AS conservation efforts shifted to the mindless cyanide poisoning of elephants by poachers, the plight of wild dogs virtually went unnoticed.
While authorities have waged a war to deal with increasingly sophisticated poaching syndicate roaming the 14 000 square kilometres Hwange National Park, conservationists are alarmed by the silence around an equally devastating tragedy facing wild dogs.
The African wild dog (AWD)’s population has plunged at a more terrifying scale than the crisis confronting jumbos in the Hwange National Park.
Zimbabwe has about 83 000 elephants, far outstripping its carrying capacity.
These elephants are cohabiting with only 150 of wild dogs, whose population reached 600 in 1992.
After 1992, the population of AWD has been plummeting.
A rapid human encroachment into wildlife estates, killings by poachers and farmers who protect their livestock from AWDs, snaring and deaths through road traffic accidents have precipitated the depletion of wild dogs.
The situation is pointing towards extinction.
In the 1970s, AWDs also faced ruthless shootings by parks authorities who just disliked them.
In 1986, they were afforded “protected” status.
The fact that AWDs have been placed on the red list by conservation experts means they are in need of extra care and protection.
AWDs are slowly disappearing, their crisis compounded by serious flaws in conservation policies, slow reaction by authorities towards the deployment of armed forces to crack down on poaching and financial problems facing the parks department.
As human populations expand, Zimbabwe’s wild dogs have been losing their space.
It is a war that Zimbabwe, once rated as one of the safest habitats for AWDs by the World Conservation Union (IUCN), is clearly losing, and one that a cross section of stakeholders say can only be won by involving communities.
“The immediate intervention is to catch and prosecute poachers,” says Alistair Pole of the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF).
“But if we don’t create a situation where communities benefit (from wildlife revenues) we are fighting a losing battle,” Pole says.
The Tour Operators Association of Zimbabwe (TOAZ) says overlooking local communities in this battle to save not only AWDs, but wildlife in general has been the biggest drawback.
TOAZ says people living on the fringes of wildlife estates were facing problems to do with the destruction of their crops and livestock by animals, and must either be compensated or given incentives to switch from being killers of these animals to their protectors.
“Poor rural communities on the frontline of elephants and human conflict zones will simply not tolerate any crop damage and will take the law into their own hands,” says Myles McCallam of TOAZ.
TOAZ has come up with incentives to encourage communities not to kill wild animals, or aid poaching.
It has paid over US$900 000 in the past few years to communities as part of the project.
The AWD has been classified by the global conservation watchdog, IUCN, as endangered after disappearing from much of its original ranges.
Its population is now estimated at roughly 39 sub-populations containing 6 600 adults in Africa, from over 10 000 a few decades ago.
Only 1 400 of these are fully grown, according to experts.
IUCN said the outlook for wild dogs in Zimbabwe was uncertain.
The world body notes that AWD populations in the country have severely depleted, following a period of rapid increases between 1990 and 1992.
At one time, government had contemplated the deployment of armed forces to take on poachers and complement ongoing education efforts to save the species.
“We have to put wildlife poaching to a stop,” says Prince Mupazviriho, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Environment, Water and Climate.
He spoke at a stakeholders conference convened to explore measures to reduce wildlife poaching in November, a few days after 26 more elephants had been poisoned.
“The issue of wildlife poaching has a direct bearing on tourism…we must come up with a holistic approach to combat poaching,” said Mupazviriho.
Government has assembled a Cabinet taskforce to look into the poaching scourge.
It is expected to come up with solutions to save wildlife from illegal hunting described by Oppah Munchinguri, the Minister of Environment, Water and Climate, as “pushing endangered species to extinction”.
AWDs stronghold span an 18 000 square kilometre range around Hwange National Park, Zambezi and Victoria Falls National Parks, Matetsi, Deka Safari Areas and Kazuma Pan Forestry Area, whose size, if the Gonarezhou National Park is included, makes it difficult for the Parks and Wildlife Management Authority of Zimbabwe to control with available resources.
“The decline of these populations is ongoing, due to habitat fragmentation, human persecution, and disease outbreaks,” says AWF.
In Hwange National Park, communities, authorities, non-profit organisations and private safari operators have joined forces to save the AWD.
Safari operators say the battle to save the endangered dog has intensified, but more resources must be mobilised.
In parts of Hwange National Park, volunteers are carrying out community awareness programmes, and tourists are also taken through a special facility to educate them about one of the worst challenges facing Zimbabwe’s wildlife estates in 36 years.
The Painted Dog Conservation (PDC) project has established a rehabilitation facility for injured, orphaned or translocated AWDs.
The project is the brainchild of Gregory Rasmussen, who started researching on the AWD in the late 1980s.
The PDC says Rasmussen watched as his study packs were ruthlessly wiped out by villagers and poachers and realised how vital it would be to come up with strategies to conserve the AWD.
Anti-poaching projects under the PDC train special scouts to remove wire snares in the bushes, while community conservation education programmes teach locals, as well as tourists, about the value of the dogs. PDC also runs a rehabilitation facility for injured, orphaned and translocated dogs, while it also has a research unit.
But as the numbers are showing, it is a battle that people could eventually lose.
In the not so distant future, many tourists visiting the Hwange National Park may return to their destinations disappointed not to see the AWD, unless conservation efforts are doubled.
Game drive notice boards in most safari camps are a good indication of the slow extinction of the dogs.
Days pass with game guides recording no AWD among animals spotted.
Although there are other animals that are difficult to see in the Hwange National Park, such as the Rhino, the plight of these animals has been highlighted, and government has been taking steps to protect them.
“About 150 painted dogs are left in Hwange,” says an official at the PDC.
“Only about 700 are left in the Southern African Development Community.
“The situation is bad, and if we do not take steps to protect these dogs, they will be history in a few years. Their population is fast depleting.
“They are slow breeders, but they are being killed by snares. We are educating the community about the near extinction of the painted dogs and why it is important to protect them,” he says.
Since community awareness projects started, the level of appreciation of the plight of these animals has improved.
But some communities are concerned that officials have not taken steps to prevent the dogs, and lions generally, from straying into communities where they kill goats and other domestic animals.
Miombo Safari Camp, one of the institutions in Hwange National Park supporting the conservation of the AWD, says on its website that it has been encouraging tourists to contribute funds towards efforts to protect, the hunter, which ruthlessly kills prey.
“Miombo Safari Lodge also makes a US$5 per guest donation for those who stay two nights with us, so you can be assured you are making a difference towards sustaining this amazing canine’s future on our planet,” says Miombo.
“The AWD research project conservation methods and the work with the local communities are beginning to have a positive effect on the outlook of the Painted Dog species. The African Painted Dog population in Zimbabwe is one of the last strongholds of the species and we at Miombo Safari Camp are committed to supporting the AWD Research Project in their conservation efforts at every opportunity possible,” says Miombo.
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