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Interactive interview. Rosemary Groom - Field Projects coordinator, the African Wildlife Conservation Fund

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Rosemary Groom.

Field Projects coordinator, the African Wildlife Conservation Fund and coordinator of the Gonarezhou Predator Project.

Rosemary is a wildlife ecologist and conservationist who grew up in Zimbabwe. Rosemary earned her doctorate in zoology from the University of Bristol, (UK), and has 11 years of experience working on conservation-related research in Kenya, Botswana and Zimbabwe. Rosemary has been managing the AWCF field projects in south east Zimbabwe since 2008, and is employed by the Frankfurt Zoological Society to coordinate the Gonarezhou Predator Project.

Rosemary invited Safaritalk members to submit questions about her work in this topic and the following interview features your questions and her answers.

To discover more about Rosemary's work with The African Wildlife Conservation Fund and its conservation objectives, visit AWCF’s website at


How many wild dog packs do you estimate to occur in Gonarezhou and surrounds? Do you reckon that they have benefitted in some way from the "unnatural" low density of lions in the area or have all predators suffered from human factors on equal measure?

We know of at least 8 breeding packs in the park, but having only comprehensively surveyed about 2/3rds of the park to date, we believe there to be more than that – probably around 12 packs with just over 100 / 120 adults and yearlings. There is one pack of 16 dogs in neighbouring Malilangwe Reserve, 10 packs (c. 75 adult/yearlings) in Savé Valley Conservancy and at least 2 large packs in Nuanetsi Wildlife Section to the west. I believe that the unnaturally low lion population has had a positive impact on the wild dog population to an extent, but I think the dogs will continue to do well there even as lions increase, so long as anthropogenic mortality is kept to a minimum. Because there is virtually no artificial water in Gonarezhou, lion territories are somewhat restricted, thus leaving areas of the park with very low lion densities, where subordinate predators such and cheetah and wild dogs can still thrive. Wild dogs have, however, also been subject to anthropogenic mortality in the past, particularly snaring, but not to the same degree as lions, which were impacted as well by high legal, (trophy hunting), offtakes around the park.

I have a book, published around the mid 1980s, that shows a picture of an entire pride of Gonarezhou lions high up on the branches of a tree, (I think it is a sausage tree). Have you ever witnessed such a behaviour in Gonarezhou? Whilst 'tree climbing lions' are commonly in several locations in East Africa, (such as Queen Elizabeth and Kidepo in Uganda, Katavi, Lake Manyara and Tarangire in Tanzania and other places), it would appear to me that they are much rarer in southern Africa, (the only recent pictures I have seen were from Busanga in Kafue, Chitake in Mana Pools and Gorongosa). Is my perception correct? Do you think there is an explanation for this, (climate etc...)?

I have never seen lions up trees in Gonarezhou. I’ve only witnessed that behaviour in Kenya, (Nakuru National Park), and in Uganda, (Q.E NP). The reason for the behaviour is not known for sure, but it is most likely to do with comfort during daily resting; probably to escape the heat and take advantage of any breeze. Certainly it is more common in some areas than others, and is probably just due to learned behaviour.

What is your estimate for the cheetah population in Gonarezhou? Are they seen quite frequently? What of Mana? (where I'm told they do exist but difficult to find.)

Cheetah are very difficult to survey using the techniques standardly used for other large carnivores, (camera traps, call ups or spoor surveys), so without a dedicated effort to find cheetah play trees and do some kind of mark recapture exercise or genetic analysis, I would be reluctant to put too much weight on our figures. However, our last survey, (Sept 2013), gave an estimate of 108 cheetah in the park, which is a relatively healthy population for cheetah, which are naturally low density, wide-ranging species. This population estimate equates to a density of 2.2 cheetah / 100km2, which, although lower than some other population estimates is also significantly higher than many estimates which average out at about 1.0 cheetah / 100km2 (IUCN / SSC 2009). The important thing however is that the population has been increasing in recent years, (although it may be starting to level off now). Cheetah are in fact seen relatively often in Gonarezhou, particularly on the road along the top of the cliffs on the south bank of the Runde River. They are sighted at Mabalauta, (Buffalo Bend area), as well.

The Cheetah Conservation Project Zimbabwe, (CCPZ), estimates the cheetah population at 10-15 adult cheetahs in Mana Pools.


There are some stunning African wild dogs in the Zim lowveld, with lots of white

We have had some great discussion on ST about (wild) dogs and how they look different throughout Africa without being different sub-species or different genetically. What reasons do you attribute to the dogs in East Africa being much darker, (and smaller), and the dogs around the Miombo belt being fluffier and lighter and larger and then in the lowveld you see a lot more white in the dogs than the pale coloration of the Miombo belt?

I don’t think anyone knows the answer to this, but it’s certainly fun to tease our East African colleagues about how much more attractive our dogs are to theirs :) An obvious assumption would be that is has something to do with the climate/environment in which they have evolved. You will notice that captive bred dogs, (e.g. in zoos), tend to be a lot more hairy than wild ones… this could be, for example, attributed to thermoregulation as the species does not exist in typically such cold climates in the wild. As for the white patches, who knows? I have colleagues that attribute it to inbreeding, (the whiter the dogs, the more inbred), but there is no evidence for that at this stage, (and nor does it make a great deal of sense to me). In ungulates white patches or stripes are speculated to serve a thermoregulatory function – perhaps it is the same in dogs?

What are some of your biggest poaching challenges in Gonarezhou and Save Valley? Would be great if you can give a description of some of these challenges you faced in recent years, ( maybe even with examples?), along the Mozambique border and elsewhere?

