EWT/GRI Interviews

AFPD recently interviewed Cole du Plessis, KZN Regional Coordinator with The Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) asking him about his career path and working with Painted Dogs. Thank you to Cole for these responses and taking the time to do this :)

When did you first become aware of Painted Dogs and how did that impact you and your career choice?

My passion for the African bush developed at a very early age. Safari holidays and reading anything wildlife related allowed me to know a bit about Painted Dogs, and despite extensive efforts to find them, it was only at the age of 22 when I got to see my first ones. At this stage I had little understanding for them and didn’t appreciate them the way I do now. It was only when I got my first conservation post as a priority species monitor that my love for them grew. I was asked to follow a pack twice a day, every day. Even then I was still reluctant. I wanted to go look for the Lions and Elephants too…to start with. But when I started to learn the pack members, their personalities and the snaring struggles they had endured, I became a little obsessed and its where I wanted to spend all my time. This pack I started with certainly reeled me in and I now apply what I learnt from them to my broader conservation efforts today. 

There are a lot of misnomers surrounding the Painted Dog species, how does your work and that of the EWT help to clarify and negate this?

Quite simply, through awareness and education. A lot of the negativity is brought on through generations of misunderstanding and misconstrued theories. This is not to say that Painted Dogs do not cause human-animal conflict related issues but the perception of these ‘rabid’ and ‘problematic’ animals certainly changes when viewing and learning about them. We’ve had cases where some of the most hostile farmers are now community champions of a pack and all it took was sitting at a den, watching the social interactions, learning the individuals and developing an appreciation for the species.

What does your day-to-day work with the Wild Dog Range Expansion Project consist of?

This is a tough question. Wild Dogs carry high energy and this needs to be matched when working with them. I often talk about the working recipe for Wild Dog conservation being: conserve what we have and restore what we’ve lost. While reintroduction work is exciting, it doesn’t quite finish when the Wild Dogs arrive in their new home. Ongoing maintenance work on the respective reserves is required to ensure long-term success. There is also the administrative and fundraising components that are key – without managing the project effectively, we would not have the resources or capacity to sustain this important work. So, on a day-to-day basis there is a delicate balance attributed to fieldwork and the office.

Painted Dogs are classified as an endangered species with an estimated 6600 individuals only left in the wild in Africa – what is the most significant threat to their numbers today and how does the Wild Dog Range Expansion Project help to combat this?

Wild Dogs have several threats that include snaring, disease, roadkill and deliberate persecution but their overarching threat is the limited safe space that is open to them. This has resulted in Wild Dogs being extinct in 25 of the 39 countries that they once roamed. The Wild Dog Range Expansion Projects works tirelessly to reverse the decline by teaming up with partners that are dedicated to conserving the species and restoring habitat. If a reserve or protected area is then deemed feasible, we can pursue a Wild Dog reintroduction. More safe space can faster an increase in population numbers, pack numbers and genetic diversity – the three measurable targets we use to quantify our success.

How do you go about implementing the relocation of Painted Dogs across borders and what are the primary concerns when choosing appropriate relocation areas suitable for them?

We have a tried and tested feasibility assessment that has been developed to guide the Wild Dog reintroduction process. This looks at carrying capacity (size of the reserve & preferred prey), a threat assessment, fencing conditions, management buy in and funding availability and more. We then undertake a site assessment and if all the boxes are checked, we collaborate with the relevant partners to roll out the processes. This involves building a new predator boma, sourcing the right Wild Dogs, bonding new packs, ordering the vaccines, lining up the necessary permits, organising a plane and a team. This whole process usually takes 18-24 months and attention to detail is key. Cross country relocations is a risky procedure and every effort goes into prioritising the wellbeing of the Wild Dogs.

Pack cohesion and co-operation seems critical to the species, can you outline how this structure works?

Wild Dog success is underpinned by pack cohesion. Their social structures are complex. I often say that a Wild Dog is not the fastest, stealthiest or strongest animal but they are highly successful and this can only be attributed to their teamwork, leadership and coordination – making them an incredibly organised and intelligent species. Whether its hunting, selecting a den site or caring for the sick, young or injured, Wild Dogs have a unique pack structure that is critical to their survival.

Are Painted Dogs a good indicator species of how well and balanced an ecosystem is working?

Wild Dogs have become locally extinct in so much of the space that they once roamed and for this reason, I would not necessarily qualify them an indicator species. However, Wild Dogs do bring a unique element to the carnivore guild. Their hunting techniques, the terrain in which they hunt and the prey in which they target imposes ecological importance because its different to other competing carnivores. Wild Dogs also hunt regularly and this can support other species in the form of scavengers. For example, in Gorongosa National Park, there has been an increase in Vulture activity since the Wild Dogs were introduced.

Can you recall any particular dogs that have had the most important impact on you and how that affected your drive to protect them?

