Painting the Painted Dogs in Zimbabwe


Alison Nicholls painting African wild dogs in Zimbabwe

left to right: Alison sketching in Hwange national park; Painted dog in Hwange; sketching at the home of a PDC staff member.

In 2007 I spent 6 weeks with Painted Dog Conservation (PDC) in Zimbabwe, tracking and sketching highly endangered African Wild Dogs, also known as Painted Dogs, and learning about PDC’s extensive educational programs and work with local communities. My visit was funded by an Artists For Conservation grant under their Flag Expeditions program, and my expedition was titled Painting the Painted Dogs – an Artistic Study of an Endangered Hunter. On my return home I created a traveling exhibition and lecture series, featuring sketches from my expedition journal, studio paintings, photographs and video from my expedition. 25% of sales from the exhibition and 100% of lecture fees were donated to PDC and I continue to donate a percentage from every Painted Dog artwork to support the conservation of this unique predator.

Moonrise and Expressions paintings by Alison Nicholls

left to right: Moonrise acrylic; Expressions watercolor; paintings by Alison Nicholls

Why did I choose to study Painted Dogs?
12 years before I visited PDC on my expedition, I saw my 1st pack of painted dogs, in Hwange National Park in northwest Zimbabwe. One of the males had an injured hind leg, was lagging behind the pack and was chased by a spotted hyena. The rest of the pack saw the hyena and turned as one to chase it off into the bush. Several years later, when I met Dr Gregory Rasmussen, founder of PDC, he told me that this pack was known as the Mlesilonda, the wounded ones. The dog with the paralyzed leg had sustained his injury when caught in a snare, which PDC staff had removed.

Many people who go to Africa for the first time have not heard of painted dogs or confuse them with hyenas or jackals. However, once they have encountered these distinctive and often elusive dogs, they are usually intrigued by them. The dogs are built for endurance, with a slim frame and long slender legs. They are beautifully and individually marked in black, tan and white, with white-tipped tails, a dark muzzle, almond eyes and huge round ears. Fights within (or even between) packs are rare and they are truly one of the most sociable predators. The whole pack cares for pups once they leave the den, and the pack will also regurgitate food for sick or injured adults who cannot join the hunt.

Painted dog field sketches by Alison Nicholls

Painted dog field sketches created in Hwange national park by Alison Nicholls

For all these reasons, painted dogs were an easy choice as a study species. I knew how elusive they can be, so to improve my chances of finding dogs I wanted to partner with a conservation organization in the field. Having seen my 1st pack of dogs in Hwange, and having met Dr Rasmussen subsequently, visiting PDC seemed a perfect choice. My expedition would give me a chance to sketch these dogs in the wild, allow me to see the day-to-day workings of a busy conservation organization, and would enable me to use my art to raise awareness of the plight of the dogs.

Why are they called Painted Dogs?
In Zimbabwe African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus) are often called painted dogs, with the term ‘painted’ being taken from their scientific name ‘pictus’. The name African wild dog came about during a time when most large predators were being systematically exterminated by people. It gives the impression of a feral species and a vicious killer, when in fact the dogs are one of the most ancient and unique canids, not closely related to wolves, domestic dogs or jackals.  (Or hyenas, which are not dogs at all but more closely related to civets and mongooses.) The dogs are in serious need of protection and the use of the name painted dog helps to remove the prejudices that the name wild dog conjures up. It also gave me a wonderful expedition title – Painting the Painted Dogs!

Painted dogs, spotted hyena and elephant in Zimbabwe.

left to right: Painted dogs chase away a Spotted Hyena; painted dogs are moved on by elephants.

How endangered are Painted Dogs?
In a word – very. Painted dog numbers have dropped dramatically from between 300,000 – 500,000 in 1900 to approximately 3,000 – 5,000 today. They have vanished from 25 of the 39 countries forming their historical range and are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature & Natural Resources (IUCN) list of endangered species. Zimbabwe contains one of the last viable dog populations. Threats to their continued survival vary in different countries, but in Zimbabwe the main threats are snares (set to catch animals like antelope for bushmeat), diseases like rabies and canine distemper, and road traffic accidents. However, across their entire range, habitat destruction is the main concern.

