I was fortunate enough to travel to Zimbabwe in November to visit the Painted Dog Research Trust (PDRT) and participate in the conservation efforts supported by the OKC Zoo. In Sizinda, Zimbabwe, where the project is located, scarcity is an ever-present reality of day-to-day life. We quickly learned that conservation isn’t just the act of saving a species or even a habitat, it is a way of life. The water we use to cook, clean our dishes and even bathe is reclaimed and reused for the gardens or to mix with cement for building purposes. If there are any scraps of food left after a meal they will go to the dog, the chickens or the compost. Every scrap of metal and wire is saved in case there is a use for it in the future.
Dr. Greg Rasmussen, the founder and director of PDRT, is so well-known for hoarding and saving materials that he has earned the nickname ‘Tekwani’ among his team and even members of the local community. A tekwani, or hamercop is a type of bird native to the region that is best known for collecting great amounts of material and building large nests. One of the things Dr. Rasmussen has learned in his decades of living and working in Zimbabwe is that resources are finite and unless they can be utilized intelligently or in a sustainable way, it’s only a matter of time until they run out.
My experience at the PDRT camp was humbling. Not only had this team of people dedicated their lives to the critical cause of researching and protecting painted dogs, but in doing so, they lived in a way that most people in our country would find difficult. We had no fans or air conditioning in temperatures well over 100 degrees. What little electricity there was on-grounds was powered by solar panels. We shared our homes with numerous species of spiders, lizards, scorpions, snakes and rodents. Our toilets were little more than holes in the ground. The water we drank was collected from a pit dug into the basalt bedrock and harvested during the rainy season.
These conditions are what many of us may consider ‘roughing it’ and really only experience on the occasion of a short camping or backpacking trip. For the team at Painted Dog Research Trust, there is no ‘going home’ for them, no break from the elements. This is the reality of everyday life. There is no time wasted complaining or lamenting, however. They are far too busy tracking the movements of painted dogs, researching drought-resistant native plants for a future arboretum, visiting local schools to teach lessons on conservation and building on-site facilities to host graduate students and workshops for rangers from the national parks.
Thirty minutes down the dirt road from PDRT are a number of companies promoting safaris and bush excursions in the name of eco-tourism. They have accommodations with air conditioning, indoor plumbing, cold drinks and soft beds. What separates PDRT from these facilities is that every cent of every dollar they raise goes directly to equipment and projects that help them promote science and sustainability in a country that is eager to learn and to work, but rarely has the means to do either.
“Don’t forget to Round up for Conservation”. This is a message that employees at the OKC Zoo have shared with guests over the years. It’s a simple way to help any number of the Zoo’s ongoing efforts to support conservation groups around the world. Most of us will barely notice a little less pocket change rattling around. What I can tell you is that to the team members of the Painted Dog Research Trust, it means everything.
So on behalf of the painted dogs, the people of Sizinda, Dr. Greg Rasmussen and his team at PDRT, let me thank you for rounding up for conservation.
-Rick Miyajima, senior carnivore caretaker