I’m not sure if this question relates to the wild dogs specifically or to wildlife in general. Wild dogs are not actually targeted by poachers for any reason. They are not used as a protein source, their skins and other body parts have no commercial value and there is not even a local medicinal use for them, (although I have heard it said that if poachers feed their (domestic) dogs the nose of a wild dog they will be better hunters!). However, wild dogs are at serious risk from poachers snares set for other species, (as by-catch effectively). In Savé Valley, almost 40% of adult mortality, (of carcasses with known cause of death), and 8% of pup mortality is due to snares. We don’t have exact figures for that in Gonarezhou but we have an indication of the scale of the problem from the rate of mortality of our collared dogs in snares, which have been quite high, especially along the Mozambique boundary of the park. For example, in the last couple of years we have put collars on four dogs in three packs which operate along the boundary area. Two of those collared dogs, (from two different packs), were killed in snares within less a year of being collared, (of course other dogs are being killed too, but we only tend to find the carcasses of the collared ones). But the great work by the Gonarezhou Conservation Project, (Frankfurt Zoological Society and Parks and Wildlife Management Authority), is reducing this threat considerably through their antipoaching efforts.

Where are we today in terms of genetic studies on wild dogs and what do you see happening in the recent future in terms of answers to some unsolved questions etc?

A recent genetic study on wild dogs, (published in Molecular Ecology by Marsden et al (2012)), used data from 13 sites across Africa. It showed the most genetic diversity from the transboundary population that includes Hwange National Park and the Okavango Delta, and least from our study area, the Zimbabwean lowveld, and the Laikipia population in East Africa. The same study also suggested a lack of genetic connectivity between the Zimbabwean lowveld and the southern Kruger National Park. Whilst this is potentially cause for concern, the sample size from the Zim lowveld was extremely small and from only a few different packs, (I collected all the lowveld samples myself), and so further investigation is needed before we jump to drastic conclusions about inbreeding and start interfering by moving dogs around.

AWCF is therefore working on a 3 year study with a very large sample size to see if there is indeed worryingly low genetic connectivity and or inbreeding evident in the lowveld. We are also collaborating with the Endangered Wildlife Trust who have collected genetic samples from Kruger to further investigate the issue of connectivity, (or lack thereof), between Gonarezhou and Kruger. Once we have the results of these studies we’ll be able to make a plan as to what needs to be done next.

With regard to darting for research purposes: how does this affect future behaviour of a specific animal around humans? How would darting affect a solitary animal, ie leopard, compared to a pack animal, ie wild dog?

We use a combination of drugs called Ketamine and Medetomidine to dart wild dogs and other large carnivores. Ketamine has an anaesthetic and analgesic effect on carnivores and Medetomidine is both a sedative and an analgesic. The analgesic properties mean the animal experiences minimal or no pain during the procedure. Ketamine also has some amnesiac properties, meaning the animal does not remember much of the procedure on awakening.

As such, with wild dogs, we have rarely noticed a change in behaviour of recently darted animals. In some very few cases, we have noticed the rest of the wild dog pack may be a bit more twitchy after we’ve darted one of the members, but not the darted animal itself. This effect disappears after a day or two and does not usually extend to humans in general, but just to the same kind of situation as the darting was done in, (i.e. someone trying to approach very closely in a vehicle / on a motorbike).

I have not done a lot of darting of solitary carnivores, (except to help a friend who has then done the monitoring), but in my limited experience, so long as the procedure is kept short and quiet there is little effect on behaviour around humans even in the immediate future.


Rosemary loading dart gun

When darting an animal in a pack, so we'll use dogs as the example, how do you decide which animal to dart, and during the course of a year's study, how many times would you dart that particular animal?

The choice of animal to dart would depend on what you want to achieve from the collar. My only rule is that I will not dart an alpha female. This is for two reasons; most importantly, if anything should go wrong it would be a significant impact on the pack, (much more so than any other individual), and secondly you get very little information on the packs movements during the denning season, because the alpha female remains at the den most of the time.

If the collar is a GPS or Satellite collar which are heavier than simple VHF collars, we just try to fit them to the biggest dogs in the packs, (often, but not always, males). If you are trying to investigate connectivity and dispersal routes, you’ll need to target the c. 1.5 - 2 year old males, (the most likely dispersers). If you are just trying to fit a small VHF collar onto the pack so you are able to locate it for monitoring, so long as it’s a grown dog, (adult or yearling), I tend to dart whichever individual obliges me with a clean shot at their rump!

It is very unlikely that I would dart an animal more than once in a year unless he/she had a snare or other serious injury that needed treating. The collar signals last for several years, (if fitted to an adult they often outlive the dog), so there is little need to keep darting a dog to replace or remove a collar.

In the instance of dogs, how does the rest of the pack react when one of them is darted?

The behaviour of the rest of the pack does vary, but by far the most common reaction is one of non-reaction! When the dart gun goes off, they’ll look at us and the few closest to the darted dog may also jump a little bit, and then when nothing else happens, they all just settle down again. They stay like that until we actually get out of the vehicle to approach the sleeping dog. At that stage, the rest of the pack will bark a bit and move off a short distance. Sometimes they stay within view, other times they move off a couple of hundred meters and lie down and wait. They rarely go far. On one occasion, four yearlings were so curious they stayed all around, within a few meters of me working on the immobilised animal! Only in one case have I known the pack to move off a long way, and that was when we had darted quite late in the afternoon, (an emergency snare removal), and the procedure went on longer than expected and the others left for hunting. They all met up again after a few days. But aside from that one time, the recovered dog is usually back with their pack within a few minutes of recovering. When it re-joins the pack, the other dogs will come over to sniff it, nuzzle it and greet it, and then they all lie down again together and continue doing what dogs do!

In the past, dogs have been persecuted as vermin, but now they are a huge draw for safari tourists, (photographic). How have attitudes changed towards them from farmers and communities which may come into contact with them? What can be done to better educate them about the habits of the wild dog and get their commitment to help protect them?

This is a tricky one, because yes, there is a greater awareness of the conservation plight of wild dogs, and people are generally shocked to hear of their low population numbers. However, whilst most famers express an appreciation for the species and say they enjoy seeing them in the ‘wild’, there is a significant decrease in positive responses when farmers or land owners have to ‘deal’ with these animals personally, or on their private properties. Unfortunately, and this is true for any wild animal, when the economic interest/profit of a landowner is jeopardised the wild animal(s) will come off second best. Thus it is best to try and incentivise the development of ecotourism ventures in land surrounding protected areas which has the potential to yield positive results for wild dog conservation, (and that of other predators).

