Story by Peter Blinston & Nick Dyer
Photography by Nick Dyer
Snares are a major hazard for painted dogs and removing them is rarely straight forward. This is a story about a snared dog called Cusp and how Painted Dog Conservation (PDC) responded to the emergency.
The event took place at the beginning of this year and tells of the six days when Peter Blinston, Jealous Mpofu, Dr Makzikanda, Nick Dyer and Munyaradzi Chiwara went is search of the Broken Rifle Pack, in an attempt to save Cusp’s life.
Day two: Signs in the sand
Makololo was over an hour away and we aimed to be there by first light, so another 3.30 start was agreed. Groggily we bumped across the bush, sipping coffee in silence and waiting for the pre-dawn light to gently awaken Hwange to another blistering day.
As we neared Makololo our hearts raced. Fresh dog tracks padded along the road. A little further was some scat, the technical name for dog poo, which was unpleasantly but encouragingly fresh. They had just been here!
But we could only see the spoor from one or two dogs, not a pack of nine. Maybe they had split on the hunt? Maybe it was a different pack? A little further, on another road, we saw more spoor, but again, only from a couple of dogs.
The guides had told us of a lone pair of dogs who roamed the area together like Lady and the Tramp and we wondered if it was their tracks. We did not have enough information on the previous days sighting to be sure. We were confused.
It was not until that evening, after another long day in the relentless heat, that we met some Wilderness guests on a game drive. We were excited to learn that it was the couple that had seen the pack the night before.
They enthusiastically showed us the pictures they had taken. Although shot in almost total darkness, they were perhaps not award winning but they meant everything to us. It was Broken Rifle and we could just pick out Cusp, very much still alive!
We were now encouraged. Makololo generously said we could stay in their lodge that night so as to be in the right vicinity that morning. It meant we could have a lie in until 4am. Woohoo!
Day Three: On their trail
The next day brought our first sighting. We had successfully tracked their spoor to a large area of thick trees bordered by four roads. If they moved out they would have to cross a road and we would see their tracks. So the morning’s job was to drive around looking to see where they came out.
Suddenly a lone dog appeared on the road. He was in hunting mode and by himself. All too quickly he disappeared into the trees and we lost him.
At last we had seen a dog and this rejuvenated our spirits. But was he from Broken Rifle? And what was he doing out here all alone?
Within minutes, Jealous came on the radio from more than five kilometres away. ‘I have dogs, I have dogs! It is Broken Rifle’. The transmission was coming from the direction that our lone dog was heading. This pack seemed to spread far and wide when hunting.
We raced to find Jealous, dazzled by the rising sun as we headed east. By the time we arrived the dogs had disappeared into the thick bush. Jealous told us that they were just lying by the road. It was a lost opportunity and we were disappointed. It was the last we saw of them that day.
Back at camp we met the manager of Little Makololo. He kindly lent us a hand-held radio that hooked us into Wilderness’s radio network and he promised that their guides would call us if they saw the dogs. He had just given us another ten pairs of eyes!
Day Four: A waiting game
By now we were becoming familiar with the Wilderness Concession and, with the help of the local guides, we not only knew the road network, but also where the available drinking water was located.
The prolonged drought and lack of rain meant that Wilderness’s well-maintained waterholes were almost the only areas where animals could find water. It seemed to us that darting Cusp when the pack came to drink was going to be our best bet.
Given that we knew roughly where the dogs were, we deduced that the pools outside Davison’s Camp and Little Makololo Camp were going to be the most likely places.
That morning we focussed our attention around Davison’s Camp only to find that Broken Rifle had practically walked through the guests tents at Little Makololo, ten kilometres away. This was extremely frustrating to hear.
We drove there as soon as we heard and followed their spoor on foot deep into the surrounding forest, ignoring the fact that lions were seen there earlier that morning.
Jealous demonstrated his superb tracking skills, but after a long walk we acknowledged that the on-foot strategy had limited benefit. We were convinced that they were lying down nearby, but even if we found them, there was little we could do away from our vehicles. Approaching them on foot could also scare them away.
That evening we waited by the Little Makololo waterhole. The sky subtly slipped from blue to orange as the sun eased towards the horizon. Thirsty herds of elephants emerged from the trees to submerge in the cool water in front of the Camp.
It had been another blistering hot day and El Niño was visibly taking its toll on the animals.
As the orange faded and darkness wrapped the landscape, pandemonium broke out on the other side of the pool. A herd of impala belted out of the trees in full panic. They ran the entire length of the plain and we fully expected to see Broken Rifle in hot pursuit. But sadly no painted dogs emerged onto the scene, although the impalas’ behaviour seemed highly suspicious to say the least.
A little later, we sat in total darkness by the waterhole listening peacefully to Africa’s post twilight songs. A shrill scream from a herd of elephants ripped out of the night and in our minds eye we saw them chasing cheeky dogs away from the water…a game that’s often played by them both.
We drove towards the sound and we picked up Broken Rifle’s spoor in our headlights almost immediately. We followed the tracks and after a while they disappeared into the bush in the direction of Davison’s camp. Another near miss, but it was clear where we should start in the morning.