MADIKWE, SOUTH AFRICA — The explosion of red dust was the first sign of the dogs. Then came the shapes: wolf-like bodies with Mickey Mouse ears, sprinting across the dirt road. There were eight, maybe nine, on the heels of a warthog. They tore in front of a Land Rover filled with gaping tourists before returning into the dry South African bush. The warthog escaped into its hole, wounded but alive, not a second to spare.
The calico-colored wild dogs stopped, sniffed, and then started whining. Animal behaviorists describe this vocalization as a pep rally call, a way for pack members to encourage each other to start hunting again. To untrained ears, it sounded like a Labrador retriever who had missed his dinner.
"This is really special," murmured Penny Lombard, a ranger with the Madikwe River Lodge, one of several private lodges in the Madikwe game reserve near the Botswana border. "It's really rare to see them on a hunt like this."
Not long ago, it was rare to see these animals at all. The African wild dog, also called a painted dog, has for years been ranked as one of the most endangered carnivores in the world.
The wild dog is part of the canid family, along with domestic dogs, wolves, and jackals. Over the decades, its numbers dropped from half a million to a few thousand, according to the nonprofit Wildlife Conservation Network.
With the dogs' reputation for susceptibility to disease and their constant persecution by humans, some conservationists worried that the dogs might disappear altogether.
But today, the African wild dog is enjoying a fragile comeback. Reintroduced into reserves such as Madikwe, and increasing in numbers in Zimbabwe because of conservation campaigns there, the dogs are no longer likely to die out, many experts say.
Still, the species faces huge challenges, and the American zoo community considers the dogs one of its top conservation priorities, according to the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. According to various estimates, there are 3,000 to 5,000 of the dogs in Africa. The vast, unpopulated stretches of land the dogs once roamed are gone, and dogs that escape from controlled game reserves are often shot on sight by farmers. Mixing with domestic dogs has led to epidemics of rabies and canine distemper, particularly in East Africa.
In 1995, the Madikwe reserve in South Africa successfully reintroduced wild dogs into a fenced habitat - something biologists had doubted could be accomplished. Other game reserves followed suit, creating what is called a meta-population, or small, isolated groups of dogs that breed with each other under the management of ecologists.
These populations became insurance against extinction. But only a small number of the far-traveling dogs can live within a fenced reserve.
Part of the dogs' problem has been their reputation. The dogs' hunting technique is grisly - pack members will bite an animal as they chase it, essentially eating it alive.
"Farmers would portray them as ruthless killers," says Gregory Rasmussen, who runs the Painted Dog Conservation Project in Zimbabwe. "You know, 'turn your back and your daughter will disappear.' That's how their common name evolved: Farmers would refer to them as 'those [horrible] wild dogs.' "
But the dogs' interaction with each other is notably gentle. They are devoted to their packs and, unlike many animals, take care of their elderly and sick. All the adults in a pack - male and female - help raise the pups, and the older dogs let the younger ones eat first.
"They've got a social system that actually makes the human social system look very poor by comparison," says Mr. Rasmussen, whose research also shows the dogs are unlikely to kill livestock and do not attack people.
In Madikwe, private lodges have marketed the chance to see the endangered dogs, which rangers say are increasingly on visitors' must-see lists.
Mike Quick, curator of mammals at the Sedgwick County Zoo in Kansas and the head of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association's wild dog species survival plan, says he has noticed a growing interest in the dogs in the United States as well. "I think the knowledge of their endangered status has increased," he says.
Although only 30 of the association's 250 zoos currently exhibit wild dogs, Mr. Quick says more and more zoos are working to raise public awareness about the animal. Nine zoos are on a waiting list to get pups from captive dogs' litters.
"The demand to exhibit them is greater than the supply," he says.
Rasmussen says he's thrilled by the rising interest in the dogs in Europe and the US, but says there needs to be similar attention in the dogs' home habitats.
"If you don't have people on your side, any conservation efforts aren't going to go very far," he says, "because you're always going to get to the question of where you are going to put the dogs."