The Painted Dog Conservation and Hwange Park, Zimbabwe
Hurtling through a forest on top of a Landrover, ducking and diving out the way of the branches overhead, battling fiercely not to get thrown off, was not how I pictured arriving at our second filming location. Yet as we have discovered with almost every part of this adventure thus far, nothing normal can be expected.
During our time at Painted Dog Conservation (PDC) we made it through a 4 hour anti-poaching patrol in shorts and flipflops; darted and recovered one of the most endangered species on the planet; and had a our very own drone safari with the leading drone anti-poaching specialists…
We finally arrived at the Painted Dog Conservation (PDC) guests’ accommodation, 9km from the Hwange National Park Main Gate. To our great surprise we were told our tents would not be needed and instead we were going to be able to enjoy the luxury of a single bed each for the remainder of our stay. Having been tent bound for 25 out of the 30 nights so far, this news was greeted with much excitement.
A rumble from outside notified us that another Landrover had arrived. Out clambered Wilton, the head of community education and engagement at PDC. He had come to invite us to an evening rendition of a story about a Painted Dog caught by poachers told by local children currently attending Bush Camp. His warm smile and generous laugh immediately made us feel welcome and excited to find out more about this unique style of community engagement within the anti-poaching arena.
Wilton explained how the Bush Camp is an educational adventure provided for 10-11 year olds from schools in the communities on the border of Hwange National Park. He told us often as they first arrive, many of them have never experienced a staircase before, so he has to let them have half an hour to run up and down the stairs before the activities can commence. They are then treated to four days of learning about wildlife, putting on plays, doing team quizzes and going on game drives in Hwange national park. This long term vision for community engagement had, as we discovered the following morning, began to provide invaluable rewards.
By 7am we were out with the Anti-Poaching unit of the PDC. Sure enough, one of the first characters we came across was a 23 year old called Survivor. Twelve years previously he had been just like the children we saw performing the night before, at Bush Camp. Now here he was inspired by his childhood memories working as an anti-poaching ranger for the PDC.
We patrolled through the dense bush, interviewing the rangers as they carefully examined the area for snares, all the while avoiding the herd of elephants that seemed to be ambling along in a similar direction. It soon became apparent that Charlie, Theo and Johnno’s choice of flip flops, sandals and crocs were not in anyway suitable for tackling the thorny terrain underfoot. I couldn’t help but feel slightly amused as I strolled along with the rangers in front, enjoying the last minute decision to don my cycling shoes. The victory was short lived however as after the 4 hour patrol the fact we had all been stupid enough to wear shorts meant our shins were ripped to shreds..
Don’t wear flipflops and shorts on an anti-poaching patrol in the African Bush.
Nevertheless, this did not impact our enthusiasm for the detailed story of what exactly a painted dog is, told by Maria from the visitors centre. Maria who had been a basket seller on the side of the road to the airport had a particular knack for asking questions every time the boss from PDC went passed. Her inquisitive nature led to PDC deciding it would be less time consuming to hire her and let her see for herself. Subsequently her passion for the project has led her to give talks across the world in front of huge audiences on behalf of the organisation. A truly inspiring story we thought!
We learnt how the painted dog conservation project has a primary focus of the more commonly known ‘wild dogs’. Often mistaken for hyenas, these beautiful animals that once numbered half a million across Africa, are now one of the most endangered species with only 7000 left. Hwange is home to 700.
As any of you dog lovers out there would know, dogs like to cover large distances when they go out running. This means that they are particularly vulnerable to snares. The snaring operation that goes on near the local communities, which border the parks, intends to target popular bush meat animals such as kudo, antelope and impala. But because the dogs cover so much ground, they end up being the victims.
The PDC has subsequently set up a community engagement programme teaching local artists how to use the old snares for their art projects. They bend and shape these metal wires into the shapes of animals. The produce then gets sold to generate income for the local communities.
This multi pronged approaching to tackling what was a poaching epidemic combines anti-poaching patrols looking for snares, educating the children as to the value of wildlife, engaging local communities through art and even going as far as to sponsoring the local football league to keep the communities busy and away from poaching on the weekends. This leads to the secondary effect, which allows all wildlife the chance to prosper not just the dogs. To think we learnt all this by lunchtime on our first day at PDC…
On the final evening of our visit Mr Zulu, the head of the anti-poaching unit, kindly agreed to drop us off with the drone-flying duo. We arrived to find a scene that looked like something out of documentary on how to find alien activity. There was a vehicle parked surrounded by long satellite poles, two laptop’s glued to the back of the front seats, a Playstation 3 controller and an enormous fixed wing drone, known as ‘the Bat Hawk’ ready for take off. Not what you expect to find in the heart of one Africa’s most wild parks.
Quin, the camera operator, and Herman, the main pilot, provided us our very own drone safari as they circled round herds of elephants and giraffes playing in the bushes. It gave us an incredible insight into the thermal imaging camera technology being used to detect poaching activity happening in the park. The look of sheer bewilderment on Mr Zulu’s face as they used a bungee cord to launch the drone into the air created a magnificent addition to the already bizarre scene.
The last few days had gone by in such slick fashion we were overdue some sort of bad luck. Sure enough this greeted us just as the drone swung round and came in for landing.
There was an almighty CRASH, BANG, WALLOP!!!
This was quickly followed by S***… S***… F***!
In the dark, the ‘Bat Hawk’ had missed the road it was supposed to be landing on and smashed its way into the top of a 30 metre high tree.
Despite what appeared to be a disaster, Herman who was previously an acclaimed international climber for South Africa, managed to scale the tree the following day and bring the ‘Bathawk’ back down. So thankfully when we met with the pair back in Victoria Falls the following day, we were able to enjoy a celebratory beer and wish each other luck on the next chapter our differing escapades. For us this was the road towards Lusaka!