On this day while in Tembe Elephant Park we were working to habituate three African Wild Dogs (also called Painted Dogs) to the sound of the vehicle. The goal was to get them used to our vehicle so that we could both identify all the members of the pack, check their health, and eventually dart them for translocation to a safer area. To do this, we routinely had to locate the alpha female which wears a radio-collar and place parts from a dead Nyala or Impala on the ground, chained or tied to a tree.
A recording of Painted Dogs making a kill was played and usually after 10-20 minutes the pack would have found us and sniffed out the free food. This was the first time that we saw the puppy come out from its den.
Painted Dog pups typically den for their first several weeks, suckling from their mother and, when they’re old enough, eating food regurgitated to them from their older pack members or small bits of food brought back for them. After only a couple of months they must be strong enough to follow the pack’s nomadic lifestyle and keep up on the exciting hunts. Once old enough to keep up with the pack, Painted Dogs typically let the youngest eat first to make sure that they have enough nourishment, which is why we see the adult deferring to the youngest member. The twittering sounds heard int his video mostly come from this feisty pup who is excited to have this feast and also bravely guarding his meal!
Like their canine cousins, Painted Dogs give birth to several pups per litter. Unfortunately the little pup in the video, probably 8-12 weeks old, was the only survivor. While it’s not uncommon for pups to be lost due to weakness or disease, it’s most likely that predator persecution by lions was the cause of this pup losing its siblings.
The pup was very strong and active during the observation period, as shown in this video. The high-pitched vocalizations that are heard are characteristic of Painted Dogs and serve as a means of expressing excitement over their meal and letting others in the pack know that there is food to share.
Many people have mistaken the African Wild Dog (Lycaon pictus) as a diseased Wolf, Domestic Dog, or even Jackal. However there are several defining visual characteristics which set the African Wild Dog apart from its distant relatives in the Canidae family. The most obvious feature is the coloration of its coat. Often they have three distinct colors represented: white, black, and tan, although there are some dogs with little or no white. Close-up, it’s also easier to make out their ears which are larger than a similarly-sized dog’s or wolf’s and much more rounded than triangular.
African Wild Dogs are better described by their other name, “Painted Dogs,” because they are naturally wild and evolved independently from the other extant species in the Canidae family, which includes Wolves, Jackals, Coyotes, and Domestic Dogs. Painted Dogs live in packs with usually around a dozen members, but packs have been observed with three times that many members. They are among Africa’s most successful hunters. Painted Dogs achieve their goals at least 30% of the time, about twice as often as large cats including Lions which may hunt as a pride.
Unlike Lions and other species that live in a close-knit group, Painted Dogs often let their young eat first. This suggests that the dogs are not only grouping for social reasons, but because they are stronger as a pack and only as strong as their weakest member.
When I talk about my volunteer experiences I often get asked whether I carried a firearm and what it was like to be in situations where I had to interact with dangerous game and people. But in the areas that I’ve volunteered in, which I would consider to be low- and medium-risk in terms of poaching, a firearm hasn’t been necessary. Getting into a situation where your life is threatened by wildlife or poacher is more likely due to not having the knowledge and skills to avoid a conflict you can’t win or an encounter you can’t escape from. Having knowledge and respect for the wildlife and people present in the surrounding areas is far more important than being able to react violently to a threat that could have been avoided, or safely neutralized, in the first place.
Guns vs Animals vs People
One aspect of working in the wilderness that many people forget is that the animals don’t know that anti-poaching rangers, conservationists, or helpful volunteers are on their side. They view us as a potential threat just as they would any predator because the way that humans interact and move through the environment is in a predatory fashion. We move directly towards our goal, not cautiously in an arc (a passive movement), slowly getting closer while watching for potential predators. And we’re designed to prey on others: we have the advantages of excellent color perception, binocular vision for depth of field, strength, and so many other advantages that predators also share. Animals are smart enough to see us for the predators that we are and react accordingly.
Most animals run away when disturbed by humans and this is true even of other predators. While we think of lions and leopards as fierce and fearsome adversaries that could easily kill a man, they don’t want to risk a confrontation that might get them mortally wounded. Wildlife’s incorrect assessment of human strengths and weaknesses plays into the strength and safety of anyone that moves through the wilderness. Understanding animal behavior is a big part of staying safe in any situation, and understanding human behavior corresponds to dealing with all human interactions, whether at work or in the field tracking poachers.
And for the most part, small arms and even medium-caliber rifles are not going to stop large animals like African bufflo, elephants, or rhino that are charging a human. These animals can run surprisingly fast and have skulls that can stop some bullets, making an attempt to aim and fire a waste of time. Better to be respectful of the wildlife in the first place and not risk their life or yours.
