The first two painted dogs I see will most likely be my last. Peanut and Lucky look like small, wiry hyenas, albeit with stunning multicolored fur: warm caramel with patches of black, brown, white and yellow. It is that unique coat –– distinctly different in each animal –– that earns them their name (they’re also known as painted wolves or African wild dogs). I’m watching the two animals from a viewing platform at the Painted Dog Conservation (PDC) visitors center, in Hwange, Zimbabwe. Because both Peanut and Lucky sustained severe injuries that make them unlikely to survive in the wild, they will continue to be looked after at the PDC.
Painted dogs (Lycaon pictus) are notoriously fierce hunters, with a kill rate that bests that of the cheetah. They’re also among the most endangered mammals in Africa, mostly thanks to humans.
Through anti-poaching and education programs as well as rehabilitation efforts, the PDC is trying to bring the painted dog back from the brink of extinction.
The death of one dog can spell doom for the entire pack.
Shepherd Phiri, head keeper, Painted Dog Conservation
Of the 7,000 painted dogs left in the world, approximately 160 reside in Hwange, where the PDC was established in 1992 by Greg Rasmussen, a wildlife conservation biologist. Painted dogs’ “biggest threats come from humans,” says Shepherd Phiri, the facility’s head keeper. Because the animals sometimes hunt cattle –– although they prefer wild prey –– they’re considered “vermin” by farmers “and are often lost to snares,” Phiri explains. Another threat comes from infrastructure development, which results in habitat loss for the animals, which in turn increases human-wildlife conflict. The biggest challenge the PDC faces is changing people’s mindsets.
For those interested in the organization’s conservation efforts, there’s a visitor center. While spartan –– it’s devoid of audiovisual equipment –– it engages guests with the story of Eyespot, a painted dog who was tracked by radio collar from eight months until his death a few years ago. Radio collars allow the PDC to research the painted dogs and create a digital identity register –– think of it as a Social Security number –– for each one, complete with photo ID, estimated age and other data.
Each pack has an alpha male and female, but the system is matriarchal. Mothers give birth in dens that have been abandoned by aardvarks, and the support system comes with a babysitter –– usually a slower hunter –– who minds the pups when the mother hunts. There’s no mating within a family; that’s how new packs are formed.
The PDC realizes that a long-term solution lies in working with people. To change attitudes, the organization has put together several programs, including free bush camps for children designed to “reach the leaders of tomorrow,” Phiri says. At the edge of Hwange National Park, kids learn about the painted dogs –– and the snares that capture them –– and see the animals up close at the PDC rehabilitation center. As an incentive, the PDC builds boreholes and creates gardens in villages where children who have attended the camp live.
For adults, there are community outreach and education programs with a focus on preserving natural resources and respecting the ecosystem. For example, farmers learn how painted dogs, which are excellent hunters, could help keep predators away from their livestock.
The patrol team has saved many painted dogs from snares –– the walls of the visitors center feature artwork fashioned from snares that the animals have been extricated from. Opened in 2002, the rehab center has treated close to 80 painted dogs, most of whom have been released into the wild.
The shift in mindset that the PDC hopes to achieve appears to be taking place. In 2018, for example, some locals discovered a pack of two adults and eight pups denning in the village of Mpindo, about 15 miles from Hwange National Park, where farmers feared for their cattle. “But they didn’t harm the pack, instead they informed PDC,” Phiri says. After the alpha male and female were fitted with radio collars, the pack was relocated. And when the pack attempted to return to Mpindo, the locals reached out to the PDC again. The painted dogs were relocated again, this time to an enclosed area of Chikwenya Camp, on the edge of Mana Pools National Park, where they will be kept until the pups are a little older and less likely to be killed by lions or hyenas.
Phiri says that it’s impossible to predict whether the PDC’s efforts to protect the packs will help the painted dog population grow. The global painted dog population is still declining, but the PDC reports that numbers are on the rise in Hwange National Park.
“The death of one dog can spell doom for the entire pack,” Phiri says. “Similarly, saving one life could save many.” He, the other PDC staff and its volunteers are determined to save as many as they can.
Go There: The Painted Dog Conservation
- Location: Hwange, approximately 10 miles from the main camp at Hwange National Park
- Fee: There’s no entry fee to check out the visitor and rehab centers. Contributions are greatly appreciated, though.