Saving an endangered animal, such as the African Painted Dog is really all about people. How do you stop poachers? How do you get visitors to to support conservation? How do you get local people invested in region’s conservation? How do you teach kids to value wildlife conservation? Painted Dog Conservation in Hwange National Park concerns themselves with these human questions. And the in process they have slowed the extinction of this playful, loyal carnivore.
Why are African Painted Dogs Endangered?
African Painted dogs reside fairly high on the food chain. They are highly effective pack hunters. Their prey base primarily consists of medium sized antelope such as Impala and Kudu which are plentiful in the dog’s habit. They can experience pack member loss, particularly pups, to hyena and lions. But they are scrappy fighters and the population losses to other carnivores are fairly small. Why then, are there only 7,000 Painted Dogs left in southern Africa?
Like other endangered African animals, such as the Cheetah, the African Painted Dogs are in constant conflict with the human population. The dogs and humans have to share habitat, meat sources, the bush and the roads.
Poverty and Poaching
Zimbabwe has had tough go since gaining independence. They have a weak economy and drought conditions make for an undependable food supply. And so…the illegal bush meat trade. This type of poaching is a major threat to the dogs. Poachers set wire traps, hoping to catch the very antelope that the dogs are hunting. The dogs become ensnared in the wire and die in a most gruesome fashion.
The dogs like a good long line of sight for their hunting. So they are often found loping along roads and railways. I witnessed this myself in the Chobe National Park in Botswana. A pack of dogs were strolling down the main highway in the park. I was thrilled to see the dogs. But when they make themselves available like that, they run the risk of being hit by cars and trains.
Rabies & Distemper
African Painted Dogs aren’t like wolves. They don’t interbreed with domestic dogs. But they will encounter domestic dogs and are susceptible to the same diseases that any dog carries. Because of their low population, their gene pool is weak, putting them more at risk for a catastrophic spread of illness.
About Peter Blinston and the Founding of Painted Dog Conservation
Enter Painted Dog Conservation (PDC). PDC was originally founded by Dr. Greg Rasmussen as a research project on the dogs within the Hwange National Park. He was looking into their population health and the causes of mortality. What Greg found inspired him to set up Painted Dog Conservation as an ongoing project. Peter Blinston is the current Managing Director of PDC. He’s been at PDC for 20 years, but really, he’s been a dog guy forever. When he was 8 years old he saw a TV documentary on wild dogs and that was that. He went to school. He got a job. He got an apartment. He got a girlfriend. Then he had one of those “what the hell am I doing” moments and he scarpered off to Zimbabwe to oversee the growth of the PDC programs.
PDC’s mission is to protect and increase the numbers of Painted Dogs in Zimbabwe. They have done so by developing a conservation model that contributes to the health and welfare of both the dogs and the local communities.
PDC’s Conservation and Community Programs
Protecting the Dogs
PDC has an anti-poaching unit which patrols the bush around the Hwange National Park. They remove wire snares, hunt down poachers and engage in anti-poaching outreach with the local communities. PDC also has a rehab facility. It houses two resident dogs and it also takes care of a rotating selection of injured dogs who are patched up and then returned to the wild. The pack ethic of the Painted Dogs rivals any kind of human gang. They are fiercely loyal to their pack and will often protect and care for their own sick and weak members. So if their pack member ends up in the rehab facility, they will often show up at regular intervals to “demand” their pack member back. This loyalty is what has endeared me to the dogs…well that and their expressive faces…and those huge ears.
Supporting the Local Communities
Just like with the Cheetah Conservation Fund program in Namibia, Painted Dog Conservation believes that local community support is critical to the ongoing survival of the dogs. PDC itself has a staff of 40, making them a major employer in an area where paying jobs are more scarce than the endangered dogs. They run an anti-rabies program which protects both the wild and domestic dogs. They do things that seems to have nothing whatsoever to do with conservation. Things like: building bore holes for clean water wells, developing community nutrition gardens, running an artisan program and supporting an HIV/AIDS prevention program. The food and water programs help the local communities become less reliant on bush meat. But the programs also build loyalty within the local villages. And when PDC needs help tracking down a poacher the community responds.
Growing a Generation of Wildlife Conservationists
My middle-class upbringing afforded me the opportunity to go to Girl Scout Camp. While there we made fires and ate s’mores. But more importantly, I was able to spend quality time in my local forest preserve. This helped me develop an abiding respect for nature. Fast forward 40 years and I’m volunteering for, donating to and writing blog posts about wildlife conservation. So what about the kids in Zimbabwe whose parents don’t have the money to buy that sort of experience?