Research initiatives that strive to educate, (tourists/farmers/communities), about the endangered status of wild dogs is our best option – wild dogs, by nature, will not remain confined in protected areas for too long so we need to try as best as possible to create a buffer for dispersing individuals. It also helps to have a contact person on the ground – sometimes all people want to do is have a good vent and complain and being there to listen helps to mitigate the situation and calm down infuriated land owners and hopefully prevent them from doing anything drastic.

In the rural setting – we need to empower and improve skills so people do not need to rely on poaching! But in the same way we are fighting decades of culture… But if we can create some kind of direct benefits from the dogs to the communities, (i.e. taking clients to see dogs that den outside the conservancy and paying the community), that will also help.

The wild dogs travel in and out of the Malilangwe Reserve from Gonarezhou. Do you communicate or cooperate with the people in Malilangwe as to the whereabouts, the number and the health of the dogs?

Yes absolutely. We have a good working relationship with the folk in Malilangwe and we keep up to date with the pack(s) that are there, and share photos and reports if any new dogs are seen in the area.

Several years ago when rabies was killing the dogs, were there packs that were unaffected? How and why? And, it is the offspring of some of these packs that survived that are now traveling between the areas? Or entirely new packs from somewhere else?

No, the rabies epidemic in 2007 killed all of the dogs in Malilangwe. That was just before I came to the area, but I believe all dogs from 3 packs, (72 in total?), except for 1 male were wiped out. The dogs that subsequently recolonized Malilangwe were new animals, presumably from Savé Valley Conservancy or Gonarezhou. In 2009, 3 dogs were seen, 1 disappeared and 2 stayed to become the alpha male and female of a successful pack.


Wire snares are a big threat to African wild dogs. Here Rosemary removes a snare from a member of the Spliters Pack, SVC.

Do you work with the locals to help police the area for both poachers and snares?

We don’t have the capacity to do a full antipoaching project ourselves but we certainly work closely with the antipoaching units in the area and support them as much as possible. Our scouts often remove snares from the field and we can use the GPS collar data from packs that show up with snares to trace likely areas where there have been snare lines. Because we have a consistent presence over a large area, we often pick up signs of poachers, (human or domestic dog footprints, fire remains etc), and these are always reported to the antipoaching teams.

Is it necessary to collar predators other than to track them? Are collared predators at a disadvantage for survival?

I do not believe that collared predators are at a disadvantage for survival. If I did, we certainly would not be collaring wild dogs! We have no evidence that collars have any negative impact on fitness in our study population – dogs collared as ‘normal’ pack members have become alphas, dogs collared as alphas, (males), have retained alpha status, and we do not see a higher rate of mortality of collared dogs. Of course we tend to find carcasses of collared dogs much more often, because the collar signal leads us to the carcass, but un-collared dogs die / disappear at the same rate.

There are many reasons for collaring predators. The most obvious ones are to be able to find them to monitor them, both for research purposes, (pack sizes, mortality data, litter sizes, pack composition etc), and for welfare – i.e. to pick up on snares or other injuries, as well as for movement information. If using GPS or satellite collars, they can give you information on movement patterns that you would never otherwise know about, (especially for wide ranging species like wild dogs!). Collars can be used to help see what routes dispersing animals take to disperse, (to help you know what areas need to be protected as corridors), and how certain interferences affect the movements of individuals / packs. Some collars are designed to be reflective to help prevent road kill at night and some are ‘anti-snare’ collars which can help prevent wire tightening around the neck when the animal is caught in the snare. As mentioned before as well, collar data can alert us of snare lines, or of areas that a species considers unsafe, even though to us it looks fine. This can then be investigated.

How has the bushmeat trade and snaring problem improved in the region since mid-2009, (according to the AWCF website - During mid-2001 to mid-2009 10,520 poaching incidents were recorded in SVC, 84,396 wire snares removed, and thousands of wild animals were killed)?

Unfortunately this study has not been replicated, but my gut feeling would be that we are still facing this sort of scale of threat. It has probably declined slightly in recent years due to greater investment in antipoaching, and we hope the trend will continue.

Do you see tangible results from education and Outreach programmes, and if so, in what ways?

Yes very much so!! We have loads of data from our annual literacy tests to show how well the literacy program, (Happy Readers scheme), works. It’s very encouraging, and the results are very tangible – kids that could not read a word before, are now reading with glee about Charlie Cheetah! We also do evaluation quizzes to test the impact of our conservation awareness program with Grade 6 and 7 students and results of those are also very positive, showing a significant increase in fact retention and improvement in attitude after having access to the materials for a year. The very perceptive questions and detailed answers we get from students when we visit the schools indicates not just an interest in the subject, but a good understanding of and retention of what they have been taught through our resource materials and DVD showing programs. Most teachers are also very enthusiastic and informal feedback from them makes it clear the program is having an impact.

The bushmeat trade in the early 2000s was partly due to the food shortage in Zimbabwe - is that still a major issue for the AWCF? Or has bushmeat trade spun off into a trade of its own, (that is, no longer just to meet food shortages)?

There are many very complex drivers of the bushmeat trade and recently the SADC countries convened a meeting to address this specific issue at the highest levels of Government. In Zimbabwe specifically, the level of bushmeat poaching was certainly, to a degree, fuelled by the foot shortages in the mid to late 2000s, but this is not the only driver. Even then, some of the snare poaching was commercial, (i.e. not just for subsistence), and in some cases it is a cultural tradition. It’s basically done because it’s relatively easy and risk free, (the penalties for being caught are often no more than an insignificant fine and a slap on the wrist), and is what people know how to do. With no decent education and very little opportunity for employment as a result of that, people do tend to rely on this as their protein supply, but it’s no longer out of pure necessity.

How does AWCF involve the local community to get them engaged and invested in the well-being not only of the wildlife but also the conservation of the park itself?

We have an effective education and outreach initiative. Our education program was established in 2011/2012 and currently involves 123 primary schools, 84 within 10km of SVC boundaries and 39 within 15km of GNP boundaries. The education program is multi-faceted and includes a conservation awareness program, a literacy program, a mobile education unit and DVD program and a secondary school scholarship program. A large portion of our education materials focus on the African wild dog with the aim of improving local communities’ perceptions of the species. For example, dispelling the myth of wild dogs being a threat to humans, and practical advice on how to deal with wild dog encounters and safeguard livestock.

