By Calvin Manika
Vusile, Nat, Socks, John and Roman are common names commonly given to people. These names are inscribed on the tombstones at a graveyard set aside for painted dogs at the Painted Dogs Conservation (PDC) in Dete near the Hwange National Park. Vusile is the founding Alpha mother and is buried among other dogs that met their demise mainly due to human activities.
The Painted Dogs Conservation Centre (PDC) was established to safeguard and increase the range and number of these relatively unknown animals, and to encourage the public to visit the centre and find out more about them.
PDC estimates that there are between 3 000 and 5 000 wild dogs alive on the African continent. Painted dogs once roamed freely through Africa,and today they are mainly found in Tanzania, Botswana, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. The greatest number of wild dogs is found in Zimbabwe with about 700 dogs.
In a bid to raise awareness of painted dogs and protection of the endangered species, environment and wildlife, the conservation centre invites grade 6 children for an educational trip from schools in and around Dete. Iganyana Children’s Bush Camp is a flagship programme for the Painted Dog Conservation Organisation (PDC). The 17 targeted primary schools enjoy a free of charge, four-day residential programme, which aims to not teach new concepts about the environment, but to promote an emotional attachment to painted dogs that will lead to a lifelong attitude of caring for them.
One of the success stories is of Tendai Nyathi (12) of Gundwane village which sits on the border of the Hwange National Park. Tendai and her friend Nomusa shared their experience at the Bush Camp stating that they perceived their environment in a new way especially trees, as they now understood that a tree was not just firewood. They have also been conscientised on the dangers of poaching and how they should be ambassadors in looking for snares and protect animals like painted dogs. She recounts one such incident,
“I pleaded with other villagers to act on the foot prints we had seen, and the poacher was arrested in the evening. He was handed over to the police. I kept my promise to the painted dogs to stop poaching in my village,” said Tendai.
A similar commitment is demonstrated by Belinda Ncube who at the age of 12 saved a kudu. Belinda is now a member of the Painted Dogs Conservation Anti- poaching unit. “When I was in grade 6 our class came here for 4 days. We learnt a lot. The experience changed my life. I became an advocate for the protection of environment and wildlife. Poaching especially of kudus is rife in this area, so I chose to be part of the anti-poaching unit despite being a woman,” said Belinda.
Painted dogs were classified as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 2016, due to its fast dwindling numbers. The decline of these populations is on-going due to habitat fragmentation, human persecution and disease outbreaks. “They are killed by farmers, die from diseases like rabies and get caught in illegal snares set by poachers meant to catch other game. Habitat loss and larger predators also contribute to depleted numbers. Population densities of African wild dogs are low in areas where lions are more abundant,” said Mr Ronnie Sibanda who is the Marketing and Communications Supervisor at the Painted Dogs Conservation Organisation
Four days at Iganyana Children’s Bush Camp is packed with activities, games and endless laughter. To most children it is not the three hot meals, electric lights, water that runs from a tap and stairs that take them as high as treetops that they remembered most. Children play games such as “Teach Your Children Well” which tells a story about the lives of painted dog pups whose father is killed in a snare and that of orphan children. The camping creates a conscious mind in the life of children by shaping a positive attitude on environment and wildlife. Some of the beneficiaries of the Painted Dogs Conservation social responsibility are now lawyers, teachers and experts in various fields including climate change, environment and wildlife conservation.
According to the statistics at the Painted Dogs Conservation Education Department, Makwandara and Dingane primary schools are some of the last schools to visit the centre before the Covid 19 induced lockdown at the end of March this year. Every year the PDC hosts about 1 000 grade six children from local schools. In 2020 alone, the painted dogs centre hosted 7 free of charge bush camps which were attended by a total number of 234 students. Since the programme began PDC has hosted 353 bush camps at the Iganyana Children’s Bush Camp and more than 11 000 children have attended the camp.
“We conduct a pre and post camp questionnaire to establish how much children know about wildlife conservation and to assess their knowledge after camping. We are not limited to local schools. The camp is open to schools from outside our core operation area; they provide their own food for the duration of the camping. This will depend on number of days they intend to stay and activities they want, they pay for the services provided by PDC,” said Mr Wilton Nsimango who is the Head of the PDC Education Department.
Mr Ronnie Sibanda added that, “At Painted Dogs Conservation organisation we have a number of community developmentswhich include, but are not limited to,drillingboreholes, establishing nutritional gardens, building classroom blocks and teachers’ accommodation, paying school fees forlocal children and supporting local clinics.”
The conservation centre falls under Chief Nelukoba’s jurisdiction. The chief who is a board member of the organisation applauded their role in his area. “The Painted Dogs organisation is not only changing the attitude ofpeople towards the environment but their lives too.” Chief Nelukoba expressed the positive impact of the education of children by the Painted Dogs Conservation organisation: “Our children at grade 6 are taken to the bush camp for education on environment and the wildlife. It has improved their understanding in science and geography subjects. We are having a generation of responsible people who protect nature. The organisation pays schools fees for those who cannot afford.”
Other community leaders added their voice. “We are having challenges in our ward concerning the protection of the environment especially from poachers of firewood, sand and wildlife. I want to acknowledge efforts being made by the Painted Dogs Conversation organisation on anti-poaching and their hand in community development” said Councillor Cosmos Mwakiposa of Lupote ward.