Yes, there a few individuals that come to mind. In the first pack I monitored, there was a three-legged Wild Dog called Lihle. In the two and a half years that I was able to spend with her, she let me into her pack and into the complex world of Wild Dogs. The lessons I learnt from Lihle have stuck with me throughout my conservation career. Knowing Wild Dogs and having a better understanding of them has always allowed me and urged me to put their wellbeing first in any operation.    

If you were to step into a Painted Dog’s life for a day, what advice would you take back with you to humanity to help preserve the species?

In short, it’s the family values, selflessness nature and their high level of organisation that has drawn me to the species. If given the chance, I know most humans would leave feeling the same.  I think most (or all) of us can relate to these values. By understanding or experiencing this, people would come to know a complex and compassionate animal that would ultimately support the preservation of the species.  

How can we as individuals make a difference to wildlife conservation?

By learning about them and experiencing them in the wild. Visit reserves that put the extensive effort into conserving Wild Dogs. In South Africa, there are only a total of 14 reserves. Take photos, share posts, chose Wild Dogs for your next school project. The more we can know about them and put the spotlight on them, the more we can grow tolerance and tourism demand. Also, where you can, donate to reputable conservation groups. Money is hard to come by in a non-profit and is often the difference in doing this important work. This can all help in saving the species.  

What would be your best advice to anyone wanting to follow in your footsteps into conservation?

Its not easy. You often feel defeated and the work is often glamourised but if you work hard, always put the conservation values first and hold a stubborn approach in getting the job done then the results are possible. For me, the little victories are everything. Use those victories to help you persevere through the next challenge that awaits.

And finally – do you have time, or have you ever tried drawing and/or painting a Painted Dog yourself?!

Haha no. My artwork is terrible and I would be doing a disservice to Wild Dogs if I tried BUT I love looking and appreciate the artwork – particularly the pieces done by the artists for Painted Dogs.



AFPD recently caught up with Rachael Murton, Wildlife Rescue Director of Game Rangers International (GRI) to ask her about her career working for GRI.  We hope you will enjoy and be inspired by her responses and we thank Rachael personally for taking the time to give us some in-depth insight into what GRI do and the huge effort all of the team in Zambia make in order to help conserve elephants and other species.

When did you first become aware of conservation issues and how did that influence you and your career choice?

I was lucky enough to grow up in the countryside in the UK so nature has always been a strong influence. When I was young we had great crested newts in our pond I and I remember learning about how they were endangered and how important it was to preserve habitat for them. I was often taking part in environmental kids camps and so I developed a passion for the wild at an early age. This led into being primarily interested in biology as a subject at school and later university. At the same time I had also spent a lot of time with animals and wanting to care for them and had considered how I might get into the veterinary field. Working with GRI combines these passions amazingly as I work hands on with the elephants throughout rescue and rehabilitation and know that our efforts are directly contribution to the bigger picture of conservation.

Can you recall your first encounter with elephants and how that made you feel?

My first encounter with wild elephants was in Kafue National Park in Zambia, 2008. I came as a volunteer to help establish the Elephant Orphanage Project but had never seen a wild elephant before. On driving to the camp we were charged by elephants. It was terrifying due to their size, exhilarating to see such an incredible huge animal up close, but deeply saddening to know they were so traumatised from previous experiences with humans that they saw us as a threat.

What does your day-to-day work with GRI consist of?

Back in the day I was very operational, providing the medical care for the elephants, training the keepers and driving through the Park to collect rations and the team. Now as Director I am supporting the overall operations of the Wildlife Rescue Programme, supporting the managers, leading on strategy and technical advice and primarily ensuring we raise the funds required to continue the programme and ensure we achieve our goals.

Elephant numbers have dropped dramatically in the last 40 years - Is poaching still the most major threat to elephant populations?

Ivory poaching remains a significant threat to elephant as there is still a demand. However, there is also an increasing threat to elephants through conflict with humans – as populations expand and communities are ever encroaching into wild space there is inevitably competition for resources. In such cases both humans and wildlife suffer. It is essential we find ways to co-exist and support the needs of the people and the wildlife.

The story of Suni is both heart-warming and heart breaking.  Can you tell us a little more about her and how her story has impacted the work you do?

Suni was rescued at 8 months old with machete attacks to the face and spine, which rendered her partially paralysed in her hind quarters. The extent of the damage was difficult to determine and although her chances of recovery were not good, we wanted to give her every opportunity. We embarked on a 3 year journey of intense care, rehabilitation and alternative therapies to give her every chance of recovery. Tragically as she grew larger it became clear that she had some permanent damage and paralysis in her back leg and the heavier she became, the more it compromised her welfare. At 3.5 years old she was humanely euthanised as we could see she was starting to suffer. This was an incredibly heart-breaking time for all who cared for her and who knew her. Through working with her, our team gained a lot of experience in wound management, elephant handling practices and alternative therapies which have subsequently helped other orphans in their rehabilitation. She no longer walks amongst us, but very much lives on in our work and in our hearts.

