Dr. Rosemary Groom wrestles the wheel of the old Land Cruiser like a captain in a typhoon. We are following two local scouts riding rattling Jialing Chinese motorbikes down a dirt track distinguished by the qualify and frequency of its ruts. About an hour into the journey one bike sputters to a stop, and the driver cannot seem to restart it. We have a McKinsey consultant in our vehicle, so he and I and three colleagues step out and up to the buggered bike, and start to look it over. For a good 15 minutes there is gazing, finger-pointing, commenting and advising. Then the scouts string a rope between the bikes, and the first fires up and pulls the second until it burbles to a start. The air vibrates with a throaty thrum as the bikes spin down the scrub-lined track. We rush back to the Land Cruiser and leap in. “Too bad they left,” says the McKinsey consultant. “We had a lot more advice to give.”
At last we turn into a small grove of thorn trees, and there, just a few meters away, are nine wild dogs disporting in a shallow scoop of dirt, their den. With colorful, patchy coats, large bat-like ears, long legs and muzzles, and bushy tails with white tips, they are as cute and snuggly-looking as wide-eyed household pups, a treat to watch. But there are no other human observers here now. Even though wild dogs are members of the Super Seven Club (the most sought-after animals to see in Africa: Lion, Rhino, Buffalo, Elephant, Leopard, Cheetah and Wild Dog), not many visitors in Zimbabwe, or anywhere for that matter, make the effort to see the largest indigenous canines in Africa.
It could be partly blamed on animated films. In The Lion King, for example, Reirei is the cunning, greedy and villainous black-backed jackal, an African wolf-like canid (a member of the dog family Canidae) that viewers often associate with wild dogs. Shenzi and Banzai, hyenas in the original movie, are depicted as low-life gangsters, reprobates who speak in slang and live tucked away in a shadowy corner of the Pride Lands—the wrong side of the tracks. Hyenas, coarse-furred, doglike carnivores noted for their scavenging habits, are also misconstrued by audiences as related to wild dogs.
Rosemary, who may be something akin to the Jane Goodall of African Wild Dogs, thinks her charges get a bum rap, and has her own campaign to re-brand and better market these amiable and charismatic animals. The species descended from a unique lineage going back at least a million years, and are indeed more closely related to wolves than domestic dogs. The Latin name, Lycaon pictus, literally translates as “painted wolf-like animal.” Whatever they are called, they are the most endangered large carnivore in southern Africa, with an estimated 6,600 left in the wilds. They once roamed the continent, and at the turn of the twentieth century the population was estimated to be 500,000. Today their numbers have declined an appalling 98%, and they are found in just 14 countries.
Rosemary, who grew up in Zimbabwe, is head of the home-grown African Wildlife Conservation Fund, and is also the Southern African coordinator for the Range Wwide Conservation Program for Cheetah and African Wild Dogs.
Drawing on a richesse of research and hands-on experience, Rosemary is spearheading a number of initiatives to save wild dogs and other threatened wildlife in the region. She works primarily in the Savé Valley Conservancy and Gonarezhou National Park, in the far southeastern tip of Zimbabwe. Both protected areas are surrounded by high-density and impoverished rural communities with poor education and reliance on natural resources. To feed families, some from the communities poach and set snares for bushmeat, killing wild dogs.
Rosemary and her team spend time seeking out trapped wild dogs and freeing them from wires, as well as removing untriggered snares. Her crew visits each pack every 10 to 12 days, rotating cameras, monitoring puppy activity, and investigating disturbances from humans, wild predators and domestic dogs. As wild dogs are susceptive to the rabies virus, Rosemary has a rabies vaccination campaign for the domestic dogs who may encounter their cousins at intersection points. But Rosemary knows the issues start further up the funnel, and is spending time and resources on village workshops, and childhood education, teaching the merits of wildlife conservation. And she raises monies for scholarships, satellite tracking collars, gauze for injured dogs, computers and books for kids, diesel for monitoring vehicles, and even boots for scouts. As part of her overall commitment to improving local peoples’ livelihoods, Rosemary is exploring ways to keep elephant and hippos from raiding crops, and hyenas and lions from killing livestock, and advocating kraals to protect cattle and other animals at night. The aerial goal is to help end the cycle of poverty and reduce human-wildlife conflict by improving education standards, and hopefully providing local communities with opportunities to make a living without relying on illegal harvesting of wild dog prey speciess and other wildlife from protected areas.
