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International Experts on African Painted Dogs Convene at Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo

Photo by Jim Shultz (Chicago Zoological Society)
Photograph by Jim Shultz/Chicago Zoological Society

This past week the Chicago Zoological Society’s Brookfield Zoo brought the plight of the African Painted Dog to the forefront of the conservation community.  The Zoological Society hosted the Conference to Aid Highly Endangered African Painted Dogs through its Center for the Science of Animal Welfare (CSAW). The four-day meeting follows the inaugural painted dog conference, which was hosted by the Pittsburgh Zoo in 2011.

Zoos like Brookfield have been quite instrumental in rebranding the wild canid, once known colloquially in Africa and around the globe as the African wild dog. With their own painted dog residents on display at the Habitat Africa exhibit and through their participation in the AZA Species Survival Plan for the species, Brookfield has capitalized on an opportunity to showcase the dogs and educate millions of visitors about the critically endangered canid.

In an interview, conference keynote speaker and founder/director of the Painted Dog Research Trust Dr. Gregory Rasmussen said, “Zoos are an integral part of conservation programs and collectively reach more patrons than professional sporting events combined.”  Once featured by New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof in an article on the rebranding of African wild dogs, Rasmussen said, “Painted dogs were deliberately given a bad name,” and in light of the conference, he shared a sentiment that zoos have been helpful in rebranding the species through their outreach programs.

Dr. Rasmussen, who is also a faculty member with the department of biology at the University of Zimbabwe added, “Increasingly, zoos are doing more and more for conservation” and he was pleased to share that zoos are actively facilitating and participating in integrated species management.

Like the dhole (also known as the Asian red dog) of south and southeast Asia and coyotes in the Americas, African painted dogs were widely branded as vermin and they have been and continue to be killed in retaliation for perceived threats to people and livestock. Interestingly, a study from a cattle ranch region in Zimbabwe showed that the African painted dogs were only responsible for 1.7 percent of all the stock loses. Cattle rustlers in the same study took 15 percent. Ultimately numbers have plummeted from 500,000 to less than five thousand, as they have nearly been extirpated throughout their historic range.  Once found in 39 countries, they are now found in some viable, but isolated populations south of the Sahara, with the largest populations occurring in just a few countries.  (See related: Wild Dogs Photo Gallery.)

Besides raising awareness for the plight of the African painted dog, “[The conference] provides the opportunity to exchange knowledge with researchers, scientists, keepers, and veterinarians from around the world so that we can continue to advance the welfare and sustainability of African painted dogs,” said Stuart Strahl, Ph.D., president and CEO for the Chicago Zoological Society. A need for information exchange between in situ and ex situ research communities demonstrates the relevance of integrated species management programs (combined in situ ex situ conservation) to endangered species conservation.

I’ve always found it interesting that among carnivorans (i.e. mammalian carnivores), the most successful hunters on the African continent are often thought to be large wild cats according to the general public. It turns out that African painted dogs, the largest wild canids in Africa, manage to kill prey at a success rate 30 percent higher than that for lions, which share the same prey base. This is an impressive figure, especially if one considers the presumed impact of painted dogs on the ecosystems they service. I think that getting the word out about how these highly efficient carnivores may regulate populations of ungulate species, which in turn may influence the composition of vegetation and hence, promote biodiversity, is critical to their conservation. This is particularly important, considering painted dogs continue to be targets of aggressive control measures throughout their range.

Disseminating this kind of information is helping to bring the plight of the African painted dog to the public consciousness and garner support for their conservation. The conference, according to Chicago Zoological Society lead keeper and conference committee chair Christina Gorsuch, is also dedicated to optimizing the health and welfare of the captive population and finding a way to increase the future sustainability of the captive gene pool.

One day of the conference was designated for presentations on health and husbandry, while the last day was intended for discussion of conservation initiatives. By looking at the program, I can tell you that most of the presentations, whether they were zoo based or field based, had implications for managing viable populations of painted dogs in professional care settings like zoos or in the wild with free-ranging populations.

Clearly, when it comes to conserving critically endangered species, resources must be pulled from all disciplines and this painted dog conference hosted by the Chicago Zoological Society’s Brookfield Zoo is a testament to this notion.

The African painted dog is critically endangered due to habitat loss, human encroachment (road fatalities, distemper and rabies outbreaks) and persecution from humans who perceive them as a threat to their livestock. The staff at Brookfield Zoo is collaborating with other zoos to ensure that there is a sustainable population in professional care facilities. As a leader in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ (AZA) cooperative population management and conservation program for African painted dogs, the Chicago Zoological Society is bringing together the people and institutions that are invested in saving this species.

The conference was sponsored by the Women’s Board of the Chicago Zoological Society, Patterson Veterinary, Terminix, and Sedgwick County Zoo with support from additional donors.

Dr. Jordan Schaul is an American zoologist, animal trainer and journalist based in Los Angeles, California.