Skills and Training
Learning how to be respectful of the environment and the wildlife within is essential to staying safe. The training gained from anti-poaching rangers, security professionals, and military specialists is essential. So is the information gained from the people local to the region, who have grown up in the area and understand how to avoid threatening wildlife and if necessary avoid dangerous game entirely. Moving quietly or noisily can be important depending on the types of wildlife one expects to encounter. Additionally moving so that you are positioned up-wind of potentially dangerous game provides them an opportunity to catch your scent and allow them to make the decision to move away on their own. That way you don’t accidentally walk into a herd of elephants that would prefer not to be disturbed.
Staying open-minded and alert are other essential aspects of respecting wildlife and moving safely through areas where poachers might be lurking. Choosing the easiest path through dense foliage might not be the best idea because it might be a popular “highway” for large animals to use. Moving along paths that one can’t clearly see the far end of can be equally dangerous and sometimes moving through tall grass and slogging through mud is a safer route to avoid an unpleasant encounter.
Poachers understand how animals behave as well and following preconceived paths can lead into an ambush, something that smart, experienced poachers will employ whenever they think they are threatened by pursuing rangers. Knowledge of the lay of the land and how to cut-off or counter-ambush a group of poachers becomes essential techniques for anti-poaching rangers through the use of unconventional movements and tactics. Most important to avoiding common behavior and falling into a trap is to be adaptive to changing situations. This is an advantage that motorized anti-poaching groups have over poachers as they can quickly move units to positions well ahead of the poacher’s eyes and ears and attempt to ambush them while they flee on foot.
Teamwork and Numerical and Technological Superiority
Operating as a team is essential to completing patrols and snare sweeps in a reasonable amount of time. And the way that people look at things, the way they perceive the world around them, means that having different sets of eyes and ears focusing on the same task yields very good results.
Especially in encounters with wildlife or hostile humans it’s important to have a numerical advantage to show a strength through unity that the other animals or people might not want to fight against. In the case of wildlife this usually means that they will move off in a safe direction and do so in a non-threatening way. Most animals — and people — are not going to engage a group that is obviously numerically superior to its own.
However armed or well-trained poachers may not be as easily dissuaded by numerical superiority by anti-poaching rangers or related assistants, so that numerical superiority, along with the cohesiveness of teamwork, can be used to quickly overwhelm and overcome a dangerous group. In Kruger National Park there have been incidents where armed poachers have been arrested by a smaller force that used the advantage of surprise and speed to overwhelm them. It turned out that some of those poachers didn’t even know how to use their weapons effectively, which didn’t prevent the poachers from being dangerous and discharging their firearms. But the use of teamwork effectively and decisively removed the threat and arrests were made with no anti-poaching rangers getting hurt.
Of course, not all poachers are so poorly trained or ill-equipped, which means that numerical superiority and good equipment and logistics is required to overcome the threats that poachers pose in a way that minimizes the risk of the anti-poaching rangers.
The most enjoyable aspects of volunteering in Zimbabwe break down into three simple parts: the people and culture of the region, the great food that made every meal a morale-boosting focal-point of the day, and the incredible experiences gained through encountering the wildlife we were there to learn about and help protect.
People & Culture
Overall I had a great experience volunteering with the IAPF in Zimbabwe. The opportunity to work and camp alongside experienced anti-poaching rangers was phenomenal and gave me a lot of insight into what everyday life is like in the wild of Africa as well as what the local people are like. Everyone that I met during my adventure was very welcoming and friendly, even those not affiliated with the tourism industry. I also had a great time with the other volunteers and we interacted well with the many rangers at camp and as we participated in their patrols and training.
During day-to-day interaction with the rangers we learned a tremendous amount from where the best place to stand in camp to get cellular coverage to how to select elephant dung to burn in the campfire to keep mosquitoes away. Learning bush survival tips from the rangers was one of my favorite aspects of the entire trip and allowed a chance for the volunteers to interact casually with the rangers while still learning the ropes. We also had opportunities while on some of the patrols to get to know the rangers personally and find out whether they were married, how many kids they had, and what their aspirations for their children were. Many of the rangers wanted their sons to be involved in conservation as well.
Over the course of my trip I had a couple chances to experience the local culture and way of life, but much of that required cutting through the tourist-friendly façade. Most of the white Zimbabweans that lived locally and worked in the tourism industry worked in the area of wildlife conservation or in high-value occupations, like helicopter pilot, that require education and experience most easily gained in expensive foreign universities. Most of the black Zimbabweans that lived locally were either unemployed (officially, unemployment in the country is 80%) or working at all levels of the tourism industry from making carvings, running shops, and operating safaris. It was sad to see such income disparity dividing the people of Zimbabwe and due to its past of being a colony and a minority-ruled country Zimbabwe now has strict regulations relating to operating a business and the way that ownership is shared. Despite these vastly different lifestyles and the political and economic problems in the region Zimbabwe was still a great place to visit.
