African painted dogs; reducing risk of population decimation from disease

Wildlife Vets International is working closely with Painted Dog Conservation (PDC) in a battle to save one of the continent’s signature species; an iconic animal under threat from all sides. African painted dogs, or wild dogs, have been badly affected by Zimbabwe’s worsening political situation and the country’s collapse in eco-tourism and conservation. This iconic and Endangered species is one of the rarest in Africa with less than 3,000 remaining.  Painted dogs have disappeared from much of their natural range due to ongoing conflict with man, infectious disease and habitat fragmentation. Only Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Botswana and South Africa have viable populations.

The most significant threats African painted dogs in Hwange National Park are the snares laid down by the local communities to catch bushmeat. PDC does a huge amount of work with the communities to collect snares and prevent them being laid indiscriminately. PDC staff regularly release animals from snares, patching them up as best they can. A pack will ‘carry’ an injured member allowing them the nutrition and time to recover.

The health of individuals is particularly important in painted dogs; death of a pack leader can result in dissolution, or even death, of the whole pack. If the injuries to painted dogs are particularly bad, staff have the option of driving the injured dog up to 8 hours away to be seen by a vet. PDC has developed a rehabilitation centre where injured dogs are able to recover before being released. The unusual social dynamics and co-operative pack structure enable medical intervention and releases to be much more successful than in other species.

The development of the clinic and wildlife medicine capacity at the rehabilitation centre has been slow due to well publicized socio-economic situation. The next stages are to continue with the provision of equipment and training. It is felt that now is a good time for WVI to develop bespoke wildlife disease protocols to minimise the transmission of diseases between painted dog enclosures, from domestic livestock to painted dogs and vice versa, and between PDC staff and the painted dogs, and vice versa. It is planned to provide further basic equipment to the clinic.

Prior to an initial (and highly successful) visit made by a WVI vet made in 2010, there was an outbreak of distemper amongst the domestic dog population surrounding Hwange National Park. Canine distemper has already been shown to decimate wild animal populations (e.g. top predators in the Serengeti in the 1990s) and represents a real threat to the embattled Hwange dog population.

It was decided that in addition to simply building veterinary capacity the WVI vet should vaccinate as many domestic dogs in the infected area as possible in order to stop the transmission of distemper (and rabies?) to the painted dogs. In very short notice, PDC organized four community clinics and WVI organized the relevant vaccines and parasite treatments, thanks to the help of MSD Animal Health. In total, 450 domestic dogs were vaccinated.

Following on from the success of the community clinics set up in 2010, the relationship between WVI and PDC has evolved and further clinics in communities surrounding Hwange National Park occurred in 2012 and every two years thereafter are proposed. Organised strategically, regular vaccinations will create a significant disease barrier between the communities and the national park, reducing the risk of rabies transmission from dog to human, increase the health of the domestic dog population and to provide a further platform for PDC to carry out their already extensive outreach programmes.

The relationship between PDC and WVI continues to strengthen and plans for future strategic vaccinations and research were planned round the camp fire by WVI vets Steve Leonard and Tom Ogilvie Graham and PDC Project Manager Peter Blinston and his team. These were fueled by a gift from Duty Free, some British sweets and Yorkshire puddings as requested by the PDC Zimbabwe team.

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