We meet and chat to groups of school children visiting SVC and are often invited to attend community functions. We use these social gatherings as an opportunity to instil an appreciation for wildlife and conservation in the local youth and engage with them on the future opportunities available to them and associated with wildlife areas, (trackers/scouts, camp chefs/managers, rangers, skilled labour etc.).

We also operate a mobile education unit around the Savé Valley Conservancy and are looking for funds to do the same around Gonarezhou. This is a very valuable tool for engaging with communities, (not just students), and proving them with access to wildlife and conservation themed resources. We show educational DVDs and have Q&A sessions and the driver is a trained educator who can discuss options for human wildlife conflict etc, educate them about the Park and generally engage them with the program.

We are also going to be working on some livelihood improvement schemes around Gonarezhou National Park in collaboration with others, to try and ensure there are tangible benefits to the communities from the park and its wildlife.

How have the local community's attitudes to wild dogs changed since AWCF was set up?

This is difficult to determine without having collected data or conducted a survey to consider people’s responses to the species before AWCF started working here. Our local attachment student, Sydney Dube, will however be carrying out a survey later this year, (in communities around the Savé Valley Conservancy), to look at people’s attitudes to wild dogs in areas where our program is active and where it isn’t, (amongst other things). That will tell us if we are succeeding in making a difference or not. It will also help us to see what areas we need to focus on with our community engagement work in the future, (e.g. addressing misperceptions, conflict mitigation, capacity building etc).

What we have noticed, however, is that communities with which we have had longstanding engagements, (e.g. Village 26 on the Western boundary of SVC), appear to be more tolerant of wild dogs, and our scouts are well known amongst the communities and serve as ambassadors for the species. Last year we had two packs denning right in the middle of community areas and, despite one or two incidences of livestock killings, the communities were generally tolerant of the animals and they finished their denning season safely in those areas. We believe this is a good indication of the potential for communities to contribute to wild dog conservation.

Do you think the Save Conservancy could be an attractive photo tourism destination in terms of its wildlife densities, variety, scenic beauty and tourist infrastructure? And if so, are any efforts being made by the conservancy to bring in photo tourists - especially with the dogs being such a big draw and with such good Big 5 representation in the conservancy itself?

Absolutely yes! The Savé Valley Conservancy is genuinely one of the most beautiful areas in Africa, and it certainly has sufficient wildlife densities, variety, scenic beauty and tourist infrastructure. The problem is not the place it’s the tourists! Unfortunately the photographic tourism industry is extremely fickle and bookings tend to disappear at the first sign of any trouble in the country. With the, (generally), negative media coverage of Zimbabwe, the political instability, and the general distrust of the governing regime, making a business from tourism is unfortunately not economically viable at the moment.

Even so, the conservancy members are trying extremely hard to diversify and attract eco / photographic tourists, but for the most part it’s only the local market that comes and the income isn’t sufficient to support the huge costs that come with protecting and managing these large wild areas. But if things change, with the abundance and diversity of amazing wildlife, and the opportunities provided by viewing wild dogs at the dens, there is certainly good potential for this.

Does the conservancy's location along 2 international borders make it particularly vulnerable to poaching, or are border controls good enough to deter cross-border poaching? With the current political tensions and recurrence of hostilities in Moz, are you seeing an uptick in poaching?

The Savé Valley Conservancy does not border any other countries, although Mozambique is not too far east. Gonarezhou National Park borders Mozambique along its entire eastern boundary but it does not border South Africa. There is about a 50km stretch of communal land between the southern boundary of the park and the Limpopo River, (the international boundary). But yes, there are definitely additional problems that arise due to that international boundary with Mozambique, and cross-border law enforcement is particularly challenging. The Frankfurt Zoological Society and Parks are however doing a great job of boundary patrols which I have no doubt is having an impact. I haven’t noticed any increase in mortality to the wild dogs, lions or other carnivores since the recent problems in Mozambique but I’m afraid I don’t have figures to hand about the general poaching. My gut feeling would be that this has not affected the region along the Gonarezhou boundary too much.

Is the SVC mostly fenced? Even so, are there potential corridors open for animals such as eles along the entire length of Lowveld?

The SVC is mostly fenced except in the south where the fence has been largely removed by the re-settled farmers. Malilangwe is surrounded by a proper fence but there is an area in the south where the fence is such that elephants, (and predators), can move freely between Gonarezhou and Malilangwe. So there is generally good connectivity in the lowveld, certainly for predators. Eles might have a problem going south from SVC because they would not be able to go through Malilangwe and would have to go round, (through cane fields or communal farmlands).


Map of the GLTFCA (Credit Sarah Clegg, Malilangwe Trust)

What are your thoughts overall about the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area and the role that a private conservancy like Savé can play in such a venture?

The GLTFCA has huge potential to contribute significantly to conservation in southern Africa, and privately protected areas, such as SVC and Malilangwe, are critical components of it. Private protected areas serve as vital areas of expansion to, or connectivity between, the National Parks in any TFCA area. There tends to be better investment and capacity and less corruption in private protected areas, which leads to better management, so for species like rhino in particular, the private protected areas are, at this stage, vital components of the TFCAs in Zimbabwe. For wild dogs and other wide ranging large carnivores, national parks alone are often, (usually), insufficient to maintain viable populations, so good connectivity with other protected areas, which also support populations of the species, is critical.

What made you look to Gonarezhou and SVC for basing your conservation activities? How easy or difficult it has been being based mostly 'on the ground' versus an African city?

I grew up in Zimbabwe and then did secondary school and university in the UK, all the time counting the days when I could return to southern Africa. A week or so after graduating, (in Zoology), I came back out and worked in Botswana, (in the Makgadikgadi), for a couple of years before moving to Kenya where I did my PhD. When I finished that I was looking for a job and I saw a position advertised to take over a wild dog project in Savé Valley. It was advertised as a PhD position, (although I’d just done my PhD), and came with no funding, no salary and no equipment!! But somehow I decided it was the project for me, and was assured it was a ‘great project with good potential for raising funds’ and if I could raise enough I could even pay myself a small stipend. Despite the timing, (I eventually arrived in Zim two days after the March elections in 2008 when the country was in turmoil, hyperinflation was rampant, shops were empty and there was no fuel available), I took the project on a leap of faith, because I wanted to come ‘home’ and I love wild dogs!

