Commercial Farmers' Union of Zimbabwe

Commercial Farmers' Union of Zimbabwe

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Every (Wild) Dog has its day

Every (Wild) Dog Has Its Day

Published: April 14, 2010


We humans are suckers for certain kinds of wildlife, from lions to elephants. I hadn’t known I was a zebra fan until I drove my rented car into a traffic jam of zebras here. My heart fluttered.

As for rhinos, they’re so magnificent that they attract foreign aid. Women here in rural Zimbabwe routinely die in childbirth for lack of ambulances or other transport to hospitals, and they get no help. But rhinos in this park
get a helicopter to track their movements.

Then there are animals that don’t attract much empathy. Aardvarks. Newts. And, at the bottom tier, African wild dogs.

Wild dogs (which aren’t actually wild dogs, but never mind that for now) are a species that has become endangered without anyone raising an eyebrow. Until, that is, a globe-trotting adventurer named Greg Rasmussen began working with local villages to rebrand the dogs – and save them from extinction.

It’s a tale that offers some useful lessons for do-gooders around the world, in clever marketing and “branding,” and in giving local people a stake in conservation. For if it’s possible to rescue a despised species with a
crummy name like “wild dogs,” any cause can have legs.

Mr. Rasmussen was born in Britain but grew up partly in Zimbabwe. He bounced around the world for years as a sailor, zookeeper and kennel owner, surviving a charging elephant, a venomous 12-foot black mamba, a possibly rabid mongoose and a coma from cerebral malaria.

Eventually, he ended up researching African wild dogs. He crashed his small plane in the African bush (he was found a day and a half later, half-dead, as he was being stalked by lions), and while learning to walk again he
earned a doctorate in zoology, emerging as one of the world’s leading specialists on wild dogs.

Once the African wild dog was found by the hundreds of thousands across Africa, but today there are only a few thousand left, mostly in Zimbabwe, Botswana, Tanzania and South Africa.

Wild dogs are not dogs, which split off from wolves only in the last 30,000 years. In contrast, wild dogs last shared a common ancestor with dogs or wolves about 6 million years ago. They are the size of German shepherds and look like dogs, but they don’t bark and have different teeth and toes. And although many have tried, they have not been domesticated.

“Chimpanzees and gorillas are closer to us humans than wolves are to painted dogs,” Mr. Rasmussen said.

Note that terminology: “painted dogs.” Central to Mr. Rasmussen’s effort to save the dogs has been a struggle to rename them, so that they sound exotic rather than feral.

Do-gooders usually have catastrophic marketing skills. Pepsi and Coke invest fortunes to promote their products over their rivals, while humanitarians aren’t nearly as savvy about marketing causes with far higher stakes –
famine, disease, mass murder.

Mr. Rasmussen is an exception, and his effort to rebrand the species as “painted dogs” caught on. The name works because the animals’ spotted coats suggest that they ran through an artist’s studio.

Mr. Rasmussen runs the Painted Dog Conservation, a centre that offers the animals a refuge from poachers and rehabilitation when they are injured. But most of all, he works with impoverished local villagers so that they feel a stake in preserving painted dogs.

Conservation efforts around the world often involve tensions with local people. But you can’t save rainforests if their advocates are 5,000 miles away, and conservationists increasingly are realizing that they can succeed
only if they partner with local people.

For Mr. Rasmussen, that has meant turning his conservation centre into a children’s camp for school groups, sponsored by donors at $60 a child. Kids learn that painted dogs don’t attack humans or prey much on livestock.

“It makes a difference,” Washington Moyo, a dog-keeper here, said of the villagers’ visits. “Once they come, they can differentiate between hyenas and painted dogs. Because when livestock are taken, it is primarily by
hyenas, not painted dogs.”

The conservation centre has also started economic development programs for nearby villages. The idea is for local people to benefit from the dogs’ presence and gain incomes so that they won’t feel the need to poach

“What we’re trying to achieve here is a model not just for painted dogs, but something that applies for any species,” Mr. Rasmussen said. “Conservation has to be inclusive, and lots of people have to benefit.”

If clever marketing and strategic thinking can take reviled varmints such as “wild dogs” and resurrect them (quite justly) as exotic “painted dogs” to be preserved, then no cause is hopeless.


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