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Project Update January 2012

Feb 21, 2012

It was hot, the humidity high, a line of sweat trickled down my back as I crouched down. The red dot of my dart rifle’s scope danced on Aurora’s flank. The day had finally arrived. Aurora and Gaia were at the end of one chapter in their eventful lives and about to start a new one. A new life in Gonarezhou National Park.

I waited for my breathing to slow and my hand to steady before firing. My aim was good and the dart hit home with a gentle thud. Five minutes later Aurora was lying down, the cocktail of sedative and anaesthetic doing its job. A few moments of mild panic followed when we realised that the gate to the enclosure was still locked! An oversight caused by the tension that built up while we waited. Luckily Mary Phiri, the National Parks Ranger who is on permanent attachment to PDC, remembered where the key is normally hidden and so we were quickly inside and carried Aurora out to the waiting veterinarian team. Led by Dr Zishiri, the team went to work on Aurora, giving her a rabies vaccination, taking blood and faecal samples for analysis.

My attention was now on Gaia. The offering of an impala leg proved enough of a distraction to her, allowing me to get into close range and after several minutes of manoeuvring I was able to dart her as well.

Aurora and Gaia grew up in the PDC Rehabilitation Facility. Lions had killed their parents when they were only a few weeks old and consequently PDC were given permission to capture them and their three brothers and raise them at our facility. This was in July 2009. In April 2011 we moved all five of them, plus a non-related male, to the Victoria Falls Private Game Reserve, where they learnt to be wild again. Lions killed the male after he had suffered broken ribs following a kick from a zebra. This death caused the pack to split with the three brothers joining two wild females and thus Gaia and Aurora were now looking for suitable males to form a pack of their own. The Reserve acted as a half way house for the dogs, like Starvation Island had in the past. It is not large enough for the dogs to remain there permanently, so once we were happy that they could hunt and provide for themselves, they needed to be relocated into a suitable National Park.

Once the vet team had completed their work, both dogs were loaded into the back of Greg’s Land Rover for the first stage of their 1000 km journey to Gonarezhou National Park. It had cooled down now, with a comfortable breeze blowing. The first stage of the journey would be a relatively short hop from the Victoria Falls Private Game Reserve to the PDC Rehabilitation Facility. Here they would be able to fully recover from the anaesthetic before the onward journey. From experience we know that the dogs travel best on such long journeys if they are wide awake, not drowsy and stumbling around with the possibility of injuring themselves.

Our Rehabilitation Facility was purpose-built by our friend and Curator of Perth Zoo, John Lemon. A lot of thought went into its design, so much so that we can move any dog into any of the eight enclosures without the need to handle it. Gaia and Aurora grew up in our Rehabilitation Facility and clearly recognised that they were “back home.”. They soon began vocalizing with Zanga, their foster father and took the opportunity to have a good soak in their favourite bathtub! It was tempting to keep them, knowing that this was a safe place for them, but that is not our aim, or the purpose of the facility. Our aim is to get each and every animal that passes through our hands, for whatever reason, back into the wild. Gaia and Aurora were born wild and it was always their destiny to return.  They were now destined to play an even more significant role for their species.

Gonarezhou National Park is in the Lowveldt region of Zimbabwe, the bottom right hand corner of the country if you are looking at a map. The reason for moving Gaia and Aurora so far is that research data shows that Gonarezhou National Park, and the Lowveldt region as a whole, has the lowest genetic diversity of any painted dog population in Africa. I won’t go into the science of this (it’s too long a story, you are welcome to email Greg if you would like a full explanation), but theevidence is there. A brief, not very scientific explanation would be to say that the population is suffering from inbreeding. Introducing Gaia and Aurora, who originate from Hwange National Park, which happens to have one of the highest levels of genetic diversity of any painted dog population in Africa means that a new, much needed bloodline, is being introduced into the system, which is a significant step in the right direction towards restoring the system. This is a truly significant step regarding the conservation of Zimbabwe’s painted dog population and is testament to the commitment of Zimbabwe’s often-criticized Parks and Wildlife Management Authority.  They have been supportive of this proposal from the outset, ready to listen to the reasoning that the opportunity presented, and willing to make the all important decision.

After a day or so to settle down and fully recover from the anaesthetic, we coaxed Gaia and Aurora into the back of our purpose-built trailer for the next leg of the long drive to Gonarezhou National Park. We have developed this technique over the years and so far it has not let us down. We use three-metre high plastic sheeting to create a funnel leading to the open trailer and gently walk the dogs into it. It’s tense work, even with dogs such as Gaia and Aurora. We have to be slow, quiet, patient and determined all at the same time, so that in the end the dogs seem to accept that they have no alternative other than to jump nicely into the back of the trailer and settle down on the thick bed of straw. Then we run as quickly as we can and close the trailer door. Simple really!

With the dogs safely locked in, a convoy of Mary Phiri, representing National Parks, in one car and Greg in his Land Rover, set off at 5:00 PM and drove through the cool of the night to Gonarezhou National Park, arriving at 6:00 AM the next morning. A tough drive, but the welfare of the dogs is far more important to us than a good night’s sleep. The Area Manager for Gonarezhou National Park, Mr. Mpofu, plus rangers and research students, met them on arrival.

The dogs jumped out of the trailer and were immediately fed, which is part of the process of helping them settle down. You can imagine it would be stressful for them to arrive in a new location, hungry, and have to go off and hunt for themselves. Feeding them on arrival gives them the energy to now explore. The mission for Gaia and Aurora being to find mates and create a new pack, ultimately to breed new life into the Lowveldt painted dog population.

Greg stayed in Gonarezhou National Park and monitored their progress over the following days in conjunction with Gonarezhou National Park staff. It came as no surprise that the dogs needed to be fed again three days later but we were delighted to receive a report from Gonarezhou National Park Ecologist, Patience Gandiwa, that the dogs were seen a few days later with very full bellies, and so no longer needed to be fed.

There is still a lot of work to do. The five dogs remaining on the Victoria Falls Private Game Reserve will need to be moved soon and may well be translocated to Gonarezhou National Park as well.

I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge and thank Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, in particular Chief Ecologist, Dr Madzikanda and Mary Phiri for their commitment to the conservation of painted dogs. The owners and management of the Victoria Falls Private Game Reserve and Shearwaters for their tremendous support and commitment making the reserve available for the dogs in the first place. And of course our equally committed donors, who provide the much needed funds for such work to be undertaken. Thank you.