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LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 27: Jealous Mpofu receives the Wildlife Ranger Award with Peter Blinston of Painted Dog Conservation in Zimbabwe onstage during the 2023 Tusk Conservation Awards at The Savoy Hotel on November 27, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images for Tusk)

Zimbabwe senior tracker wins global award for his love of painted dogs

HWANGE — Jealous Mpofu has a special bond with the painted dogs of Zimbabwe. He knows each one of them as an individual, and he calls them “his dogs”.

For the last 25 years, Mpofu has been working as a senior tracker for Painted Dog Conservation, a project that aims to protect and conserve the endangered African wild dogs, also known as painted dogs, in Hwange National Park and beyond.

He spends his days tracking and monitoring the packs of painted dogs, reporting their whereabouts to the anti-poaching units, and leading them to remove snares. He also educates the local communities about the importance of preserving this unique species, which faces various threats, such as habitat loss, human-wildlife conflict, disease, and poaching.

Mpofu’s passion and dedication have not gone unnoticed. On November 27, he received the Tusk Wildlife Ranger Award, sponsored by the Nick Maughan Foundation, at a ceremony in London. The award honors the bravery and commitment of rangers working to safeguard Africa’s wildlife.

“This award means a lot to me. For 25 years, I have devoted myself to saving the painted dogs, not for money, but for love. I want to use this opportunity to give back to the communities that support our conservation work,” Mpofu said.

The Tusk Conservation Awards, founded with Prince William in 2013 and sponsored by Ninety One, recognize the extraordinary achievements of Africa’s leading conservationists.

The other winners this year were Ekwoge Abwe, co-hub leader and program manager at San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance and president of the Cameroon Biodiversity Association, who received the Prince William Award for Conservation in Africa, a lifetime achievement award for his outstanding contribution to conserving Cameroon’s primates and forests.

Fanny Minesi, director of the Amis des Bonobo du Congo in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, received the Tusk Award for Conservation in Africa, for her work in rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing hundreds of primates and other wildlife.

Tusk CEO Charlie Mayhew OBE said: “Each year we are blown away by the commitment, excellence and passion of our winners. Our 2023 conservation leaders are no exception. Truly exemplary, Ekwoge, Fanny and Jealous are inspirations to their communities and the pure definition of biodiversity defenders. It is an honour to celebrate them.”

Painted dogs are one of the most threatened carnivores in Africa, with only about 700 individuals left in Zimbabwe and less than 7,000 in the whole continent. They are known for their distinctive coats of black, white, yellow and brown patches, their large ears, and their highly social and cooperative behavior. They live in packs of up to 30 members, led by a dominant pair, and hunt cooperatively by chasing and exhausting their prey, usually antelopes.

Mpofu, 54, was born and raised in a village near Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe’s largest wildlife reserve. He grew up surrounded by nature and wildlife, and developed a love for animals at an early age.

“When I was young, I used to go with my father to hunt for meat. We used to see a lot of animals, like elephants, buffaloes, lions, leopards, and painted dogs. I was fascinated by them, especially the painted dogs, because they are very intelligent and beautiful,” he said.

He started his career in wildlife conservation when he was 19 years old, working with rhinos in the intensive protected zones of Matusadona National Park. He then joined Painted Dog Conservation in 1998, when the project was still in its infancy.

“When we started with this project, we did not have any funding and we had one car. We had breakdowns and would walk long distances because there was no communication. You would walk long distances to pass messages to tourists to take the message to the office,” he recalled.

He said that the project faced many challenges, especially during the land reform in 2000, which broke up large areas of carnivore habitat, resulting in increased poaching and loss of dogs.

“We lost a lot of dogs during that time. Some were killed by snares, some were shot by poachers, some were run over by cars. It was very painful and heartbreaking,” he said.

He said that the project has since grown and improved, thanks to the support of donors, partners, and the government. It now has a staff of 60 people, a fleet of vehicles, a research center, a rehabilitation facility, an education center, and an anti-poaching unit.

“We have made a lot of progress and impact. In Zimbabwe as a whole, we (conservationists) have increased the population of painted dogs from 200 to 700. I hope we can reach 1,500 someday. They are amazing animals. They help each other and cooperate as a pack. I admire them a lot.,” he said.

Mpofu said that the Painted Dog Conservation also helps the local people by providing them with boreholes, gardens, clinics, and education programs.

“We bring kids for free to come for education awareness programs. We drill boreholes and gardens. We also support the community with health care and family planning. We have a good relationship with the people, and they have seen that the painted dog has changed my life and their lives,” he said.

Mpofu has four children, and his first-born, Edward, is also working with him at Painted Dog Conservation. He said that he is proud of his son and hopes that he will continue his legacy.

“I am also happy that I have been able to take care of my four children through Painted Dog Conservation in the last 25 years and I am even happier that I am working with my first-born now. He is following my footsteps, and he is also passionate about the dogs,” he said.

Mpofu’s dream is to see the painted dogs thrive and survive in the wild, and to inspire more people to join the conservation movement.

“I love the painted dogs, and I will do anything to protect them. They are my family, and I am their voice. I want to see them happy and free, and I want to share their beauty and intelligence with the world. I hope that one day, everyone will love them as much as I do,” he said.