run. They would run for two days at a stretch to try to stay ahead of us."

For guerrilla soldiers who did not outrun their pursuers, the result was usually death. But dogs are not natural long-distance runners and they would sometimes collapse from exhaustion.

Roodeplaat Breeding Enterprises, which was a front for the South African Defence Force and specialised in chemical warfare, was asked to find a solution.

It came up with the idea of creating a ‘super dog’ that had the strength and duration of a wolf but was as easy to train as a German Shepherd.

Scientists at Roodeplaat imported six wolves from North America and began crossbreeding them with dogs. The results were disappointing: the wolf dogs were tougher than their domestic cousins but hard to train.

"They obey the leader of the pack through submissive behaviour but in time they will want to challenge the alpha male. They just don't take to training," Simmons says.

The alpha male - the human trainer - would eventually lose the ability to control his hybrid creature.

The project was eventually abandoned when the bush war came to an end in 1988.

About 200 wolves and wolf dogs exist in South Africa but many are finding their way to sanctuaries, such as that in the Tsitsikamma forest.

"They come here to retire," Simmons says. "They can live like wolves should and won't have to work."