Soon after getting the project running again in SVC, I decided to expand to Gonarezhou as well and over the last 6 years have built up the project to cover a considerable area, as well as include the education and outreach work, and the lion project as well.

So that’s how I ended up here, and I’m very happy, although it does get lonely at times. I couldn’t live in a city very easily, and have lived in the bush in one place or another for the last 12 years, so I’m used to it. It has advantages and disadvantages but for the most part it’s a real privilege to live in wildlife areas as beautiful as Savé Valley and Gonarezhou, and I wouldn’t trade it in for the city for anythin,g (not even the sushi bars and sports facilities – my two weaknesses)!

Do you get a chance to recruit and involve the local communities in your work?

Yes, very much so. All of our field team and education team are local Zimbabweans, and we support a number of local students, at undergraduate, honours and masters level. We are invested in building local capacity and ensuring sustainable benefits, and as such employ almost exclusively local staff, have close affiliations with local universities and work closely with local communities and landowners.

We have already achieved a sound level of capacity amongst our team members; our scouts are ambassadors for African wild dogs and extremely capable of running field-monitoring aspects on their own. All team members have the capacity to work independently and previous affiliated students have shown their commitment to ‘the cause’ by expressing a desire to rejoin the AWCF team at a managerial level and continue to effect conservation change within the Zimbabwean Lowveld, particularly for African wild dogs.

We also involve the local communities and local schools extensively through our education and awareness programs which are described in more detail in answer to another question above.

How and what has been AWCF's interaction and relationship with Clive Stockil, Camfire, FZS, Malilangwe Trust, the district councils and the different communities in the land around Gonarezhou? Do you see synergies across all these players and would you say it has helped to drive efforts as one or do you see many divergent thoughts, modus operandis etc which are kind of slowing down the kind of work you want to do?

AWCF works very closely with Clive Stockil, (whom I’m privileged to count as a close personal friend as well), and the Frankfurt Zoological Society and we have a good working relationship with Malilangwe, although we don’t actually work in Malilangwe directly. All our work in communities necessitates engagement with all local structures, including the Rural District Councils, CAMPFIRE reps, District Education Officers etc, so we collaborate with these groups as well and in fact have formal MOUs signed between AWCF, the RDCs and the District Attorneys for the different districts. The Gonarezhou Predator Project is formally a joint initiative between AWCF, FZS and Parks, and FZS provide a lot of support for the fieldwork aspects of that project. Clive is always the voice of reason and has provided us with endless hours of valuable advice, information and many useful contacts. The folk in Malilangwe are friends as well as colleagues and we know we can call on them for help if we need to. Malilangwe works with us on some of our educational programs, (literacy), as well.

There are most certainly synergies across all these players and there are several forums which bring them all together. Although there are differences of opinion and ‘modus operandi’ I feel this is only healthy and have not experienced it slowing us down. In fact I think the generally close and professional working relationship that exists between the majority of players in the lowveld is healthy and productive and I believe that ‘the whole is greater than the sum of the parts’, (or whatever that expression is!!!!), in this case.


Showing DVDs in schools is always popular and the rooms get packed!

Can you provide some details of the education efforts that AWCF has made for the kids and adults around Gonarezhou and SVC? Both in terms of normal education and conservation related ones?

We run independent schools-based education programs and community awareness programs. We have 123 schools in our schools-based education program, in 37 wards, in five districts, involving over 16,000 students and 500 teachers. All these schools have been provided with curricula-friendly conservation-awareness material and receive regular support from our community liaison officer. Evaluation tests have been carried out twice now in 30 of these schools and the results demonstrate the effectiveness of the program in increasing understanding, enhancing knowledge and improving attitudes of conservation related issues. We also show wildlife, conservation and environmental education themed DVDs in all schools, (although have yet to complete this around Gonarezhou). This DVD showing program will continue over the course of the next few years, since it has proved to be very effective in getting the right messages understood by students and teachers alike.

We continue supporting teachers through regular phone contact and visits at least twice a year, and we support environmental clubs in a number of ways. More materials, (including the Lowveld ABC), will be distributed to schools during 2014, and work with training teachers will continue, in line with our objective to try and make the project largely self-sustaining in the long term. The Lowveld ABC, developed in partnership with Chishakwe Ranch, is a great, directly relevant, resource that can be used in the lower grades for teaching the ABCs as well as in many fun ways in Environmental Science classes in the upper grades, (as there is information on the back of each picture).

We also run a literacy program in some schools, after realising that even students close to completing primary school can’t read. It’s not their fault, they aren’t stupid or badly behaved, they just don’t have any books with which to learn to read. So what chance will they have in life? And how will they ever learn the value of natural resource conservation if they can’t read and educate themselves? So we use the Happy Readers literacy scheme and are trying to get the books into as many schools as we can, bit by bit as funding becomes available. To date, 10 of the schools have been provided with Happy Reader Literacy books. An adapted version of the well-known Schonell Reading Test is used to evaluate literacy of Grade 2, 3, 4 and 5 students before the books are given to the schools, and thereafter every year. We have so far done these preliminary tests twice on seven of the schools, and the results are hugely encouraging. As with all our programs, schools that have been provided with the Happy Reader Literacy material will be given regular support by phone and visits to give assistance where necessary. All teachers partook in a day-long training workshop when the books were distributed. We intend to keep trying to raise money to get more of these books into schools because their value is incontestable, (Target N = another 15 schools by June 2014).

AWCF also supports 14 students through secondary schools on Predator Scholarships. These students were selected from the primary schools with which we work, and they are all bright children with lots of potential, but from very poor backgrounds, with no hope of going to secondary school without our support. We provide fees, books and uniforms for their whole secondary school career, pay their O Level and A Level exam fees and this year we will be providing them with solar lights to enable evening studying. In return we get them engaged in the project and working in their school’s environmental clubs etc, and basically serving as ambassadors / advocates for conservation.