I sit down to chat with Rosemary on her porch at Chishakwe, part of the once vast Cattle Ranch called Devuli, in the million-acre Savé Valley Conservancy, a private plot large enough to accommodate the wide wanderings of wild dogs. But the spacious range does not temper death from road fatalities, snaring, habitat loss, and human disease transmission. These are the threats Rosemary is attacking.
She begins with a description of her organization:
“So, African Wildlife Conservation Fund was established in 2005, primarily with a focus on conservation of the endangered African wild dog. I realized quite quickly that there was a lot more to be done than simple monitoring and basic conservation of the dogs. There are a lot of conflict issues here, a lot of intolerant communities. So very quickly we changed the mission, if you like, to be a lot broader. The overarching goal is still conservation of African wild dogs, but it’s now very much about working with communities, and looking at conservation of the ecosystem as a whole. We tend to use the wild dogs as a flagship species, an umbrella species, to try and preserve landscapes, habitats and other species as well.”
Why such a precipitous decrease in the numbers of wild dogs?
“The cause of the decline is most likely us, homo sapiens. Like for all species there’s been a lot of habitat loss, a lot of fragmentation, decreasing connectivity. So even where there is still habitat, wild dogs need huge areas. They roam over massive areas. We’ve lost a lot of land. We’ve had a lot of encroachment into protected areas, pressure from increasing human population. Which means when wild dogs roam, they face human persecution, and diseases. They’re very susceptible to diseases. Because of their social nature, if a disease creeps in, it tends to spread quite quickly.
“On average you’re looking at two dogs per hundred square kilometers. As an example, the area that comprises Washington D.C. holds over 700,000 people. That same area would hold five wild dogs. So, an area that supports a million people is less than needed for one pack of African wild dogs. These animals need huge areas to exist, and big landscapes are getting very, very scarce now.”
Are the educational efforts making a difference? Is there behavioral change?
‘It’s very difficult to measure. We can measure exam results. We can measure literacy. We can ask people their understanding, knowledge, even attitudes towards conservation of wild dogs. But it’s hard to know whether this translates into behavioral change.
“A couple of years ago three African wild dog puppies fell into an irrigation canal just outside the boundary of Salvia Valley, very close to one of the schools that’s a part of our education programs. Two kids walking home from school saw the wild dog puppies drowning, and the rest of the pack helplessly circling around the rim. The kids ran back to school, called some teachers who came and pulled the puppies out. They rescued them.
“We later visited the school and asked why they’d done this, and they said, to paraphrase,, ‘Well, three reasons: The first, we knew what they were,’ and they pointed to the poster on the wall we’ve given to the school ages ago describing wild dogs. ‘Second, we had learned wild dogs aren’t dangerous to people. So, we knew it was safe to pull them out even with the rest of the pack nearby. Third, because you told us, we knew they were important and endangered and we needed to protect them and help them.’
“It was just this overwhelming moment for us. We were like, “There it is.” Because intuitively education has to work. Conservation education has to reach some people, it won’t reach everybody, but it has to make a difference. There was some real tangible behavioral change with these kids and their teachers.
“I genuinely believe there are a lot of situations in which behavioral change is happening. We may not hear about them every time, and they may happen in the future. But without a doubt what we do is making a difference.”
And there is proof. Since Rosemary arrived and began her work, the wild dog population in the southeast lowveld of Zimbabwe, which had been plunging towards extinction, has seen its curve flatten. Now the wild dog population is on the rise.
Natural biologist Jess Watermeyer is the project director for the African Wildlife Conservation Fund, and works closely with Rosemary. She might be considered the COO, overseeing community work, supervising students, administering logistics, managing the field and education teams, keeping the trains running. She hails from Cape Town, attended Rhodes University in Eastern Cape in South Africa, and completed a masters in wildlife research and ranch managements around Kruger National Park. Eight years ago she signed up with Rosemary to do a brief stint studying the wild dogs. She’s still here.
I ask Jess if there is an emotional component to what she does.
“Yes, absolutely. I’m probably a little bit too invested. I’ve always been very passionate about animals, and don’t like to see any of them suffering, or exposed to any acts of cruelty. And it is hard for me to watch a wild dog dying. I get attached. I’ve watched these animals from birth to when they die, whether from a lion attack, or a poacher’s snare, or simply from old age. So, I get attached. But I think that makes the work even more fulfilling, because I actually care about what I am doing. And I find passion in it.”
