OKC Zoo Team Reports on Zimbabwe Conservation Journey

Starting in 2017, the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden partnered with the Painted Dog Research Trust (PDRT) to support their conservation mission. The PDRT director, Dr. Greg Rasmussen, has worked for almost two decades protecting and studying the African painted dog, an endangered species with fewer than 7,000 left in the wild.

To further support the PDRT, the Zoo sent two employees on a conservation trip to Zimbabwe in November to participate in research and (attempt) to track and collar painted dogs. In part one of a two-part blog series, Erica Buckwalter, naturalist instructor, shares her experience from Zimbabwe.

Into the Bush

Researching African painted dogs isn’t easy! When we went into the field, we drove for hours each day, slowing down to examine tracks in the sand, putting out feelers to Dr. Rasmussen’s network of safari guides and informants, and talking to everyone we crossed paths with. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to spot any painted dogs. They are elusive and hard to find in the dense Zimbabwean landscape.

The hardest part of our field excursion wasn’t that we didn’t see dogs; it was the bugs! Each night, we would lay our sleeping bags on the ground around the campfire. Sun spiders, which Greg affectionately calls “Kalahari Ferraris”, would zoom around and over us as we laid under the stars. Luckily, these quick little fellas don’t have humans on their menu.

An Elephant-Sized Impact

Of the entire trip, the most impactful experience was putting a satellite collar on Dojiwe, a 16-year-old orphaned elephant. Denzel and Hazel, owners of a local safari lodge, found Dojiwe as an infant and took it upon themselves to be her protectors and her family. Like any good family, they worried when Dojiwe disappeared for eight days, fearing that she been poached. Earlier that year, 13 elephants had been poisoned when cyanide in the watering hole. Luckily, Dojiwe returned. That’s when Denzel and Hazel decided they would track her to ensure her safety. Knowing Dr. Rasmussen’s involvement with African painted dogs, and his ability to track them, they reached out about a collar for their elephant.

Dr. Rasmussen has a way of building anticipation without ever telling you what you’re going to do. When he finally told Trisha and I what we were doing, I couldn’t hold back my tears. Here we were, smack dab in the middle of real conservation. We were really going to impact conservation, even if only for one animal even if not a painted dog. This is what it’s all about.

We retrofit an African painted dog collar for an elephant. When we reached the lodge, I remember watching Dojiwe walk through the trees, hearing her low grumbles. Denzel said “Well, do you want to come meet her?” Of course we did! I can tell you that I’ve never been happier or felt like I’ve made more of a difference than I did that day. What really tied this experience together was meeting Damien Mander, the founder of the International Anti-Poaching Foundation. His team had recently arrested poachers carrying a half kilo of cyanide—enough to kill thousands of elephants. Elephants like Dojiwe.

Conservation is a Lifestyle on a Mission

My trip to Zimbabwe has confirmed that I am absolutely on the right path in life. Whether I’m in the field or at the zoo talking to guests, my mission remains the same—continue to positively impact our planet and all its inhabitants. Painted dogs will reap the benefits of our work. Dojiwe did.

--Erica Buckwalter, naturalist instructor

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