We also show conservation DVDs in schools. This is an extremely powerful way to get the message across and the very perceptive questions and answers from the kids after the films, (and on the following visits to the schools), show clearly that they are retaining what they learned from the films and surrounding discussion.

For communities, the project is a little less developed at this stage, but eventually will cover all 37 communities, (wards), that we cover with the schools program. This uses aa mobile education unit, and library book system, as well as showing of DVDs to communities. We currently have a wide selection of library books and wildlife / environment themed magazines, which we loan out to local people, similar to the way a library works. The intention is, that as the vehicle moves through the 37 wards encompassed by our program, that DVDs are shown morning and evening, facilitated by a trained educator who can give a take home message for each DVD and hold and informal question and answer session where necessary.

The program is currently strongest around SVC, but, funding dependent, we hope to expand and strengthen our fledgling program around Gonarezhou this year.

What are the biggest challenges you have faced in terms of raising funds? For a lot of people, who might not be able to donate as much cash but could either look at investing time to help or mobilising things like books, toys etc, what kind of suggestions would you have?

Raising sufficient funds to keep our programs going in a constant struggle and it’s very frustrating to have to spend so much time sitting at a computer writing grant applications or endless funding reports instead of getting out into the field and doing the work.

People can help in many ways.

Direct donation of funds is obviously extremely valuable and much appreciated, at whatever scale. It’s a constant battle to get un-tied funds in that we can use as and when we need them, rather than being tied by specific grant budget breakdowns. Any support of core costs, (a monthly donation of however much, but at least consistent), is a huge help for us to be able to plan ahead.

For people who are not in a position to donate personally, but want to help, a great way to do that is by fundraising for us! There are loads of fun ways to do it, hosting dinners or dances that people pay to attend, doing sponsored skydives or other crazy stuff, running marathons, making and selling stuff, writing to local businesses to ask for support etc. That’s always hugely appreciated and takes a bit of pressure off us.

Collecting educational materials for us is also always appreciated, but the problem with that is the cost, (and logistical nightmare), of getting them into Zim. Books and stationary tend to be heavy and bulky so unless the donation comes with the support necessary to land them in Zim, it’s often not feasible. Smaller quantities, that can be carried out in suitcases are fine.

Donations of equipment like tracking antennas and receivers, GPS units, digital cameras for scouts, camera traps etc is always wonderfully appreciated, (but do talk to us so we get the right brands etc).

Lastly, people with particular skills who want to come and donate their time to the project can be useful. At this time we would value volunteer help from an accountant / auditor, a mechanic and an artist, (capable of painting big wildlife murals on classroom walls and painting our education vehicle). We have a big problem with accommodation however, so these folk would have to be willing to either stay in a tent or pay a small rental to a landowner.

What do you feel about the challenges in front of SVC now? Do you think it’s even remotely possible for it to go back to its former glory or do we run a very big risk of losing this land and habitat to farming and other non wildlife related activities? Do you think this is a time bound thing and would you have any idea on when things could turn one way or the other?

I’m afraid I’m not really in a position to comment on all of this. It’s all very up-in-the air at the moment and could go either way. Unfortunately, it’s now all about politics and money, rather than logic or conservation, which means there is very little AWCF can do to influence any outcome. We certainly do our bit, (as and when there is the remotest chance it might help), but for the most part we try and keep out of the politics, so that whatever happens we hopefully stay in a position where we are able to work on the ground to conserve and monitor.

I do not believe it will be able to return to how it was, its ‘former glory’ as you say. I think there will have to be some much greater level of community involvement, and some genuine community partnerships, and tangible benefit sharing, (not ‘build a school and pretend the community should be grateful to us and put up with wildlife impact for evermore’ benefit sharing). But I believe that this could, if done right, be extremely positive for the conservancy, by actually expanding its borders, (bringing in community land), and creating a lot of goodwill from its neighbours.

I don’t think all is lost and heaven forbid it would be turned into farm land again, but I do think there are significant changes coming and I just hope they can be done in a way that ultimately will be good for the wildlife and the conservancy as a whole, rather than detrimental.

As for timing, who knows? I’d like to say there has to be a decision on all this soon, but we’ve been saying that for years!

How has predator population and other plains game been impacted by the recent political mess in SVC? What is the reason for so many dogs packs and their success?

Unfortunately the lack of quotas for SVC has meant very little income coming into the conservancy, whilst the costs stay the same. Consequently, there has been minimal investment in infrastructure including fence maintenance, and many of the ranch-based anti-poaching scouts have had to be laid off. Inevitably therefore there is likely to be a negative impact on the wildlife although we are fortunate in SVC to have a great Anti-Poaching Unit, (APU), which operates throughout the conservancy, mainly for rhino protection, but they certainly do their bit for keeping snare poachers out as well.

Unfortunately, impacts of this nature tend to have a lag effect in terms of their noticeable effect on the wildlife population, so although we are not yet seeing significant declines in most species, it may be coming. Lions are showing a decline, and if this is a trend rather than two anomalously lower counts, it is concerning. But I think it’s more due to retaliatory poisonings of lions by communities rather than the ‘political mess’ in SVC! (Although they could be linked).

The wild dogs are still doing well, although again we may see the impact of all this in a year or two. But they are doing well here because for the most part SVC is still a well-protected, well-managed wildlife area, with relatively high prey densities and abundant artificial water. Thanks to the work of AWCF, persecution of the dogs, (and disturbances at dens etc), has decreased considerably and our investment in communities where the dogs often den has meant they have been allowed to complete their denning season unscathed, whereas previously this would not have been tolerated.

Could you tell us more about the project on wild dogs in Southern Africa that you are now heading and what are its goals and how is it planning to achieve those goals?