People are often concerned human intervention is detrimental to a species, how do you balance what is best for that species with the need to protect it?

At GRI we aim to support with wildlife who have been injured or displaced by human intervention. With the constant pressure being placed upon wild spaces by humans it unfortunately means that a lot of wildlife has been compromised and it is our duty to do what we can to support and correct the balance. The orphans we rescue are a direct result of human activity: poaching or conflict. It is very unusual/unlikely for a mother elephant to abandon a healthy calf so when we find these elephants we feel it is our responsibility to give them a second chance for a life back in the wild where they belong. Throughout the rehabilitation process we focus on minimising human impact on the elephants as much as possible with the hopes of releasing the ‘wildest’ elephants we can back to the wild.

How do you deal with the often horrific and sad situations your work unfortunately entails?

Unfortunately, the reality of wildlife rehabilitation means that the odds are stacked against us. Many of the calves we rescue are already in a very compromised condition and are not able to be saved. It is always very hard and sad when we are faced with such situations. They are so vulnerable and so helpless that it can be very demoralising when you know there is nothing more you can do. The important thing is that we try. Every life is precious, and we will always put every effort into helping where we can. In addition to orphans this also includes injured wildlife in situ. We are so fortunate to now see so many healthy young elephants walking, feeding and playing together (some now living entirely back in the wild), and to know our actions have made a difference – so it is these successes that we must focus on and give us strength during the more challenging times.

Spending many years with particular elephant individuals must enable you and the keepers to see unique individual traits amongst them.  Are there any elephants that have surprised you with this?

I think what is surprising is that the elephants are all so very different. Spending time with them enables you to get to know their characters, and like humans, they are all very unique. Some are particularly friendly, or caring or pushy… its really so interesting getting to know them all. I guess the most recent surprise in behaviour has been with Tafika, who is 13.5 years old and should already be off in the wild with other bulls. This would follow the ‘normal’ behaviour of a young bull leaving his mothers herd to seek independence. Tafika has never been confident enough to leave the Release Herd until now, however he has left with Chamilandu and her calf Mutaanzi. So rather than going off to find other males and joining a bachelor herd, he has instead opted to stay close to Chamma (who has helped mother him since rescue) and assist her with baby-sitting her calf Mutaanzi! This is not the usual ‘coming of age’ behaviour but we are very appreciative of his decision making as Chamilandu would struggle alone to keep her calf safe from predators.

What has been your proudest moment so far in your career and why?

Seeing Chamilandu (one of the first orphans in the project) give birth to Mutaanzi David was one of my proudest moments. She was raised by us from 1.5 years old and had been free-roaming in the National Park for 4 years when she became pregnant in the wild. So Mutaanzi is the first wild born elephant calf to an orphan mother and a milestone of success in our efforts to release orphaned elephants back into the wild.

If humans could learn anything from elephant behaviour, what do you think would benefit us most?

Compassion: Elephants are very caring and supportive of one another. With the orphans we see elephants who have been through intense trauma and huge loss and grief, yet they seem to overcome this with time, and we see them offering such kindness and protectiveness towards one another despite coming from different places and being non-related.

How can we as individuals make a difference to wildlife conservation?

Everyone of us has a responsibility to conserve wildlife and wild places. We all live on this beautiful planet and if we want this to continue for our future generations, we must all act now to protect it before it is too late. There are many initiatives and daily practices that support our planets health and that of its wildlife, both in our own homes and further afield. If you want to support financially with wildlife conservation programmes research carefully the organisation you want to follow to make sure you understand how your funds will impact and support wildlife. Many organisations, like GRI, rely on donations to operate, so spreading awareness and gaining support is a critical part of our mission in order to do what we can to save wildlife.

What would be your best advice to anyone wanting to follow in your footsteps into conservation?

If you are still studying choose the subjects that lend themselves to this line of work and having a scientific background is helpful. However, the most common route of entry into conservation related work is through volunteering and getting hands on experience. I volunteered over 8 years before joining GRI and the different projects and experiences all became invaluable in leading me to this role. There are lots of great volunteer programmes that can be a good starting point in this field. Once you find a project that suits you if you work hard, are resourceful and can communicate well it can be surprising the opportunities that may arise. GRI operates a volunteer programme which aims to expose individuals to the full range of our work giving an overview of our holistic approach to wildlife conservation. https://www.gamerangersinternational.org/volunteer

And finally – have you ever tried drawing and painting elephants yourself?!

I designed the logo for the Elephant Orphanage Project on a scrap of paper in my tent in Kafue National Park – does that count? :-D