Perth zoologist devotes life to saving African painted dogs

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Perth 6000
ABC Radio Perth

By

Emma Wynne

Posted

March 18, 2017 11:00:00

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African painted dogs are at risk of being killed by farmers and poachers. (Supplied: Perth Zoo)
Now just 5,000 to 6,000 remain in the wild. Perth Zoo’s John Lemon has devoted his life to saving the dog.”When I’m not here at the zoo, I’m in Africa, that’s my life,” the founder of Painted Dog Conservation Incorporated told ABC Radio Perth.”I’m a self-confessed workaholic but I really do want to try and save a single species in my short lifetime.”

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John Lemon divides his time between work at Perth Zoo and conservation projects in southern Africa. “Particularly in Zimbabwe, in the area we work there were around 350 when we started, now there are around 750 to 800,” Mr Lemon said.”So there are direct outcomes from our work.”As part of the program, conservation workers spend time with farmers educating them that the dogs are not a threat to their livestock. “They are the underdog, and they are not even closely related to domestic dogs,” Mr Lemon said.”They have their own separate genus. “Obviously Africa has a lot of poverty and if we don’t give people an alternative to poaching, then who am I to say, ‘you can’t feed your family?'”What we have got to do is create alternatives and show them that their wildlife is the future, and that without the wildlife, people won’t come to Africa to visit.”Mr Lemon said he planned to devote the rest of his life to the African painted dogs. Photo:
African painted dogs are part of a breeding program at Perth Zoo. (Supplied: Perth Zoo)
Why the painted dog?To many zoo visitors, the African painted dog enclosure is not a major attraction.Their blotchy fur patterns, big ears and domestic dog-like looks are neither exotic nor cute, but Mr Lemon said we should not judge a book by its cover.”It’s their caring, social nature that really has me hooked.”They look after their weak, their sick, their injured.”I’ve seen dogs with two legs amputated due to snares in the wild still surviving because the mob come back and feed them.”If we could take a leaf out of their book, as humans, I think we’d be in a better place.”Their painted fur might look blotchy but each pattern is as unique as a fingerprint, while their Mickey Mouse ears help them communicate. “In 2000 I was lucky to win a fellowship to travel to Africa, and I decided I needed to do more.”So at the top of my game I quit my high-paying job, told my wife: ‘I’m going to sell everything, are you happy to support me? I’m going to go to Africa and build the largest rehab centre and children’s bush camp for education for a single species anywhere in the world’. A century ago there were 500,000 African painted dogs in 39 countries across Africa. “The dogs have been around for 13 million years, yet they may go extinct in my short lifetime.”If I can halt that, then I have achieved something really good in my lifetime and that’s what I want to leave the world with.” “I went there on February 28, 1977 on the front seat of my sister’s boyfriend’s car to the opening of Western Plains Zoo and I said, ‘I want to work here one day’.”My whole life was aimed at achieving that — and I did.”By 2000 he was the senior supervisor for carnivores and primates in Dubbo and had had considerable success breeding the painted dogs at the zoo. (Supplied: Perth Zoo)
“They use them for social communication like we do with our hands,” Mr Lemon said.They are also a distinct species. They are also trying to combat poaching and persuade local communities that conserving wildlife can boost tourism. “And I did that in Zimbabwe.”Life between Perth and AfricaPainted Dog Conservation Incorporated was founded in 2003.The not-for-profit now runs two programs in Zimbabwe, three in Zambia and one in Namibia — and they are starting to see results. “There is nothing else quite like them and once they are gone, they are gone.”‘I want to work at the zoo one day’Mr Lemon grew up in Dubbo, home of the Taronga Western Plains Zoo.On his very first visit he said he decided a life alongside animals was his future.