The Rangewide Conservation Program for Cheetah and Wild Dogs, (RWCP), is a joint initiative of the Wildlife Conservation Society, (USA), and the Zoological Society of London, (UK), endorsed by the IUCN Cat and Canid Specialist Groups. The program, funded by the Howard G Buffet Foundation, in partnership with the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative, was initiated as an innovative rangewide conservation planning process in 2007, after recognition of the need to conserve both cheetah and wild dogs at a scale rarely before considered in terrestrial conservation. As low density, wide ranging species, viable populations are rarely found exclusively within the confines of protected areas, or even within single countries, so conservation planning needs to take place at both regional and national levels.

The program has three regional offices, southern Africa, East Africa and north, west, central Africa. I head up the southern African office, which includes South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, Malawi, Botswana, Namibia and Angola. The program has facilitated the production of three Regional Conservation Strategies for Cheetah and Wild Dogs, and these have been taken down to the national level through a serious of national workshops. National Action Plans for Cheetah and Wild Dogs are now in place for 12 countries, with Angola being the only country in southern Africa not to have a National Action Plan in places. The RWCP also maintains up-to-date distribution maps of cheetah and wild dog ranges throughout Africa.

The Program’s overall goal now, in southern Africa, is to support and promote implementation of these National Action Plans through supporting, (and in some cases fundraising for), various field programs, supporting and advising government wildlife authorities and undertaking some of the work, (those aspects that are best achieved at the regional scale), ourselves. You can look at for more information.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on how wild dogs are doing now, (in general across Africa), whether it is ever possible to tell, (they seem to be able to thrive in the places sane people never go), and whether you think human intervention has had any impact on improving their status? What I am thinking about here is that clearly a protected area will benefit wild dogs but at the same time many well protected areas seem to have lost most or all of their wild dogs. Is it a correct impression that wild dogs thrive on the fringes and might a park in which other predators start to thrive due to the park's success actually be a park in which wild dog numbers start to drop?

Yes, you are correct. It is a conservation paradox that in many cases protected areas are not ideal for conserving wild dogs, because they tend to hold a good population of lions and hyenas which are of course superior predators to wild dogs. Consistently across Africa wild dog density is, (strongly), negatively correlated with lion density. In fact, over 60% of wild dogs resident range falls outside government-designated protected areas, (IUCN/SSC 2007). As such, conservation activity outside of protected areas, as well as inside, is absolutely critical for the long-term survival of the species. So yes, where lions and other larger carnivores are doing well, dogs tend to do less well. But this doesn’t always apply, and recent studies I’ve been working on suggests that the wild dogs ability to thrive in amongst other large carnivore, (particularly lions), is very dependent on the terrain. More rugged terrain, that gives wild dogs a refuge from the large carnivores, allows the dogs to survive amongst lions, where they simply cannot do that in more flat and open habitats. In addition it is well known that lion territories tend to be restricted to within a few kms of permanent water and that wild dogs can and do use areas further away from water, where prey densities are lower, but so are lion densities. This is nature’s way of providing a refuge for the smaller carnivores, but in heavily managed areas, with lots of artificial water, you get lions everywhere and this natural escapism is no longer possible.

But to answer your more general question, the global wild dog population is in decline, largely due to loss of habitat and other anthropogenic impacts. While smaller populations are at risk of becoming extirpated in many places, for the most part, in the few protected areas that are large enough to support viable wild dog populations, they are doing okay, despite lions and everything else. I don’t think they are at risk of extinction in the immediate future, but I do think a lot of effort and conservation focus needs to be put into the transfrontier conservation initiatives, (because of all species, wild dogs need space!!), and into understanding where wild dogs are likely to be able to persist long term and focussing on protecting those areas, (i.e. where the terrain is right, where the suite of competitive carnivores is in balance etc).


Rosemary where she is most happy - in the wild bush!

Has anything humans have done actually helped wild dog populations that you or close colleagues have studied, and if so what and, (in your opinion, and if not already obvious), why did it help?

This is a good question, and one we ask ourselves quite often. The answer is I hope so!! I really hope that what we are doing is helping and I do actually believe it is. We certainly make a difference at the individual level, though removing snares. There is no doubt that we save the lives of dogs by doing this and in every case the dogs we have saved have gone on to be fully functioning pack members, which contribute towards the success of the pack. Some may say this is insignificant in the bigger picture, but with a species where there are only 6600 individuals left, we believe every one counts. More importantly perhaps, there is evidence to suggest that packs that drop below a threshold size, (about 5 or 6 adults), cannot successfully raise pups and so by preventing the inevitable attrition of pack sizes due to losses from snare wounds, we are helping maintain a viable pack size and thus enhancing the chances of a successful breeding season.

In the bigger picture, without doubt our, (and other projects’), engagement with land owners and communities has reduced direct persecution of wild dogs and saved some packs, (and certainly some litters). In addition, I strongly believe that our education efforts will have a long term positive impact and will genuinely and tangibly reduce wild dog mortality through an improved understanding of the species, a greater appreciation for its value, and a greater tolerance threshold. The evidence we have so far that this is starting to happen is overwhelming. I’m not kidding myself that just because we teach them conservation in primary schools that they are all going to turn into fantastic environmental stewards, but some certainly will and others will at least think twice before attempting to disturb dens or kill dogs and over time this will help. Combined with genuine benefits from wildlife, (which we are working on!), this should benefit wild dogs by reducing snare-poaching, reducing direct killing because they are perceived to be dangerous to people, and by allowing free dispersal through communal areas to improve connectivity.

In addition I think that some of the research myself and my colleagues have conducted will genuinely help. Examples include genetic projects which allow us to make a call about whether or not artificial gene transfer, (through translocations), is necessary or not, use of scent marks to create bio-boundaries to keep wild dog packs out of areas that are dangerous for them, and an understanding of the type of terrain and habitat that they survive best in, which helps us prioritise areas for reintroductions and conservation.

Also, there is a lot of work relating to using current policy and legislation to strengthen carnivore conservation, and to add to or change existing legislation that may not be favourable.

So yes, I do believe that work by wild dog conservationists and researchers is helping wild dogs both directly and indirectly, and both in the short term and the long term. However, I also think there is a lot of wasted effort out there, and projects need to take a good hard look at what they are doing, why they are doing it, and what they could be doing better if conservation is their genuine goal. I also think we all need to be better at getting our findings implemented into policy and management, and communicating better with decision makers at the highest levels.

