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Project Update June 2012

Jul 6, 2012

 Mana Pools.

It was the first time I had ever flown into Mana Pools. Mana is located in the north of Zimbabwe and I had made several visits there since October 2010, when I first collared Tait, the alpha female of the “Vundu” pack, but I had never seen it from the air. I sat with my face pressed to the plane’s window as we cleared the steep wall of the escarpment and dropped down over the flood plain of the Zambezi River. Dry, dusty rivers cut a tortuous course towards the glittering waters of the distant Zambezi River; lifeless relics that now served as mere reminders of a more fruitful past. Dried up waterholes betrayed the harsh reality of life in the wild. Searching for water, the game had worn scars into the scorched land leading toward the Zambezi River, which offered life and sustenance for so many.

I was travelling with friend and long time PDC supporter, Victor Adams. Nick Murray, the owner and pro guide of Vundu Camp, waited for us in his battered Land Rover as the Cessna 206 touched down gently amid a cloud of dust. While waiting for us, Nick took the time to check out the nearby den site used by the Long Pool pack in 2011. It was a little early for the dogs to be denned, so I wasn’t too surprised when he reported no activity at the den site. We drove to Vundu Camp through herds of impala, while buffalo, kudu, elephant and the ever-present baboons added pleasant variety. Our main mission for the days ahead was to locate the Vundu pack and check on the welfare of Tait because her GPS collar was no longer transmitting. We hoped it was only an all too familiar collar failure. As frustrating as these technical failures are, they are insignificant compared to worst-case scenarios of injured or dead dogs.

Without a working collar to guide us, we were dependent on Nick’s skills as a tracker and his knowledge of the dogs to locate them. Many long days followed, driving the roads, searching for signs of the dogs. It was fun to be distracted on occasion by a bull elephant, a herd of eland or a spitting cobra as we searched. The opportunity to get out of the bouncy Land Rover and walk awhile was equally welcome. Still, we were on a mission and eventually finding a fresh set of footprints (spoor) raised our spirits. The remains of a sub adult male impala provided further evidence that we were getting closer to the pack, however it was not the Vundu pack. The footprints indicated the presence of eight dogs; the Vundu pack was at least 16 dogs. We guessed that it was the Long Pool pack, a very worthwhile “second prize” and the opportunity to collar them would have been welcomed.

On the last morning the Vundu pack literally appeared out of nowhere, emerging from a dry riverbed only metres from the Land Rover. Her collar and her very pregnant state immediately identified Tait. It was great to see her again and have confirmation that she was alive and well. But we were irritated by yet another technical failure of the collar, which at a cost of more than USD3,000 per collar are not cheap.

Failed collar or not, darting Tait was out of the question as the drugs can cross the placental barrier with devastating consequences for the unborn pups. Because of this we turned our attention towards the alpha male, Jed. The pack is, on the whole, very relaxed and quite approachable even on foot. Jed, unfortunately, isn’t like that and always keeps his distance, so it took us quite a while to get into position to dart him. The rest of the pack moved away while we took samples for DNA analysis and fitted a VHF collar. We stayed with Jed for several hours after he woke up, following him at a distance as he searched for the rest of his pack. He rested in the shade only 500 metres from the pack and joined up with them later in the afternoon. With Tait's collar not working, the new collar on Jed will help us locate the pack and thus keep an eye on their movements in the months ahead. We will replace Tait's collar in September.

Wildlife Vets International.

Professor Tom Ogilvie–Graham and “TV Vet” Dr. Steve Leonard visited us in June, as Patrons of PDC UK and Wildlife Vets International.  With their support and the generous donation of 1000 rabies vaccines we facilitated a local vaccination campaign run by Dr Zishiri, the Regional Veterinary Officer for Hwange. Rabies and canine distemper among domestic dog populations in the rural communities that buffer Hwange National Park are an ever-present threat to the painted dogs. The best way to protect them is to vaccinate their domestic distant cousins. We originally planned seven vaccination clinics, but ended up with 12 as we moved from village to village. The response was overwhelming. The team undertook a valiant effort processing every dog (and occasional cat), each getting the double vaccination along with treatment for worms, ticks and fleas. Tom had seen this before, as he had joined us in 2010 for a similar campaign, however it was a new experience for Steve.  He observed how hard life was for the domestic dogs but was also taken with the obvious affection shown by the owners. More than 800 dogs were vaccinated during the period.

