The wild pup was separated from its pack by a pride of hungry lions. Nearby, Perth Zoo’s Curator of Operations was on an overnight pack-monitoring exercise during one of his regular field trips into the African bush.
In that moment, Lucky went from having zero chance to having just one.
John Lemon has dedicated his career, and his life, to the conservation of African Painted Dogs which are struggling to hold on in their African habitat. Though science demands that you let nature take its course, this particular animal had completed seven months of daily rehabilitation—far too valuable to lose in an instant.
While his colleagues from Painted Dog Conservation (PDC) leaned on their vehicle’s horn and made a racket, John sprinted straight toward the startled lions, scooped up the injured pup where it lay and circled back to the 4WD.
As they sped toward the rehabilitation centre that John had built by hand in Hwange National Park in 2002, he helped administer first aid to the badly injured young female.
A female…and a potential future pack leader.
“Creating new Painted Dog packs and releasing them into protected habitat is a specialty of ours,” John said of his decades of conservation work in Zimbabwe and Zambia.
“It’s one of the ways we’re going to help the species return from the brink. Protect them, protect their habitat, bring diverse genes together and let them do the rest. After millions of years of evolution, it would be a tragedy to see them become extinct in our lifetime.”
It was a reckless moment by anyone’s standards, but it was reasonably typical for the hardworking team of conservationists who have worked in the area for two decades trying to arrest the steady decline in painted dog numbers.
“When you’ve fought your whole life for a species, you can’t just let one go if you’re in a position to save it.”
John has made it his business to put himself squarely in that position for more than twenty years.
He has made it his life’s work to contribute to painted dog preservation by working in the field and by raising awareness and much needed funds through his not-for-profit organisation, Painted Dog Conservation Inc (PDC Inc).
While most of us were enjoying the mild conditions of a Perth Christmas, John and his team were battling the soaking humidity and plague of insects of Zimbabwe’s wet season. He was back in Hwange to undertake much needed repairs on his sixteen-year-old rehabilitation centre; 2.1km of chain-link fencing replaced by hand and 12km of electric reinforcement paid for through the support of PDC Inc’s loyal members and donors. It took nearly four weeks to upgrade security in the facility to keep the resident painted dogs in and the 40,000 elephant and buffalo neighbours out.
It’s the size of the rehabilitation facility that makes it suitable for such an active and lithe species. Before the very injured Lucky arrived, the facility was home to the nine-strong Mpindo Pack. In early 2018, Zimbabwe’s National Parks authority asked PDC to translocate a small pack of dogs that had come into conflict with humans in an area where ‘wild’ met ‘rural’. The local farmers blamed the dogs for stock losses and were preparing to take lethal action.
PDC gave them a better option. The parents were caught up, their seven pups were hand-dug out of a nearby den, then the whole pack was moved to into PDCs rehabilitation facility where they could live without the threat of destruction.
In December 2018, the time was right to release the grown pack into protected grassland habitat inside Hwange National Park which offered full waterholes and abundant prey. It took a team of 20 people twelve hours to capture all nine animals, sedate and vet-check them, collect blood and DNA samples from them all, fit anti-snare collars onto the adults and transport the pack out to the abundant Jambile pan for release.
But the planning and coordination has taken months longer than that.
Even after two decades in the field, Africa can still surprise John.
“It hailed heavily on the recent trip to Hwange, on a sticky, sweaty day. My colleague, Jealous Mpofu, has lived here all his life and has never witnessed it," John said.
"He takes being bitten by a cobra in his stride but was like a kid full of wonder at the sight of hail.”
The weather may be changing but the need for conservation action to preserve painted dogs never does. PDC Inc supports two projects in Zimbabwe and four in Zambia and all of them need feet on the ground to make progress. John will be spending his upcoming Long Service Leave in Africa, working with his team on expansions to the rehabilitation facility to ensure more painted dogs survive.
“We’ve raised over $1.6 million dollars for painted dogs in the past decade. Every cent goes to the dogs. If we can do much of the work ourselves—whether it’s the admin or the field work—that just stretches the funds even further.”
And what about Lucky? Will John check in on his second-chancer while he’s in Zimbabwe?
“Lucky is a real fighter which sets her up well to be a great pack leader some day. She and others like her are the future of painted dogs in Africa.”
Nikki Beynon - TTI Coordinator at Perth Zoo