Pursuing a long-held dream to get up close and personal with painted dogs, Alison Dewar visited Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park — where she spent three days with Painted Dog Conservation and discovered the brilliant work they do for our four-legged friends
t was dusk as we bumped along the dirt road in an old converted game drive vehicle, which had probably seen better days. My husband Craig and I were literally squashed in (he’s 6ft 3in) among the 11-and 12-year olds from Ngamo School, in the east of the park. Gathering my fleece against the evening chill, the hairs on the back of my neck suddenly stood up. I felt almost overcome with emotion as all around us the children started singing in their local Sindebele language. The harmonies and their happy faces made it one of those moments I will never forget.
Painted dogs (otherwise known as African wild dogs or painted wolves) had brought us here. My ambition to see them began when I lived in Zimbabwe in the early 1990s but, bar one fleeting glimpse in Mana Pools National Park in 1995, they had remained spectacularly elusive. Now, returning to Zimbabwe for the first time in 16 years, I was determined to succeed.
Google led me to Painted Dog Conservation UK (PDC), a Berkshire-based charity that raises funds for the Zimbabwe Painted Dog Conservation operation. With poaching still a major threat, PDC raises funds to fit both protective collars to lessen their chances of being caught in wire snares; and GPS collars, which provide detailed data on the packs’ movements and help direct anti-poaching initiatives. Now, with some great advice from the PDC teams in the UK, Netherlands and Hwange, we were on our way.
Home for our visit was the tented Vintage Camp Hwange, situated in the Painted dog private concession area. Simply by staying there, the charity’s conservation projects receive a contribution.
PDC senior tracker Jealous Mpofu picked us up at dawn on our first morning. We headed into the bush to search via radio telemetry, eyesight and spoor. Given the size of the park — 14,651sq km — our target was the Nyamandhlovu pack, known to inhabit an area relatively close by and one that Jealous, who spends every day tracking, had seen recently. Of course, the word ‘relatively’ means exactly that. My heart beat faster as Jealous stood atop the Land Rover with transmitter in one hand and tracker in the other. But it was more than two hours before the intensity of the beeps increased as we got closer and closer to a cluster of trees — and there they were, so perfectly camouflaged that without the tracker, you would have driven past in seconds.
I think it’s fair to say that the phrase ‘let sleeping dogs lie’ was never truer. Chilled out, they totally ignored us and, after the obligatory photoshoot (especially challenging given the dappled shade and thick grass), we decided to leave them in peace.
On our evening return, they stirred themselves, first popping out onto the sandy track in front of us before the hunters of the pack loped off into the distance. The others sauntered along at a casual trot before plopping down for a leisurely break in the middle of the road. Faced with a doggy ‘tailback’ (rather than a zebra crossing), we dutifully reversed and headed back for celebratory drinks with our Vintage Camp host Francie, a sumptuous candlelit dinner and the best bush shower ever.
We were fortunate to see the pack three times and count the 12 precious pups that are so essential to the future success of the dogs. Numbers worldwide are estimated at around 7000 and, despite rabies wiping out one entire pack at the end of 2017, the Hwange area is home to an estimated 200 individuals.
PDC knows that persuading local communities to embrace conservation and protect wildlife will never be easy, although its community outreach efforts are making headway by providing jobs and healthcare. Key elements are education and awareness programmes for future generations, and the charity runs free-of-charge bush-camps for around 900 pupils from 18 local schools every year.
While many children have only experienced wildlife in a negative way — cattle being killed or the trampling of crops — the camps focus on the positives of conservation, such as taking pupils on their first game-viewing experience. During their four-day stay, the children learn about wildlife, perform plays and take part in quizzes, with top students invited back for a second camp. Older children are encouraged to study science at O-Level and this year the charity hopes to fund a new PDC University Scholarship for wildlife conservation.
Craig and I felt incredibly privileged to share their excitement at Nyamandhlovu Pan, and Dominic Nyathi, conservation clubs co-ordinator, summed it up when he said: “The children have never been on safari, now they are turning into tourists.”
With around US$800,000 to find each year, the charity works hard to raise funds and welcomes visitors. As Wilton Nsimango, education and community development programmes manager, says: “We want to touch hearts and change attitudes.”
I think we can safely say they are doing that very successfully. They certainly changed mine.
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