Of Dogs and Roads.

Alpha female Sipiwe and alpha male Contrast were run over and killed in May. Jealous was following the Kutanga pack when Contrast was hit by a car almost in front of him. The pack cut a corner through the bush and as Jealous drove around he came across Contrast lying in the road, still alive, while the rest of the pack stood staring, as if in disbelief at what had happened. The speeding vehicle had left the scene of the crime, probably not even stopping to consider the devastation he had wrought.

With Edward’s help, Jealous lifted Contrast into his car and drove quickly to our Rehab Facility, calling me on the phone as he drove. I called Greg and he quickly drove down to the Rehab to meet Jealous. At first we were optimistic about Contrast’s chances of surviving. His back was not broken as he lifted his head and could move his legs and tail. The concern was for his head, though, as he had clearly impacted the road or the car itself. Greg spoke to Dr. Zishiri at length and administered fluids and treatment as directed; sadly, to no avail, as Contrast died a couple of hours later.

Sipiwe was obliterated, presumably by a speeding truck or bus, the very next day at the exact same spot on the road, despite the presence of our “Painted Dog Slow Down” road signs. Contrast’s death reduced the embattled Kutanga pack to four individuals. The alpha female, Ester, was again pregnant but for the third year in a row she has failed to have pups. She is with another female named Shoulder Patch, who we presume to be her sister, and also the two young males named Surf and BT. We have now collared all of them and keep a daily watch on their progress. Before her death, Sipiwe had been moving around the area with another female named MK. They are sisters of Surf and BT. Now MK is alone.

Anti Poaching Breakthrough.

PDC has been deploying anti poaching units (APU) since 2001. Aimed at combating the seemingly relentless tide of poaching, these units have collected over 3000 snares a year, arrested poachers and witnessed the devastating, senseless loss of wildlife. Poaching with wire snares is brutally effective and wasteful to an appalling degree. A line of 30 snares can kill 20 buffalo. The poacher or poachers may only recover a leg from one animal, leaving the rest to rot.

We conducted meetings with the Police and National Parks late last year to discuss different tactics and PDC agreed to underwrite payments to informants. Information identifying a poacher, someone selling meat or even someone buying meat is being sought.

We had our first break through while our scouts were on a joint patrol with Forestry Commission scouts when a brave fellow came forward with information regarding three individuals. The combined unit reacted immediately and arrests were made leading to the three being prosecuted. The story made the national newspapers. This incident was soon followed by further information regarding people selling meat and again arrests were made. Its early days but a significant step forward has been made in the war to protect our wildlife heritage.

Iganyana Children’s Bush Camp.

We are now into our ninth-year of operating our Children’s Bush Camp Programme. Iganyana is the local Ndebele name for the painted dog. The programme, which was designed by Bruce Lombardo, with considerable input from our Education Programme Manager, Wilton Nsimango, has rightly received international recognition for its excellence. An increasing number of institutions have expressed interest in replicating the programme, which aims to influence the hearts and minds of children in a positive way towards nature conservation, with the painted dog acting as the focal species in our case.

May and June were busy months. Seven local schools attended the four-day programme, though Main Camp and Mambanje - had only 15 and ten pupils respectively. The camps went very well, with Wilton and his team ensuring that the children experience nature in a way that will leave a lasting impression on them. Our long-term aim is to encourage positive attitude change so that when these children reach adulthood and assume positions of growing responsibility in their respective communities, these positive attitudes toward conservation will develop into behavioral changes that will have long-term effects on conservation in the area.

A growing number of these children are grateful recipients of your kindness and generosity, with many receiving direct support toward their school fees, uniforms and books. PDC aims to play a positive role in the community, bringing benefits to many in a variety of ways, schools fees being just one example of such benefits that would not exist without the presence of the painted dogs and most importantly your much appreciated support. Our overall mission is to ensure a future for the painted dogs and your support is key to helping us tackle the complexity of the situation from many angles. These are very tough times economically and your support is even more appreciated. Please don’t stop because we won’t. Thank you.