Don's diary

December 10, 1999

Monday

Perhaps this should be dogs' diary. It is midnight with a full moon shining through the canopy of a large forest tree on ranch land in Zimbabwe.

Rhythmically, the signal from the collar of a painted hunting dog, one of the world's rarest carnivores, beeps like a heartbeat beside me. While the dogs sleep, I wait for the Hlangabeza pack to stir and go hunting by the light of the moon. At 1.30am they stir to forage for food, leaving Hamuka, the breeding female, to guard the pups. They return at 4.30am, wearier than I, having travelled 26km to secure food for their litter of eight precious pups.

Tuesday

Day is filled with administration and writing funding proposals. Then back to the bush. Peace and sanity reign. The dogs sleep, the moon rises.

Suddenly, the peace is shattered. Hyenas are venturing close to the dogs' den. As a team, the dogs launch into an offensive. High-pitched chitters from the dogs interspersed with hyenas agonising in retreat. The echoes fade away. Such are the wars in the wild.

Wednesday

I scan to see if all the dogs and pups are present. One pup named Jupiter seems to be missing. My heart drops. Office work no longer has any priority. I go to check on the other pack some 50km away. Bush camp near the den of the Kansinga pack. The night is still somehow uncertain.

Thursday

Midnight. A lion roars and then some ten minutes later fills the air of the African night again. Eyespot, the sole survivor of a recent snaring event, rises while Crescent, his sister, suckles 11 pups and stays down the den for safety. Her mate is dead and the pups are too vulnerable - she cannot leave. He departs to hunt alone.

The sun is nearly up. Eyespot needs his departed brothers to help him look for food. An opportunity presents itself. It is now or never. A determined 8km-chase lasts ten minutes over sand veldt terrain. Faced with starvation, determination wins and an impala is secured. Nervously Eyespot eats then trots back 12km to Crescent. He feeds her and the pups, then wearily trots another 24km round-trip to try to bring back some of the food left behind. He sleeps.

As I muse at how his protective anti-snare collar has at

least bought some time, I am overwhelmed at his devotion to other members of his endangered species. My efforts pale into insignificance.

Friday

I mount an anti-poaching patrol to clear any loose snares. I feel I want to do more to conserve these very endangered animals.

My heart quickens as the "bush telegraph" beats of a new pack of dogs with pups near the villages. In my Land Rover, I go to investigate. The report is true, the dogs are there. I plan an operation tomorrow. Sleep is light, the dogs are vulnerable, snares abound.

Saturday

Operation was a success! Two dogs have been darted and fitted with protective anti-snare collars!

Sunday

I wearily but contentedly return to listen to the rhythmic heartbeat of the Hlangabezas. As evening falls, they come on the bush track to play with their pups in tow. Jupiter is there!

Gregory Rasmussen has worked for ten years conserving the highly endangered painted hunting dog. He is based at the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, Oxford University.

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