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African painted dog: Perth zoologist devotes his life to saving endangered, misunderstood animal

African painted dogs.
African painted dogs are at risk of being killed by farmers and poachers.

Supplied: Perth Zoo

A century ago there were 500,000 African painted dogs in 39 countries across Africa.

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."

John Lemon in Zimbabwe in 2007.
John Lemon divides his time between work at Perth Zoo and conservation projects in southern Africa.

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.

Their painted fur might look blotchy but each pattern is as unique as a fingerprint, while their Mickey Mouse ears help them communicate.

Painted dogs at Perth Zoo.
African painted dogs are part of a breeding program at Perth 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 the underdog, and they are not even closely related to domestic dogs," Mr Lemon said.

"They have their own separate genus.

'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.

"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.

"In 2000 I was lucky to win a fellowship to travel to Africa, and I decided I needed to do more.

"And I did that in Zimbabwe."

Life between Perth and Africa

Painted 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.

"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 also trying to combat poaching and persuade local communities that conserving wildlife can boost tourism.

"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.

"The dogs have been around for 13 million years, yet they may go extinct in my short lifetime.