Project Update August 2007
Five dogs have just been released onto Starvation Island as the first step in their rehabilitation to a truly wild state.
In 2005 we released four dogs onto Starvation Island, which acted as a "half way house" between the captive state of our purpose built Rehabilitation Facility and the wild. This first operation was a success and after spending six months on the island, we recaptured the four and took them to the mainland of Matusadona National Park, confident that they had learnt to provide for them selves, having developed the necessary hunting skills.
The island is the ideal place for the dogs to learn to hunt. It "enjoys" an over abundance of game, impala in particular, this combined with the lack of any other predators, creates a unique opportunity for us to exploit on the dogs behalf.
Our Rehabilitation Facility in Hwange accepts injured, orphaned and general misfits from the painted dog world. It is our mission to get as many of these back into the wild as possible. We do not breed dogs at the facility, we go through an elaborate and complex process of "creating a pack" from all of the waif and strays that come our way. This latest "Pack" consists of three males. One orphaned due to an anthrax outbreak in the Lowvelt, another orphaned as a result of illegal smuggling of Zimbabwe's dogs into South Africa and the third orphaned when his father was killed causing his pack to dissolve. This last one turned up alone at our Rehab looking for company. The "Pack" was originally completed by three females, which we had rescued from South Africa and an uncertain future. Tragically one of these females died. Thus we ended up with our "pack" of five and set out on the drive from our facility towards Starvation Island. We had a 371km drive to the nearest land point ahead of us and then a short 20-minute boat ride to the island. It was 4pm.
We drove in three landrovers. Jealous left first with one dog in his car, Ester left next with two dogs in her car and I followed, towing a trailer full of fuel, with the remaining two dogs in the back of my landrover. Each dog was in its own, purpose built, wooden crate. We had pre arranged meeting points and new the road ahead. Ester had driven the road 6 times already, as she had visited the island to carry out game and vegetation surveys ahead of the release. Jealous and I thought we had driven it 14 times, but decided it was probably more. The dogs travel well. They seem to except that there is nothing they can do and sleep, safely housed in their wooden crates.
The first 170km or so is on fairly good tar roads. The steep hills around the mining town of Kamativi pose a problem, but nothing too serious, so long as you have your wits about you. It's the remaining 200km that defy belief. A treacherous mix of slippery, corrugated gravel, pot holes, more pots holes and rain eroded gullies, not to mention the exposed bed rock, which combine to test your concentration too the limits. In 2005 one of our landrovers rolled following a front tyre puncture on this road.
Ester's landrover suffered the first puncture. Happily there was no drama and after twenty minutes or so she was on her way again. My landrover suffered the next puncture after I had to drive through the bush to get past around a truck that had jack-knifed on an incline. It was midnight. We had left Hwange at 4pm. I knew we had at least another 3 hours ahead of us.
At 1.30am the centre pin on the right side of the rear axel of the trailer I was towing fell out. Three of the leaf springs fell off and the trailer dragged my landrover to a halt. I got out of the landrover to see why we had "stopped". The rear axle was at least 45 degrees out of line. It was pretty obvious. It was also immediately apparent that I had a serious problem to solve. I always carry a good set of spanners in my landrover; they were the first things Greg told me to buy when I volunteered to "help" him ten years ago!!! However, I am not a mechanic and it took me almost three hours to fix the problem. Taking off the spring, re-aligning the axle and then the springs so I could fit a new centre pin. I was very grateful for the help I received from Pieter Huisman, who was travelling with me to record the whole saga on film.
No sooner had Pieter and I resumed our journey than Jealous turned up. Worried beyond belief that something serious had happened to me. In typical style I cursed him for taking so long to come and find me and he laughed at how long it had taken me to fix a "simple" problem. It was 4.30 am. We still had two and a half hours to go. The last section of the drive is the worst. Steep inclines over exposed bedrock, with other sections of the "road" having been washed away completely. We crawled along, Pieter kept talking to me, filming and asking questions to make sure I was still awake. At 7am we rolled into Musango Safari Camp. Owner Steve Edwards had kindly offered us use of his camp and boats to get the dogs across to the island.
Without any further delays, we loaded the dogs onto his big pontoon boat and went across.
Such translocations are carried out in conjunction with the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority. They have a station at Tashinga, which is near by Musango and we enjoy a very good working relationship with them. It's an incredibly remote place and conditions are tough. Despite this, the Tashinga Wardens and staff are always willing to assist and they had responded as positively as ever to my requests. Poaching on the island is a constant threat. The near by fishing camps are busy places and unfortunately the fishermen do not always hunt for fish. I made a request that some of the Tashinga scouts be deployed on the island for several days to clear it of any snares and to illustrate that the island was now a place of intense activity. This was done and more. The Tashinga Warden went as far as visiting the camps to inform them that the island was now off limits and that anyone seen in the vicinity was likely to be arrested. I was delighted to see the scouts and the Wardens waiting for us as a reception committee when we arrived with the dogs.
The crates were unloaded and without any fuss we opened each one up to release the dogs onto their new home. They seemed equally delighted to be on the island, though I suspect it was more the relief of finally being out of the wooded crates.
They have settled down well, though we continue to monitor their progress on a daily basis. As I write this, Jealous is again camping on the island with two scouts from Tashinga, in an effort to make sure that all is well.
The busy month of August was not over. On Friday 31st, we opened the doors of our Interpretive Hall to the local community. Our Chairman, Jerry Gotora and Chief Nelukoba hosted the day, which was a great success. Our Guest of Honour was the Governor for Matabeleland, however the day belonged to the people. Our local staff who built the entire complex and the surrounding communities who derive the most benefit from it.