Pitching Painted Dog Conservation in Zimbabwe

Painted dogs (Lycaon pictus), also called African wild dogs, once numbered around 500,000 across 39 countries on the continent. Today, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a little over 1 percent of that population hangs on, and the painted dog ranks among Africa’s most endangered species. Traps, snares, cars, domestic canid diseases, habitat destruction and poaching, as well as human food shortages, unemployment, and land management practices create more and more human-wildlife conflicts in Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Botswana and South Africa. In the face of these threats, Painted Dog Conservation (PDC), founded in 1992 by Dr. Gregory Rasmussen after he spent years working in the field with the dogs, seeks to save this uniquely African species.

PDC’s mission in Zimbabwe is to protect and increase the range and number of painted dogs—called Iganyana in the local Sindebele language—in that country and elsewhere in Africa. The organization seeks to accomplish this not only by working directly to protect painted dogs, but also via local education and employment programs and getting involved with the community—including local ranchers, who often feel the most threatened by the dogs’ presence.

At its Community Conservation Education Complex, PDC offers several conservation education programs free of charge, including a children’s Iganyana Bush Camp, Community Outreach, Community Development, a Painted Dog Interpretative Hall, and an Art Center. Every year, a thousand children come through the bush camp and stay for a week to learn about the value of biodiversity and the role that painted dogs play in ecosystems—inspiring emotional attachment to wildlife at an early age. By forming connections between people and the dogs early on, the project has gained the respect of the local community, and the potential for conflict is reduced in the long term.

Dr. Rasmussen describes these programs as “preventing fires instead of putting them out.”

Perhaps the greatest threat to the painted dog’s survival is poaching activity, in particular snares set for other animals; Dr. Rasmussen describes the dogs as “caught like dolphins in tuna nets.” In Zimbabwe, bushmeat is a substantial source of income and poaching threatens all wildlife. But the painted dog is especially susceptible. Their extensive hunting range—12-plus miles a day, on average—increases the likelihood of an encounter with a deadly snare.

PDC provides employment opportunities and promotes environmentally sustainable income-generating projects that help combat the threat of snares. The group deploys three highly trained and well-equipped anti-poaching units that work in collaboration with the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority. Since the units were first deployed in 2001, they have collected over 50,000 snares and released countless other animals caught in them, including wildebeests and baby elephants.

Along with snares, impacts from car strikes leave many dogs injured and suffering. In response, PDC has initiated a campaign to get speed limits drastically reduced—and enforced—to ensure motorists slow down near roads frequented by painted dogs.

Research has shown that painted dogs are obligate cooperators. Thus, the loss of one individual can affect the survival of the whole pack. While injured dogs are recuperating, they can be a burden on their packs. A PDC Rehabilitation Facility, constructed in 2002, provides a safe recovery area for dogs with injuries so that they can be returned to the pack. The ultimate goal is to return the injured individuals once they are fully recovered so that they can again make valuable contributions to their family units. In this sense, the facility has huge significance for the species—not only helping to reduce the suffering of individuals but ensuring that whole packs are not disrupted—and is an essential element in Zimbabwe’s National Management Plan for painted dogs. PDC also recently completed construction of a veterinary clinic and is trying to raise funds for equipment, a laboratory for processing samples, refrigerators and freezers, and a cold room to store food supplies for the dogs.

Beyond working directly to address immediate threats and help injured painted dogs, PDC devotes significant time and resources to working within the community to improve relations between these wild animals and humans and combat the kinds of financial hardships in the region that can lead to wildlife abuse. In 2007, PDC opened the Interpretive Hall to advance knowledge about painted dogs and provide support for staff, artisans, and schools. The facility raises awareness of the plight of painted dogs, promotes Hwange National Park—one of their last remaining refuges—and encourages international tourism and support for the local community and the dogs. Similarly, the Art Center, opened in 2003, financially benefits artisans who are making Iganyana art, such as wire sculptures made from the collected snares.

Dr. Rasmussen and his team are constantly campaigning to change public perception of painted dogs.
Even the simple act of putting up road signs to warn cars to slow down for crossing wild dogs made a huge difference in public acceptance of the need to protect these dogs. The organization regularly meets with landowners and discusses the movement patterns of the dogs to help keep stakeholders informed, and is trying to raise money to fit some of the dogs with tracking collars in order to more accurately track painted dogs and know when they move into dangerous areas.

Painted dogs remain in grave danger throughout their range. However, in Zimbabwe at least, the efforts of PDC and the local communities have helped enhance the image of the painted dog and raise the nation’s painted dog population from 400 to 700 individuals since the project’s inception. What’s more, these wild dogs of Africa—once considered pests—have become the number one animal that tourists want to see in Zimbabwe. As such, PDC serves as a potent model for community-based conservation.

To learn more and support PDC’s campaigns, visit www.painteddog.org.

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