Having spent much of my career as an animal trainer and conservation ambassador, I have taken care of birds, reptiles, and mammals of all sizes. Perhaps most rewarding has been educating people about animals and getting them excited about wildlife conservation. In 2013, hoping to build on my experience and become a better conservationist, I applied and was selected for the two-year Emerging Wildlife Conservation Leaders (EWCL) program.
Part of the EWCL experience is to work on a project that benefits an endangered species. Five other participants and I were partnered with Painted Dog Conservation and Painted Dog Research Trust (PDRT) in Zimbabwe. With the help of the Wildlife Conservation Network, we formed the Painted Dog Protection Initiative (PDPI).
While sometimes mistaken for a hyena, the African painted dog is smaller, with a distinctive and colorful coat pattern, large rounded ears, long legs, and only four toes on its front feet. They are highly successful hunters and travel in large packs. They are also southern Africa’s most endangered large carnivore species. PDPI’s goal is to address one of the species’ main threats: entanglement in illegal wire snares.
Several years ago, Dr. Gregory Rasmussen, founder and director of PDRT, discovered that a painted dog he was studying had been entangled in a wire snare, but was saved when the snare caught on the dog’s tracking collar, protecting the dog’s neck and allowing it to escape. Dr. Rasmussen wondered if it was possible to improve upon existing tracking collars so that they would also “capture” snares. Working with the Houston Zoo, PDPI stepped in to manufacture a prototype anti-snare collar studded with clips designed to do just that. We conducted over 700 trials to determine the most effective design and worked with conveyer-belt company Beltservice and solar power company Power-film to turn the collars into a reality.
Now, Dr. Rasmussen is placing 20 of the anti-snare collars on dogs that live in an area full of illegal snares near Victoria Falls. We hope to make more collars and protect at-risk dogs all across Africa. I truly believe painted dogs can rebound from the edge of extinction. They just need a helping hand.