This is where the Bush Camp comes in. PDC offers ALL 6th graders in the region the opportunity to attend to a 5 day Bush Camp. While there they learn about the local species and habitat, practice wildlife photography and get a lesson on the value of the African Wild Dogs. They also get 3 squares a day and have an opportunity to sleep in their own bed, a first for many of the children. This program constitutes their only wildlife curriculum and the 4,000+ kids who have been through the program bring those lessons home.
To wit- A group of forty young adult graduates from Bush Camp have set up a volunteer poaching patrol. They go out, on their own, to patrol their village area and remove snares. One local girl and recent Bush Camp graduate found a live Kudu caught in a snare. She convinced her village elders to release the Kudu. Afterwords, she gave them “the talk” about the evil of snares. As a result, the elders tracked down the poacher and had him arrested. For emphasis– this is a 12 year old girl getting her male elders to take action. Word.
These stories illustrate how great conservation programs can create a closed loop between the protection of endangered species and the respectful care and feeding of the local human populations. Painted Dog Conservation is one of those great programs.
Visiting Hwange National Park and PDC
Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe is fairly easy to visit. It’s a 2 hour-ish drive from Victoria Falls. Many tours and safaris visit nearby Victoria Falls so it should be easy to choose an itinerary that includes Hwange. March-October are the best months for seeing animals in Hwange, including their famously large herds of elephants. And Mar-May and Sept-Dec are best for seeing dogs.
While in Hwange National Park, be sure to stop into the Painted Dog Conservation visitor’s center. It’s located in the northeastern edge of the park, not far from the Main Camp. Check out their map here. The visitor’s center will give you a great overview of both the Hwange ecosystem and the history of the African Painted Dogs. Ask your lodge to arrange transportation to the center.
Where to Stay in Hwange National Park
Peter recommends staying in Vintage Camp in Hwange. They are situated right in the PDC private concession and portion of your stay supports PDC. They sometimes offer an upsell which allows you to go out with Jealous. He’s PDC’s dog tracker. Going out with Jealous is like a mini graduate course in wildlife habitat. He’s very good at finding the dogs and he’ll give you an experience that you can’t get on a normal game drive.
Visiting Victoria Falls
Any visit to Hwange will likely include a stopover to Victoria Falls. It’s a world heritage natural wonder and I recommend doing the falls from both the ground and the air. I’m normally a cheapskate about expensive tourist experiences, but the helicopter ride over the falls was well worth it. The view from above will show you the vast scale of the falls which you can’t get from the ground. There are several providers, just pick one. If you are an epic adventurer, you can also soak in the Devil’s Pools, which sit atop the falls and provide jaw dropping views straight down.
4 Ways to Support Painted Dog Conservation
PDC works hard on African Painted Dog conservation and you can do your part by supporting their programs. Here are a few ideas for you:
- Donate money directly to PDC. They are a registered charity and the cash will support the programs mentioned above.
- $65 sends a kid to Bush Camp
- $100 provides bush equipment for the anti-poaching patrol
- $350 supports a patrol member for a month
- Follow PDC on Facebook or Instagram and share the word
- See the dogs at your local zoo, including: Oakland, San Diego, Cincinnati, Saint Louis, Houston, Sedgwick County, Brookfield/Chicago, Denver, Oregon, Pittsburgh, Chester and Los Angeles
- Go to Hwange National Park. Visit PDC and support the lodges and tour providers that employ the local community members
Wildlife Heroes features Painted Dog Conservation and 40 other awesome conservation programs
Cecil’s Pride featuring the story of Cecil the Lion of Hwange
Brandt Travel Guide to Zimbabwe
Your Parting Shot
Thanks to Peter Blinston for his interview time. And also to Nick Dyer for taking such beautiful and intimate shots of the dogs.
Nick is a wildlife photographer who lives a nomadic lifestyle exploring eastern and southern Africa. Nick’s passion for wildlife and photography began when growing up in Kenya. On leaving Kenya he worked in London as a fund manager and subsequently ran a successful marketing business after taking a career break to journey across every roadless desert in Australia. He returned to Africa in 2012 to live his dream of full time photography and satisfy his lust for adventure. He now uses his photography, writing and business experience to make a difference where he can and has a particular passion for wild dogs. www.nicholasdyer.com
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