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“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” ― Mahatma Gandhi
Before I traveled to Africa, I’d never heard of the painted dogs. Then again, I hadn’t heard of the “Big Five,” a designation of the most iconic African animals (lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and cape buffalo) and the ones most visitors most wanted to see. (Actually, according to some, the Big Five were categorized by big game hunters as those animals most likely to charge, rather than retreat, when wounded — good for them, I say.) Anyway, clearly I had a lot to learn.
We arrived at our first safari lodge (the wonderful Idube Lodge adjacent to the Kruger National Park, in the Sabi Sand region) bleary-eyed and jet-lagged; we had just flown for 20+ hours to Jo’burg and had managed to grab only 5 hours of sleep over two nights. Nevertheless, we were not about to miss a moment in the bush so we set off that afternoon on our first safari ride, with Ranger Rob and Tracker Mark, to encounter whatever the bush universe saw fit to place in front of us. That first afternoon I was amazed to see lions, zebras, giraffes and hippos, all close up, going about their lives, all unperturbed by our awestruck presence. Then, as we were crossing a little river, Rob and Mark really got excited: “Painted dogs!” they exclaimed. “Now that’s something special.”
Painted dogs (genus Lycaon) are, according to our guides, the only African wolf. They are included in the “Big Seven,” which add cheetah and painted dog to the Big Five category. Mistaken for feral dogs, they have been persecuted by humans almost to extinction. According to many, on the whole continent there are only about 7000 left — due to habitat infringement, hunting and disease, the population continues to decrease.
Every endangered animal has its story. And for too many endangered creatures, their stories are tragedies. The plight of the painted dogs is emblematic of one of the problems that stressed populations face: the loss of genetic diversity. When the gene pool becomes too small, animals (even people) inbreed, which too frequently results in offspring who are genetically weak: vulnerable and prone to disease. This hastens extinction.
Without human intervention, these animals will perish. However, efforts are underway to help conserve these beautiful, exotic wolves — check out http://www.painteddog.org/.