Greg Rasmussen founded Painted Dog Conservation (PDC) after years of living and working closely with painted dogs in the field. While on the job, Greg suffered severe injuries when his plane crashed into the African bush, but his persistent work has continued nonetheless. Greg is joined by Peter Blinston, PDC's Manager, who has helped translate Greg's vision and research into effective programming.
Greg presently serves as PDC’s Director. British-born, he spent much of his childhood in Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia). After college, he began work on an African wild dog research project in Hwange NationalPark and became so committed to the painted dogs that he sold all his belongings and moved permanently to Zimbabwe to live and work for their protection.
Greg was tracking radio-collared rhino from his microlight aircraft when his plane crashed in 2003. Alone, severely injured, and hundreds of miles from the nearest settlement, Greg withstood extreme temperatures and exposure to predators while he waited for help. The story of his survival and eventual rescue has been featured in a Discovery Channel documentary and also told in Thrown to the Lions, an episode in the television series “Alive.”
Peter lives at the project in Zimbabwe and has worked for PDC for over a decade. He first learned of the plight of the African wild dog and of Greg’s work to save it when living in his native England. Peter was moved to contact Greg to see how he could help. For two years Peter worked as a PDC volunteer based in England, then moved to Zimbabwe to volunteer full-time with the project. He has since assumed responsibilities for administration, budgeting, staffing, and management of fieldwork. Peter also works with his wife in filmmaking and photography.
The painted dog, or African wild dog, was once common in Africa with over 500,000 in 39 countries. The effects of human encroachment have drastically reduced their range and numbers. Currently, an estimated 3,000 dogs remain, restricted to four southern African countries: Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa. People remain the greatest threat to the dog's survival.
Major threats to painted dogs in Zimbabwe include snares, shooting and poisoning (for traditional medicine and fear of livestock predation) and road kills. Painted dogs are also under threat from introduced diseases: as human populations encroach on the dogs' habitat, contact with domestic dogs increases, and transfer of canine distemper and rabies is a threat to entire populations. Underlying all of these threats are attitudes based on misinformation that vastly overstate the risk posed by wild dogs to domestic livestock and equally under-appreciate the value of the painted dog to the larger ecosystem.
Poaching is the single greatest threat not only to painted dogs but also to all wildlife in the so-called buffer zone surrounding Hwange National Park, where Painted Dog Conservation is based. As the socio-economic situation in Zimbabwe continues to deteriorate, pressures that drive poaching are escalating. Unemployment levels have reached new heights and with the majority of people in the region dependent upon erratic rainfalls, simply to survive at a subsistence level, they turn to illegal hunting practices.
Painted Dog Conservation (PDC) is a leading model for community-based predator conservation. By combining the most advanced modern technology with traditional knowledge of local communities, PDC has experienced great success – Zimbabwe's wild dog population has increased from 400 to 700 individuals since the project's inception. PDC's model also brings direct benefit to local people with increased employment and unparalleled education opportunities.
Residents of PDC’s neighboring communities not only benefit from its programs but also actively contribute to them. For example, community members are employed in anti-poaching units and produce beautiful and unique art from the confiscated snare wire. They assist in systematic monitoring of the painted dog population and teach environmental educational. The active engagement of local residents empowers communities, strengthens conservation, and raises environmental awareness.
Collars and Road Signs
PDC works with ranchers to improve the status of wild dogs. Utilizing harmless catch-and-release procedures, PDC places color-coded collars on dogs which demonstrate to ranchers that painted dog numbers are much lower than suspected. As a result, PDC has secured a cease-fire in farming areas where dogs are re-colonizing. The color-coded collars also reflect automobile headlights to prevent accidental collisions. PDC has placed road signs warning “painted dog crossing” at key traffic locations, which together with the reflective collars have resulted in a 50% reduction of road kills.
PDC’s anti-poaching units are staffed by local community members who carry out daily patrols throughout the region. They provide a blanket of protection over a region of approximately 1,600 square kilometres and have collected over 15,000 wire snares since they were first deployed in August 2001. The units are well equipped with quality field clothing and instruments such as Garmin GPS units. They produce daily and monthly patrol reports, thus quantifying their work and producing measurable data, which also allows for strategic deployment into areas identified as poaching “hot spots.”
An important aspect of the units’ work is the training and development of additional anti-poaching teams in the region. Poaching is such an endemic phenomenon that it is impossible for one organization such as PDC to employ enough anti-poaching scouts to combat the full situation. PDC responds to these critical needs by training and developing additional anti-poaching units for the local landowners, supplying field equipment and clothing in the process. Gaining the trust and respect of local people is an ongoing process and has helped to transform many poachers into advocates for the wild dog and participants in the project.
Snare Wire Art
In addition to providing employment opportunities for members of the anti-poaching units, PDC's program benefits community artists as well. At the Iganyana Arts Center, founded by PDC in 2003, talented local residents craft the snare wire reclaimed from the bush into impressive animal sculptures. They also make paintings, jewelry and toys from a variety of locally-gathered materials.
Production of this artwork provides skills and financial security for the artists. In addition, the program provides an opportunity for conservation education on sustainable use of resources and reuse of materials. Through sales of the crafts locally and worldwide, individuals and communities learn about the critical need to protect Africa's remaining painted dogs and other wildlife.
PDC monitors dog packs with radio collars, gathering valuable information on their movements, hunting and causes of mortality. PDC’s breakthrough work with translocation and integration of dogs, as well as with new non-invasive capture techniques, is offering hope for wild dogs to expand their range into predator-friendly areas
A rehabilitation facility cares for injured painted dogs until re-release. In 2007 five orphaned dogs were released following rehabilitation. The dogs were released on Starvation Island, a protected environment, as the first step in the pack's rehabilitation back into the wild. To test the dogs' fitness for the wild, PDC monitored the pack – initially daily, then weekly, then monthly. It took the dogs longer than anticipated to acclimate to their new life, but the progress has been satisfactory, and PDC is confident that they will succeed.
Inspiring the next generation, PDC operates an environmental education Bush Camp free of charge for all local 6th grade schoolchildren. During four exciting and deeply enriching days, the children revolve through a series of experiential learning activities led by specially trained local guides. For many children, Bush Camp is a week of unforgettable first-time experiences: using a computer, sharing a small hut with other friends, sleeping in their own bed, eating three hot meals a day and learning in an environment that encourages their innate curiosity about nature. Upon seeing local wildlife (many for the first time in their lives!) and gaining an understanding of the complex ecology of the wild African savannah, bush camp graduates leave with an emotional attachment to caring for the beauty and complexity of nature. Please visit PDC's website for more information on the bush camp.
The year 2007 saw the completion of PDC's Education Complex facilities (the culmination of five years of work), which now includes a painted dog viewing platform and a Visitors Center with a world class Interpretive Hall. The structures were built from locally-obtained materials, and the builders were local people who were trained on the job and gained skills in the process. The Visitors Center will improve PDC's educational outreach not only to school children in the Bush Camp, but also to their parents, who can now experience their children's delight first hand. PDC has initiated a schedule of day visits for residents in the local communities.
Due to the combined efforts of PDC and the local communities, Zimbabwe's painted dog population has increased from 400 to 700 individuals since the inception of the project. Painted dogs are now the number one animal that tourists want to see, surpassing lions, elephants, rhinos and leopards. Once considered a pest, the wild dog has become a symbol of national pride in Zimbabwe. WCN is committed to assisting PDC in its work to insure a protected future for this beautiful wild canid.