African Wild Dogs, otherwise known as "Painted Dogs" are uniquely-camouflaged dogs that are critically endangered. Only 3000 remain!
Just outside the Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe we visited the Painted Dog Conservation Project. For the first time I had the chance to see Painted Dogs (also known as Wild Dogs) up close. We watched them feed and recorded their yelping cries, mesmerised by their dog-like behaviour; sometimes stopping to stare at us, sometimes galloping off in great circles through the bush.
Dr Kupkee with one of the conservation managers
Wild Dog sculpture using recovered Snare Wire
Dr Kupkee assessing a sample at the Lab at the Wild Dog Convervation Sanctuary
Wild Dogs are relations of wolves and jackals, but their common ancestor was a full 3 million years ago. Watching them is fascinating; in some ways they resemble dogs, yet are quite different. One also sees the strong pack cohesion of wolves, but their big cupped ears, mottled coats and white bushy tails, yelping calls and highly developed hunting strategies make them totally distinct in both appearance and behaviour. They are brilliant pack hunters and communicate with one another through high clicks and cries.
They are incredibly energetic, reminding me of the boundless energies of collies, running in great circles as if frantic, but then suddenly stopping, twitching their huge ears, listening intently, before taking off again charging excitedly through the bush. In the wild they hunt over vast territories, typically in excess of 750km².
I had never seen a snare before I visited the Painted Dog Conservation project. A snare is simply a ring of wire, hung in a tree by poachers, which is set to catch passing animals at night. Ensnared, animals die of blood loss or shock, or are killed by the poacher when he returns to the trap. Snaring is common in many countries, but has become common in Zimbabwe since catastrophic inflation destroyed Zimbabwe's once proud economy, reducing much of the population to absolute poverty. Snares are intended to capture antelope and buffalo for bushmeat, but they are indiscriminate, and often catch Wild Dogs.
Wild Dogs, which once covered much of Africa, are now extinct in north Africa, and in only four countries do they remain in any significant numbers: Botswana, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Tanzania. But even in these countries there are only 3000 left in total, and Wild Dogs are highly endangered. Snares are partly to blame, and human encroachment into Wild Dog territories has created conflict with farmers.
The sign at the entrance to the Painted Dog Conservation area
Teaching about the Painted Dogs in Zimbabwe
A raised viewing causeway enables visitors to observe the dogs without interfering with their normal behavior
Wild Dogs are also hunted for magical and medicinal use. Packs can only hunt effectively in numbers, and as they lose members so the strain on the rest of the pack increases and they cannot hunteffectively, nor guard their young. As their numbers diminish they are ever more vulnerable.
The remnant population of Wild Dogs in southern Africa, to a significant degree, owe their continued existence to the Painted Dog Project near Hwange Park's main camp. It began in 1993 when Greg Rasmussen, conducting research on snakes, became involved in helping monitor Wild Dogs. The Dog research team left, but Greg continued the work, totally dedicated to learning about the behaviour of the Dogs. He used tracking collars and a microlight to track them.
Greg Rasmussen started a rehabilitation centre and orphanage for Wild Dogs, healing those injured, typically by snares, and bringing together orphans to create new packs which he released onto an island in Kariba. It is fascinating to tour the project in Hwange and see how the staff carefully mix new dogs to ensure they bond as a pack, and how they test their readiness to hunt together in the wild.
The Painted Dog Project remains the only centre for Wild Dogs of its kind, and injured Wild Dogs are brought from South Africa as well as Zimbabwe to the project. Collars are fitted to the dogs. The collars have reflective tape, to alert drivers, and metal knobs to help them free themselves from snares, as well as tracking transmitters.
Dr Kupkee and Lynn with Gracious, one of the conservationists
An African Painted Dog, up close and personal!
Purchase of Snare Wire Art goes directly to support Painted Dog Conservation!
Despite this valuable rehabilitation work, Greg, like so many conservationists, knows that changing local attitudes is the only way to ensure the long-term survival of the species. In part this is achieved through education, in part through economics. The project encourages farming as an alternative to bushmeat, and distributes seeds and gives support to farmers. Iganyana, an impressive arts and crafts project was also started in 2003. Wendy Blakeley, from the USA, settled in Dete village in 2003. She supports 16 artists in beading, jewellery, carving and weaving.
Most powerfully, they create sculptures madefrom snare wire. These have received international acclaim, including at an auction at Christie's in London, where 200 pieces were sold. Wendy Blakeley has created an export market to the UK, US, Australia and Europe. Profits support the project as well as the artists.
In 2007 a visitor's centre was built; this large building was made entirely from plastered wire made from tens of thousands of snares removed from Hwange park. The visitor's centre tells the true lifestory of 'Eyespot' (a collared Wild Dog) and one gains a powerful insight into the hostile world that faces Wild Dogs. The centre also has a well equipped camp. Over 4000 children have attended camps at the centre: learning about conservation and ecotourism, enjoying the wild, seeing the Dogs at the rehabilitation centre. Apparently these camps have a huge impact, changing attitudes from regarding Wild Dogs as dangerous pests, to an endangered species. Local children also benefit from on-going programmes in computing and science.
I was deeply impressed by the work of the project. It deserves support, and for its work to spread widely to ensure the survival of this wonderful, unique species.