Africa has some great traditional foods and with the strong tourism industries in many of the countries in southern Africa there is a huge fusion of cuisines catering to tourists from all over the world. Indian food has a strong following, as does traditional western fare, but the fusion of African and western foods blended together exciting flavors and made for a great dining experience.
The above photo shows three relishes or flavorful toppings and in the top-right corner is nsima in the Chichewa language, but also known as sadza in the Shona language, and mealiepap in Afrikaans. Because Africa has over two thousand recognized languages there can be a lot of different terms for a single dish and often the most popular and common languages are understood across language borders.
In the region I was in we called it sadza and sometimes mealiepap, but its name also depends on how its served. While in Zimbabwe we had sadza, which as a staple food was served the traditional way: as a side to virtually any main dish. Since sadza is just corn-meal it acts like potatoes would in the west: as a heavy starch that goes well with fish, pork, red meats, and all kinds of vegetables. In South Africa it’s commonly made into a breakfast porridge and served with only a bit of butter or peanut butter. Any way you have it, it’s a great way to get some long-term energy and is especially great for long days outdoors.
While volunteering with the anti-poaching rangers we were camped more than an hour away from the nearest town. We didn’t and couldn’t partake in the tourist food and restaurants while on duty and couldn’t afford the expense, either. However when we were near our main area of operation we were able to have the majority of our meals at a central facility and there was a chef dedicated to the task. This benefit our time management by streamlining our schedules to make sure that we never went hungry before going out on patrol and by keeping us focused on our duties rather than shopping, preparing, and serving food. Of course, we were responsible for cleaning up after a meal, which followed my thoughts on Meal Planning, Cooking, and Cleaning in the Field.
We were very lucky to have the luxury of a dedicated team member to prepare and cook for us. Good food, including fresh-baked bread and fresh vegetables, helped to keep morale high and our chef knew exactly how large our portions should be to keep active people well-fed and healthy. He had a great sense of taste and while he wasn’t always able to use the most diverse ingredients due to cost and our remoteness to a grocery store he always created meals that we looked forward to eat. That the volunteers in the group represented four continents didn’t pose a problem and every meal the chef made for us was excellent and familiar to our varied tastes.
As volunteers we had the opportunity to go on game walks — hikes through the bush to observe wildlife — provided to us by professional game guides. These were very different than our patrols or snare sweeps and didn’t carry the ominous feel of walking into the unknown that sometimes hit us as we ventured through thick brush or climbed up rocky hills. Each game guide’s duty was to help us move through the wilderness safely and remain respectful of any animals that me might encounter indirectly through their tracks or directly. Understanding animal behavior, being able to read tracks and sign, and having the clear-headed view and insight to keep our group out of harms way takes years to learn and only a few individuals can be certified as game guides, a role that we all deeply appreciated. We also had at least one ranger with us as an extra set of eyes and ears, but who was also trained and legally allowed to use the right amount of force in the event of an encounter with a dangerous individual.
Our game walks provided a great experience to move freely through the region, taking in the changing terrains as much as possible while learning about the plants and trees that are used by the animals but also for wilderness survival. Many of the game guides offered up a lot of fascinating information on how different plants could be used for making rope, which leaves and bark were used as traditional medicines, and how different flora affected the environment around them. Having the game guides around was a fantastic learning experience and they helped to keep us from walking into trouble. Just as important, the opportunity to walk with these qualified individuals didn’t cost us anything beyond what we had paid for the program, which saved the volunteers a lot of money and didn’t put pressure on us to “get our money’s worth.”
The game walks and game drives also allowed us to get close to wildlife in a safe and respectful way. Many safaris that tourists experience in quick tours of the bush end up startling the animals that people are paying so much to see, ruining the opportunity to take photos and see animals in their natural element. But by approaching elephants and buffalo, two of the most dangerous animals on the continent, with respect and with the guidance of the game guides and rangers we were able to observe much longer than most tourists.
If you’re interested in participating in conservation adventures jump over to the Get Involved page. If you’d like to learn more about the importance of wildlife conservation and anti-poaching methods that can assist in protecting the world’s wildlife and improve standards of living for humans please view our Objectives page. To make a financial commitment to preserving our wildlife please take a look at the Conservation Organizations & Wildlife Rehabilitation Centers featured on the Conservation Groups page for featured recommendations and details.