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International trade in Painted dogs

Mar 14, 2010

Follow up from Painted Dog Conservation on dogs being taken from the wild.

 The recent investigation film concerning the international trade in painted dogs raised many points, though as often is the case, there is some background history that I feel needs coming to light. Furthermore Mike Bester (MB) raises some important facts that can pave the way for better understanding of the issue.  At this point I wish to stress that this communication is neither condemning nor condoning MB but simply a viewpoint based on the important issues he raises.

1/  a 25minute documentary

 2/  opinion by Mike Bester

 3/  opinion by Ian Michler

 4/  opinion Greg

 Background to the trafficking.

 Painted Dog Conservation (PDC) ( is based in Hwange Zimbabwe and is dedicated to the conservation of the species. The work undertaken targets research, medical intervention in packs that are injured, rehabilitation to the wild where necessary, education and community development for the better of conservation. The project works nationally in Zimbabwe with my research on Painted Dogs starting 22 years ago.

In 2003 we received a report stating that a large litter of pups (approx. 12) had been dug out of a den in the Lowveldt region of Zimbabwe.  Intensive follow up on this finally tracked the pups down, however only two were left and both had rickets.  These dogs were taken to the PDC rehabilitation facility where they miraculously survived, however were left with joint deformations that precluded them from being release candidates.

The PDC rehabilitation facility has two functions.

1/ It provides for all Painted dogs that legitimately could not survive in the wild either in short or long term.

2/ All dogs that are deemed “fit” enough to be released into the wild will be released. This decision was made on the basis that PDC would develop strategies and methods to facilitate release into the wild, and that all fit individuals would be part of such a programme.

A couple of years later we had another report that not only had another litter of eight had been dug up but that it had been smuggled across the border at Messina and was being held at a butchery there. It was this event that prompted a team of journalists to follow up on the missing dogs. The information regarding the dogs trafficked from Zimbabwe was transmitted to all the institutions known to be housing painted dogs as well as the ‘Wild Dog Action Group” (WAG), which functions to monitor and coordinate painted dog conservation and research efforts in South Africa.  Eighteen months later I received a tip off that these Zimbabwean dogs were at de Wildt, however now only three remained. Contact with de Wildt confirmed this, and at this juncture it was decided by the Zimbabwean authorities that the dogs should be repatriated.  Only two were flown back to Zimbabwe to the PDC rehabilitation facility as de Wildt informed us that the third one died shortly before we collected the dogs.  The two dogs were eventually rehabilitated back to the wild by using an Island on Lake Kariba as a half way house whilst they learnt to hunt and bond as a functional pack before being release into the wild (see documentary Animal planet Nature conservation Films).

Shortly after this I received word that litter of 7 pups had been found in in Bulawayo and collected by a wildlife orphanage. PDC received four of the pups, however at this juncture PDC was prevented from recovering the whole litter.  When two-three years old these dogs were also released using the Island on lake Kariba. DNA testing of these dogs later confirmed that their origin was the Lowveldt region of Zimbabwe.  Furthermore personal communication with an ex rancher in the region confirmed that dogs were being dug out of dens at the request of South African dealers and that the money paid per pup was considerable. Finally with wildlife crime being difficult to detect, with perhaps even a 5% success rate being high, intercepting three litters is strong indication that the problem is of huge proportion and it is therefore probable some 50 litters have left Zimbabwe.


In the documentary, Peter Singer makes it clear that the word “captive bred” can be misleading, as captive bred animals from wild stock in my opinion are as illegitimate and illegal as the wild parents from which they stemmed. Consequently whilst I in no way refute the statement by MB that “ALL the dogs which I exported were captive bred in well known institutions with traceable histories.” it is a fact (as highlighted in the studbook) that some of the captive bred progeny in South Africa that MB received may well have been from wild parents, and thus the trade in captive animals is impinging on the wild population.

Furthermore another valid point is raised by MB when with respect to a CITES listing, whilst he agrees that Painted dogs should be CITES listed, he follows on with  “However it should also be noted that there is a huge captive population in South Africa and many other zoos worldwide. Sadly many of these colonies are genetically inbred and are of little conservation value.”  Here MB gets to the root of the problem namely that there IS a need to get new bloodlines and thus validating the reason that Zimbabwe was targeted. He also makes the valid point that dogs from South Africa now have genetically little to offer the captive population in terms of new bloodlines.

Regarding the export of dogs to China and other collections, the question is raised as to inspection of facilities and minimum standards.  As a personal comment I would like to suggest that such facilities are approved by independent bodies such as the American Zoo Association AZA, European Association of Zoos and Aquaria EAZA, or where responsible zoo bodies do not exist, the Society for Protection of Animals (SPCA). As this is public domain, as MB has clearly stated his openness and willingness “to furnish them with information relating to my exporting of dogs”, I would also like to know to which facilities in China the “approximately 50 dogs “ mentioned by MB were sent.

Finally from the standpoint as Director of a hands on organisation at the frontline of Painted Dog Conservation I would like those that read this to think of not only the damage done to the wild population but whilst some individuals make money off of the species, the cost these events impose on PDC is high.  With regard to the dogs themselves it is a fact that of the 27 pups dug out of the wild 16 died as a direct consequence of the removal, one died due to management related anesthesia,  three died in a captive facility whilst efforts by PDC to retrieve them for rehabilitation were underway, two cannot be returned to the wild, thus leaving a total of FIVE rehabilitatable survivors out of 27 pups. A huge contrast with the usual 80-85% pup survival rate observed in the wild by Painted Dog Conservation.

Finally there is the inevitable issue of COST.  Over the ten year period PDC has conservatively spent hundreds of thousands of US$ to counter the trade, care for the dogs either permanently or until they can be rehabilitated, and then the final cost of rehabilitation and follow up monitoring to ensure the rehabilitation is as successful as possible. Whilst we are extremely grateful to a number of Zoos and Zoo associations that contribute substantially to reduce this burden, these donations in no way match the cost of countering the trade of pups being dug from the wild.

May I take this opportunity to thank all those that have supported Painted Dog Conservation over the years and at this point hope that we can collectively and collaboratively work towards both insitu and exsitu conservation without impinging on the wild population.

Dr Gregory Rasmussen,
IUCN/SSC Canid Specialist group
Director Painted Dog Conservation