Ensuring the survival of an African icon

The African painted dog is in real danger of extinction. An iconic hunter, there are only 3,000 left, making it one of the rarest species in Africa. Thanks to ongoing conflict with man, infectious disease and the destruction of habitat, the painted dog has already disappeared from much of its original territory. Today small numbers can still be found in Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Botswana and South Africa, but the clock is ticking.

In Zimbabwe in particular the painted dog is suffering as a result of the country’s worsening political and economic situation and the collapse of eco-tourism and conservation. This is where WVI has stepped in to help local Zimbabwean NGO, Painted Dog Conservation (PDC), in its battle to save one of the continent’s signature species.

Painted dogs are at great risk from infectious diseases, like distemper and rabies, as a result of ever closer contact with the encroaching human population and their domestic dogs. They are often caught in snares set by local people to catch bushmeat.

The story so far

An iconic and beautiful animal, the African painted dog is completely unique. Although it is genetically related to its African neighbours, the black-backed jackal and bat-eared fox, and to the wolf, it split from the rest of the canine family tree several million years ago and cannot interbreed with any other dog species.

This stunning hunting machine is characterised by its ‘painted’ black, white and tan coat, jet black muzzle and white tipped tail. Each animal has a unique coat pattern, making it possible for researchers to identify individual dogs by sight.

Now highly endangered, there are only around 3,000 painted dogs left. They have suffered terrible losses as a result of the destruction of their habitat by man, being caught in snares, and infectious diseases passed on by domestic dogs. In Zimbabwe in particular, the country’s deteriorating political and economic climate makes the situation especially challenging.

The challenge so far

The painted dog population of Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe is under serious threat. Infectious diseases like distemper and rabies can be easily transmitted by local domestic dogs. And painted dogs are frequently trapped in the snares that the local community use to catch bushmeat.

Prior to the first visit by a WVI vet in 2010, there had been a significant outbreak of distemper in the domestic dog population surrounding the park. Canine distemper is known to be capable of decimating wild animal populations, as happened with lions in the Serengeti in the 1990s. It’s a huge threat to the Hwange painted dogs.

Recognising this threat, Painted Dog Conservation (PDC) asked WVI for help. In 2010, together we vaccinated 450 domestic dogs in four communities around PDC’s rehabilitation centre, at short notice. Thanks to our corporate partners, we obtained essential vaccines, medication and parasite treatments.

It is essential that strategic vaccination of local dogs continues, in order to build a barrier against transmission of distemper and other infectious diseases, like rabies.

The health of every individual painted dog matters. They are highly sociable pack animals. The death of a pack leader, through disease or injury, can be disastrous, resulting in the breaking up of the group, or even the death of remaining members.

What WVI is doing to help

WVI supports and trains Zimbabwean government vets and the local staff at the veterinary and rehabilitation unit of Painted Dog Conservation (PDC), helping them develop their wildlife medicine expertise.

Following on from the success of the first community clinics in 2010, WVI and PDC ran similar clinics in 2012, 2014 and 2015. Although it has taken some years to gain the trust of local communities, the 2015 clinics were so popular we ran out of vaccine (see Progress).

During these community clinics we vaccinate domestic dogs, treat them for minor ailments and parasite infestation and will neuter dogs if the owners are willing. Not only are we controlling the transmission of disease to wild painted dogs but are increasing the health and welfare of the domestic dogs and humans, in the case of Rabies.

The vaccines give protection for three years, but as there is a lot of movement of domestic dogs into and out of the area. Vaccinating every two years gives us a good chance of keeping infectious diseases under control.

All this is being done in the name of the painted dog. The clinics provide PDC with the opportunity to engage with the communities with the overall aim of reducing persecution and improving appreciated of painted dogs and other native wildlife.

We provide veterinary training to PDC staff, and send out badly needed equipment and medication whenever we can. When our vets visit they also treat injured and sick painted dogs.

Painted Dog Conservation (PDC) staff work tirelessly with the local community to collect snares and try to prevent them being laid indiscriminately, reducing the risk to painted dogs. Staff often release animals from the snares, having patched them up as best they can.

If the injuries are severe, there is an option to take the painted dog to a vet, but it’s an eight-hour drive away. PDC has its rehabilitation centre where animals can spend time to recover before being released, but there is still a great need for further training in wildlife medicine.

Fortunately, their co-operative pack structure allows painted dogs to support and carry an animal that is recovering from illness or injury very effectively, so that rehabilitation following this kind of medical intervention is often very successful.

Looking to the future, our Veterinary Director, Dr. John Lewis, will travel to Zimbabwe in 2016 to look at the feasibility of expanding our work to take in a wider Hwange National Park and Victoria Falls area, where there is currently little research into disease. Dr. Lewis’ report will consider the logistics, training and equipment which would be required in order to set up a comprehensive disease surveillance study over this much wider area.

Alongside the logistics, WVI’s epidemiologist, Alex Tomlinson, is researching what is known about diseases in the area and those that are known to affect painted dogs.

Our main partner will be Painted Dog Conservation (PDC) but the proposed surveillance programme will include a number of organizations.

The vaccination programme and support for PDC’s staff will continue as part of the new programme.

What progress is being made

WVI sent specialist vets and vaccines to Zimbabwe in 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2015. Our vets have been able to help treat sick and injured painted dogs and vaccinate domestic dogs against rabies and distemper. Each time they visit, they continue to train and advise local staff at Painted Dog Conservation.

In March 2016, PDC arranged additional clinics in three villages that had missed out in 2015, when vaccines were in short supply. These additional clinics were very popular and resulted in a further 383 dogs being vaccinated. Local schools got involved in helping publicise the clinics and the work of PDC, sending information home via students.

Teachers reported that children who were allowed to watch the spaying and castration operations expressed aspirations to be veterinarians, doctors and nurses as a result. The clinics were used as an opportunity to distribute literature about PDC, including the free number to call if people have any questions. There was also instruction on the dangers and risks of failing to get dogs vaccinated.

Regular, strategic vaccination of domestic dogs around Hwange National Park creates an effective barrier to the transmission of infectious diseases, like rabies, between domestic and wild dogs, as well as between dogs and humans.

Our relationship with PDC goes from strength to strength. We are continuing to provide training and equipment, and are helping draw up protocols which have the potential to make a real difference by minimising the risk of transmission of disease between painted dog enclosures, between domestic livestock and painted dogs, as well as between PDC staff and painted dogs and of course vice versa.

The health of the domestic dog population is improved, and PDC can use the clinics as a platform to carry out their essential outreach/public information programmes, which aim to improve local attitudes to painted dogs and other local carnivores.

WVI vets are in regular contact with PDC Project Manager, Peter Blinston, and his team.


WVI is indebted to the generous individuals and organisations whose ongoing support - financial, moral and in kind - allows us to deliver our conservation objectives.

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