What are the challenges and opportunities in Zimbabwe, as opposed to the other areas of Africa where you have worked?

Other than Zimbabwe, I have worked mainly in Botswana and Kenya, but have experience in other countries as well. Generally, Zimbabwe is a fantastic place to work. The people are wonderful – well educated, (at least those over 25 years old), polite, hard-working, resourceful, honest, friendly and welcoming. Corruption at the low levels is minimal – of course it’s there, but relative to Kenya certainly, the corruption of, for example, police on the streets, is much lower in Zimbabwe. Obviously the political situation has been somewhat volatile, and there were no end of challenges trying to get this project established in 2008 when there was crazy hyperinflation, no money available anyway, nothing at all in any shops, no food and no fuel. But since the dollarization in 2009, that’s no longer a problem. Zimbabwe is an expensive country and is getting more so, but for the most part things function okay. The roads are a lot better in Zim than they were when I worked in Kenya, (2004-2007)!!

Zimbabwe has huge potential for wildlife conservation – it has several large national parks, several large privately protected conservancies, very few fences and a generally tolerant population. It is one of only 8 countries, (including Botswana and Kenya), that still have viable populations of wild dogs, and the GLTFCA is one of only 10 lion strongholds in Africa. So there are great opportunities for really exciting wildlife conservation here.

I loved Botswana and Kenya too – both are beautiful countries with great people and wildlife – but I’d rate Zimbabwe top!

What is your opinion on the fate of cheetah as a species in the short and long run?

Cheetah are a vulnerable species, because, like wild dogs, they need very big areas to survive, due to their low density, wide ranging nature. So habitat loss, fragmentation and human encroachment into protected areas are a particular concern for this species. But thankfully this is known and recognised, and conservation efforts are moving in the right direction, with transfrontier conservation initiatives etc. There are still several large strong cheetah populations in Africa, so their outlook is not too bleak, but like everything else, they are threatened by the human population growth. IUCN lists them as vulnerable with less than 9000 individuals left.

I do not share the opinion that cheetah are genetically doomed and that captive breeding centres are the way to save them. The genetics of wild cheetah are sufficiently diverse and conservation efforts need to focus on in-situ conservation and habitat protection.

The north-west African subspecies Acinonyx jubatus hecki, (also known as the Saharan cheetah), is a different story and is facing imminent extinction. It is classified as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List, with only about 250 mature individuals left in the world.

What are the chances of survival for the dogs, (or even other animals), that had spent years in rehabilitation and close contact with humans and are then returned to the wild?

Personally I am not a big advocate of keeping any large carnivore in captivity for any reason. I can certainly see the value of a few ambassador species, (captive animals that for whatever reason can never be released, and which are used to educate local people about the species), but I have yet to be convinced by the value of captive breeding centres and most rehabilitation facilities.

Reintroductions of African wild dogs from captivity into the wild have traditionally failed. Lessons have been learned however, and it seems if you are able to bond some of your captive dogs with ‘wild’ wild dogs to form a mixed pack, (some wild, some captive), they can be released with reasonable chances of success. But captive dogs alone, even if bonded into a pack and given time to re-wild in a soft release situation don’t usually do very well when released back into the wild, (although of course there are exceptions to this).

I would be concerned that dogs that are habituated to people would not show the appropriate fear response when coming into contact with communities, and would thus create a very negative impression of the species, (i.e. they would appear dangerous, because they’d have no fear of people and are likely to approach rather than run away), which can be very detrimental in the long run. Also of course, they would be more likely to be persecuted if they don’t fear humans and contract disease from closer proximity with domestic dogs. So all in all I don’t think it’s a particularly useful conservation tools, although there may be occasional circumstances where it is warranted.

What can be done to improve the chances for survival for animals returned to the wild?

Minimal exposure to people, minimum time in captivity, maximising any opportunity for ‘wild’ behaviour while in captivity and, as above, bonding captive individuals with wild individuals before release. Also soft release, (release into a boma for several weeks in the new area), to get them used to the new area before letting them go totally free.

In the Save Valley, does the dogs' ecology differ much from other areas of study like Selous, Botswana or Kruger in terms of prey taken, relationships with other predators, pack dynamics and other parts of behaviour?

There is not a great deal of difference, but obviously prey will be different where the common antelope species are different. In East Africa, (Laikipia) the dogs do not have any particular denning season, and packs can den at any time of year. In southern Africa we have a very synchronised breeding season and in fact the dogs in Zim and the ones in Botswana tend to breed at a very similar time, whereas, for the couple of years at least, the Kruger dogs have denned a bit later. We also seem to have quite a number of beta litters in Savé Valley Conservancy which is recorded as uncommon elsewhere.

I think in other areas wild dogs are a bit more savvy with respect to avoiding large carnivore, lions in particular. In SVC, lions have been at low densities for many years and are only reaching high densities now, and so we are not, (yet), seeing the behavioural adaptations to lions in terms of den site selection as clearly as we do in other areas.

Pack dynamics – pack sizes and average litter sizes – seem to be pretty standard here in comparison with those other study sites.

Following on this latest news on indigenisation and the NP talks, (in Savé Valley), will your research be affected?

As per an answer above, I’m not sure what the outcome of all these political talks etc is going to be, so I don’t know the extent to which our research will be affected. We obviously work in Gonarezhou as well as SVC and will be focussing a lot of effort there this year anyway, so it’s not like we will have nothing to do if SVC implodes. But I don’t think it will be that extreme, and my hope is that we can remain apolitical enough to be allowed to carry on working in the area doing our best to monitor and conserve the dogs through the tough times.

The views expressed therein are solely those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of Safaritalk.

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Extremely informative and very well balanced interview.Thanks Rosemary!

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It's a shame I didn't read this until now. Great information. Very interesting to read about the conservation challenges that are specific to dogs.


Rosemary also inspires a bit of hope re: cheetah genetic diversity; usually I only hear this spoken of in very pessimistic terms.

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Thanks for a great interview Rosemary. I hope to discuss these topica further with you in a little more than two months in Gonarezhou.

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