8 mins

How I spotted the first Painted Dog in Malawi

Laid up in hospital with sleeping sickness Duncan Yearley starts seeing giant pink ants. Then finally, his first Painted Dog...

Painted dogs (Duncan Yearley)

In the second installment of Duncan Yearley’s quest to set up his own conservation project in Africa, we followed his exploits as he used the experience gained on volunteer projects to set up his own project tracking wild dogs in Kasunga National Park. But a few months in, disaster struck when he was laid low by a bout of trypanosomiasis…

Trypanosomiasis, or sleeping sickness, is a serious parasitic disease that is spread by the bite of a tsetse fly. It is fatal without treatment. After I was diagnosed in Lilongwe I was airlifted to Johannesburg where I spent 17 days in hospital. I was alone, I could not contact my family for a week and I was very sick.

The worst part of the illness was the hallucinations: pink ants coming to eat me; a lion running around the ward. Each night I was put back to bed by security who’d find me wandering around in my sleep.

When I was released from hospital I returned to Malawi. I’d lost a lot of weight and was still suffering the after effects. In May I decided to return to the UK where I recouped and got back to normal.

I took the opportunity to take stock of what I was doing and what I wanted to do with my project. So far I had been spending my own money. I realised that if I wanted to return to help conservation in Africa I needed help.

I created a project proposal and sent it off to over 100 companies, organisations and universities. Only 10% replied, most offering only good will and best wishes. Except for MEET, the Malawi Environment Endowment Trust, who offered to finance my project.

MEET told me I needed a local Malawian bank account. As a non-resident this is nearly always impossible to do. Luckily, another organisation, the Wildlife and Environmental Society of Malawi (WESM), stepped in and opened and operated one on my behalf.

My project was based upon doing a photographic survey of wildlife so I purchased six Bushnell passive infra cameras. These recorded some amazing results and in April 2009 I spotted my first painted dog in Kasungu. It was six o’clock in the morning and there he was on the road in front of me! Other sightings quickly followed.

The Director of Kasungu was amazed that I’d been able to find and record the dogs. In fact, only two weeks earlier he had told me to give up on the dogs and study the leopards and lions which he knew were present in the park.

Although I had been calling myself Carnivore Conservation Malawi for some time I had done nothing to make my organisation ‘official’. To register as an NGO or charity in Malawi is very difficult. You need a board of directors, a treasurer and a bank account with a running balance of many thousands of pounds. This seemed like an impossible task to me. I was operating alone and nobody else seemed interested in helping me.

After seeing that lone dog I was inspired to step up my efforts. I returned to the UK and with the help of Martin from PC and Laptop Solutions in Taplow I created a website and a blog and started marketing the project this way. Martin did a fantastic job with the website and people across the world could now see what I was trying to do.

Thanks to the website the Chicago Zoological Society approached me, offering finance to continue with the survey. This donation was very important to me as it showed that someone else believed in me and what I was doing to help these precious animals. During my latest visit we encountered not just one pack of dogs but two, consisting of 17 dogs and nine dogs. The results of this visit can be seen on my website and blog.

Since the sightings of these dogs I have again returned to the UK to try and raise funds but it is hard going. Not many companies seem interested in donating to a small, high impact organisation like mine. They seem to prefer to bask in the glamour of the ‘big players’ who spend millions but contribute very little after they have been set up.

Due to the political issues in countries like Malawi, carnivores and many other forms of wildlife are in danger if people like me do not get support. At present I am in Malawi, spending my own money to help these animals. I am trying to develop an eco-volunteer program that will help subsidise my project. I can offer volunteers a really good adventure with the positive advantage of knowing they are helping the wildlife.

If that sounds like something that would interest you, please get in touch. Together we can do our bit to save some of the most endangered creatures on the planet.

Read the first part of Duncan's adventure: Visit Africa. Retire. Start conservation project

 Duncan YearleyDuncan Yearley is the founder of Carnivore Conservation Malawi. His greatest achievement to date has been finding and recording two previously unknown packs of painted dogs.


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