The punk dogs of Zim

Man’s best friend may be the dog, but a dog’s best friend is not always man. In fact, in the case of the African hunting dog, man has proved to been nothing short of a worst enemy. Before the turn of the century, tens of thousands of these highly social creatures roamed Sub-Saharan Africa including 34 countries. Now they exist in fragmented populations in only four. There are 2 million people on the planet for every one of the 3000 hunting dogs now in existence. The cause of their decline is resoundingly familar and depressing: man.

Dogs have been mown down by cars (35%) and massacred by snares (20%). The rest have been shot. African hunting dogs however, have a friend in Greg Rasmussen, and with his extraordinary energy and dogged determination, he may just be set to save them from extinction.

The nature of the dogs makes them particularly vulnerable. They live in strongly bonded groups in which each individual shares responsibility for pack survival. Loss of any pack member can reduce the chances for everyone. The dogs can rapidly traverse large distances (20-30km per day) looking for prey. This can give the impression that they exist in huge numbers. When Greg Rasmussen began working in Zimbabwe, most of the famers in his study area hadn’t a clue that the dogs were a rarity. They saw them all the time. What they didn’t realise was that the dogs they saw this morning were the same ones they saw that afternoon.

The farmers also believed that the dogs were doing away with their cattle. Over a period of 8 years, Greg set up the organisation “Painted Hunting Dog Research”; proved that the dogs were not killing cattle, (in fact plastic bags were killing more cattle than dogs); showed beyond doubt how rare the dogs had become, and launched a huge wild dog PR campaign. All of these have been highly effective, but for Greg, these long term solutions were not working fast enough.

The dogs were still suffering: “Whole packs were killed. One female had broken free from a snare, but her wind pipe was cut. She was mess. She took eight weeks to die, all the pups died, and the pack disbanded”. When there are only around 300 packs in the world, each loss is not only heartbreaking, its a significant blow to the species. Something had to happen fast, so Greg thought again: “The idea came from the collars which are typically fitted to animals we want to radio track. I invented a new collar, wider, to protect the neck of the dog. It is half reflective belting and half stainless steel, the steel is in the windpipe region, made deliberately wider, first for comfort for the dogs, but also to make the dogs visible to people in cars. Putting a collar on a dog is like making a statement that the dog is owned. People are far less likely to shoot it”

The very best thing about the collars, however, are the rivets. These are basically punk studs which cut through any wire snares set to garrot the animals. “It is amazing to see the dogs pull back against a snare, break it and walk free where previously they would have been lacerated”. Around 30 dogs have been fitted with collars (1% of the world’s population), and there are plans to protect more. And it works. Where all dogs which roamed outside the national park would previously have died, now 45% live to adulthood. This desperate measure buys time, keeping the species alive, while more conventional conservation start to work.

Greg has also been involved in dog political-correctness. “There was a deep seated red-riding-hood mentality, imported into Africa when the Europeans came in the 20th century. Anything considered aggressive or a pest – any vermin – has been referred to as a ‘wild dog’.”

This includes jackals, hyaenas, feral dogs and the wild dogs of Greg’s studies, and the name has given the locals carte blanche to obliterate them. But the ‘Painted Hunting Dog’, as Greg now insists on calling them, is a species in its own right, and a very precious one. Far from being domestic dogs gone wild, hunting dogs have been roaming the African plains since long before humans domesticated dogs, or even stood on two legs. Greg has managed to slow the decline of hunting dogs in Zimbabwe, but they are still globally threatened. Until they their future is secure, the dogs need all the friends they can get.