Are there moments of delight and joy?
“A lot of people ask, ‘After all this time, aren’t you bored watching, studying and researching dogs?’ And I always say no, because there’s always something new. If I’m having a bad day, I’ll go and sit at a dog den and just watch them. And just the way they care for each other, look after one another, and the fun they have, it really relaxes me. And if I go out to the schools, which are rural and very impoverished, the kids are always happy to see me; they’re always smiling, and it just kind of makes troubles melt away. And when I try to help in a certain conflict situation, and I see my advice gain traction, and see how it benefits not only the people, but the wildlife as well, those are just really rewarding moments.
“Personally, it’s been a massive growing experience. I came with a solid knowledge of dogs and large carnivore conservation, and to a degree human-wildlife conflict. But I had very little understanding of a rural school setup and village education programs, and how to reach people on various levels with conservation messages. That has been surprising.
“But in terms of delight, there was a situation with a mother dog so badly attacked by lions we thought there was no way she could survive. We had named her Scarlet, and when found, her back leg was broken, the skin was missing off her side, she had puncture wounds, and her anus was hanging out. We consulted vets, and they all said, ‘Look, the best thing you can do is just leave her with her pack. They will look after her; they will keep the wounds clean; they’ll feed her. Anything you attempt will just add more stress.’
“But after examining the dog, Rosemary and I felt there was no way she was going to live, even with help from the pack. So, we came back the next morning and the day after and the day after. We returned and watched her for a week. Then in the second week she made a complete recovery. It was unbelievable. And it was testament to how the pack looks after one other. No matter how sick or how weak their packmate, the dogs brought Scarlet food, nurtured her, healed her. I mean we thought she was dead, dead, dead, and we watched her recover.
“Afterwards, the pack went missing. We hoped Scarlet had gone on to greener pastures, but we didn’t know.
“We then put trail cameras up to see if the pack might be moving around the area. And I still remember that absolute moment of excitement when I saw Scarlet come across the camera. I couldn’t believe it. It was a moment of Wow. A moment of pure joy. It made everything we do here worth it.”
What are the pillars at the African Wildlife Conservation Fund?
“The first core element is the hands-on conservation work, putting collars on, taking trap wires off, monitoring packs moving outside the community, spoour surveys, camera trap surveys, and such. Then there is the research side, collecting and recording long-term data, writing papers, trying to contribute to the academic sphere and the understanding of wild dog biology and conservation. Finally, there is policy dialogue, strategy, and management planning, working with partners in the area, and with the national park administration. And the big, big contingent is the community work, helping with education, engagement initiatives, trying to improve livelihoods, and upliftment opportunities.”
To showcase some of the community work, Rosemary and Jess take us to the nearby Muvava Primary school, which serves 750 students, grades one to seven. We watch as children, packed tightly into an airless classroom, squatting on the floor, listen attentively to a teacher describing the wildlife in the region. The scene is heartening and disheartening at the same time.
Since our visiting group leans into consulting, the question is posed: what can we do to help?
It turns out Muvava is in dire need of clean water. There is only one borehole in the wider community (drilled in the 1970s) with perennial water, and it is three kilometers away. The solution sought is a submissive pump and a pipe that can move water from there to here.
For Muvava Primary, this water project will enable the school to attract and retain good teachers. Water availability is a priority when qualified teachers choose schools. Access to clean water improves student pass rates. Water at the school improves hygiene, as staff and students have clean sinks and toilets. The school plans to plant a vegetable garden to enable students to learn about drip irrigation agriculture as an alternative to hunting. Harvested vegetables can feed students, mitigating the need for bushmeat. A garden will improve the diets of the children, as fresh vegetables can be served daily. And, ready water can improve the aesthetic values of the school with lawns, flowers and trees.
So, our little visiting group volunteers to help, and fund the water pump and pipe.
The long-term viability of the programs managed by Rosemary and Jess are under threat by one constant issue: funding, particularly for core costs such as salaries, fuel, vehicle maintenance and contingencies.
If you would like to help, contact Dr. Rosemary Groom at [email protected]
Or visit the website at https://africanwildlifeconservationfund.org/ and make a donation through their secure PayPal system.