Painted dogs Ranger hailed for giving unloved African species a fighting chance

Richard Assheton





When Jealous Mpofu was a boy, he overheard his father’s bosses talking negatively about painted dogs, wild African canines with distinctive marbled coats that are among the world’s most endangered species. “They said they didn’t kill an animal, they grabbed the flesh. They said they were rough animals,” Mpofu said. His father was a farm worker on the edge of Hwange national park in Zimbabwe. Painted dogs, contrary to what the bosses said, are not scavengers. But farmers still shoot them. Conservationists and tourists show little interest in them. Poachers aiming for antelopes ensnare them. Cars run them over. Starved of habitat, maligned and hunted, painted dogs have plummeted in number from an estimated half a million to fewer than 7,000, surviving on the edge of oblivion in a few pockets of southern Africa. As underdogs go, they are hard to beat. But they do have some friends, and none greater than the man who has been recognised by the charity Tusk as its ranger of the year for his work over a quarter of a century bringing these curious animals back from the brink. Mpofu, 54, had never seen a painted dog until 1997 but his life changed when he met Peter Blinston, a Briton who had founded Painted Dog Conservation. Mpofu became the charity’s first ranger. Tragedy struck in 2006 when the alpha male in Hwange’s last pack was killed and the group dispersed. Mpofu and the team brought the alpha female into a new rehabilitation enclosure. For six months Hwange had no painted dogs in the wild. They released the female and chose an alpha male from the enclosure. In the years that followed the female raised as many as 30 puppies. “Now we are following some of these offspring,” he said. “So we did a nice job.” Mpofu is in charge of six rangers who track the five packs the project looks after, amounting to between 150 and 200 dogs, roaming more than 1,000 sq miles. Each morning he heads off into the bush, alerting anti-poaching units to sweep an area for snares when he finds a pack. Blinston credits him with saving dozens of dogs’ lives. Last year he found four ensnared together. “One by one, as I found them, we got the snares off,” Mpofu said. This month he will fly to London to receive his prize, most likely from Prince William, who helped establish the awards in 2013. Mpofu said he shivered with shock when Blinston told him he had won. He was not aware he would be receiving a grant of £30,000, and laughed when he was told. He said he would spend it on his wife, Tendai, his family and his community: “I need to show to other people as well that if you get the money you give a little bit to other people. I share that with painted dogs … They are not selfish like lions. They always share.”