Painted Dog Conservation - tracking dogs, making snare-wire art, rehabiliaition facilty

left to right: Jealous of Painted Dog Conservation tracks dogs in Hwange; artists at the Iganyane Arts & Craft Center make items for sale; Painted Dog Conservation Rehabilitation Facility.

Painted Dog Conservation
PDC was founded by Dr Gregory Rasmussen and is based on the edge of Hwange National Park in north-western Zimbabwe. The aim of the organization is to conserve and increase the range and numbers of the painted dog, both in Zimbabwe and elsewhere in Africa. PDC has a number of wonderful facilities, some of which are open to visitors. High on the list is the Childrens Bushcamp where school groups stay and learn about the local environment and the dogs. Children from local schools are not charged for their stay, but private schools pay a fee. Children are divided into ‘packs’ and they spend every day on different activities – visiting the rehabilitation facility, going on game drives into the national park or having art lessons in the bush. The atmosphere at the bushcamp is always buzzing and the children leave the camp with a new understanding of their local environment and the wildlife that surrounds them.

The Rehabilitation Facility cares for injured or sick dogs. Often they are caring for dogs who are injured by snares, but once their wounds have healed sufficiently, the dogs will be released back into the park. The rehab is also a place where ‘new’ packs can be formed from dogs who have been relocated from other areas. Individual dogs have a much harder time surviving, so it is always preferable for a dog to be part of a pack. By locating these dogs near each other in the rehab, it is possible to see if they will form a new pack and can then be released together, increasing their chances of survival.

Painted dog road sign, waterbuck snare-wire art, PDC visitor center

left to right: Alison Nicholls with Artists For Conservation flag; waterbuck wire mask made from snare wire; PDC Visitor Center.

The PDC Visitor Center is a wonderful facility located on the main road into Hwange National Park. There are numerous displays, explaining the life of a painted dog. All the displays, including life-size cutouts of local species, paintings and spoor (animal prints) on the floor, were produced by local artists. It took me 2 full days to read every piece of information in the center, but the more casual visitor can read the larger display boards and gain an understanding of the life of a dog in the wild. Similar information boards can be found along the raised walkway which leads from the Visitor Center to the Rehabilitation Facility and Childrens Bushcamp.

PDC is one of the largest employers in the area and work closely with local schools and villages. They employ 2 Anti-Poaching Units which patrol on a daily basis looking for snares and poachers. Their Conservation Officers visit schools and attend local village meetings, helping villagers with diverse problems ranging from resolving conflict with wildlife to creating productive vegetable gardens. PDC is also associated with the Iganyana Art & Craft Centre in the nearby village of Dete, where local artists produce arts and crafts for sale including masks made from snare wire removed from the bush by the anti-poaching units.

How did my Expedition help Painted Dogs?
My traveling exhibition, which visited venues in New York, Connecticut and New Jersey in the United States, included a donation to PDC from the sale of every artwork and raised US$9500. My lecture series included more than 20 lectures at venues in various states, including a lecture with Dr Rasmussen at the Explorers Club in New York City. The lectures, attended by approximately 2000 people, raised awareness of the dogs and the issues surrounding their conservation. Now, several years later, I still frequently meet people who say they attended one of my lectures and refer to me as the painted dog artist! I continue to donate a percentage from the sale of every painted dog artwork to support the conservation of this unique predator.

Wild dog hunt and stretching dog by Alison Nicholls

left to right: Wild Dog Hunt field sketch; Stretching Dog on yupo; art by Alison Nicholls

How did my Art change as a result of my expedition?
Since embarking on my expedition, field sketching has become a vital aspect of my art and I sketch in the field on every visit to Africa. I consider my field sketches to be artworks in their own right and I now sell my original field sketches and limited edition reproductions of them too.

Visiting PDC opened my eyes to the many day-to-day issues faced by conservation organizations working in the field and inspired the creation of my 1st conservation-themed painting, Ensnared. It also inspired me to work with another conservation organization, the African People & Wildlife Fund in Tanzania.

Conservation-themed paintings based on my visit to PDC. Click on the images to read more about these paintings.

Ensnared by Alison Nicholls


On The Edge by Alison Nicholls.

On The Edge

See my African Field Sketches.
Learn more about Painted Dog Conservation.
Learn more about Artists For Conservation.