In the Field Series: Alison Nicholls Part 2

Alison Nicholls - AFC
July 14, 2015 share
Artists for Conservation

In 2007, Alison Nicholls spent 6 weeks with the Painted Dog Conservation project in Zimbabwe, tracking and sketching highly endangered African wild dogs during her Artists For Conservation Flag Expedition. This is the 2nd of a 3-part blog series about the expedition and how the experience changed her art and support for African conservation. If you haven't done so, read Part 1 here.

The Painted Dog, also known as the African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) is among of the world's most endangered predators, with 3500-5000 remaining. These highly social dogs live in packs, have unique coat patterns and are not closely related to any other living canid.

Artists Alison Nichols standing by truck

The Painted Dog Conservation project (PDC) is based on the edge of Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. The project's work has resulted in a change of attitude towards the dogs. In the past they were often persecuted as vermin, but increasingly they are seen as a unique species playing a necessary role in the ecosystem, as well as a species tourists are particularly interested in seeing.

dogs chasing a hyaena

During my 6-week stay with PDC, I saw dogs interacting with other predators like hyenas. In this case the single hyena decided to follow the 2 dogs in the hope of an easy meal, but they had other ideas and chased it away.


Lions are another predator the dogs prefer to avoid, as they will kill dogs and pups, and steal kills. These lionesses unsuccessfully hunted at this waterhole for several days before stealing a kudu killed by dogs.

mother and baby elephant with two painted dogs

Hwange National Park is home to thousands of elephants, thanks to the existence of numerous man-made, pumped waterholes. The thinning of the parks vegetation by elephants is not ideal for the dogs which prefer to hunt in thick brush, and use it to hide their dens and their kills from other predators.

Alison Nichols elephant sketch

However, elephants do provide a sketch with ample subject matter.

watercolour sketch of elephants at a watering hole

Elephants at a Hwange waterhole, field sketch by Alison Nicholls.

Alison tracking dog in truck

Athough at least 1 dog in each pack was collared, the technology was basic and distances huge, so encounters with the dogs were few and far between. Most days were hot and dry, spent listening to the squealing of the radio and hoping for the telltale beep of a collar. Watch a video about tracking the dogs below:


watercolour sketch of the profile of a painted dog

Painted Dog Profile, field sketch by Alison Nicholls. The dogs have a wonderful profile and their large, expressive ears make them great to sketch - if they will remain still for just a moment! They are one of the most difficult sketching subjects I have encountered because they tend to be fast asleep much of the day, then they are up and off, usually too fast to keep up with. Even when they make a kill, they eat very fast and are gone. So I sketched frantically at moments like this.

painted dog sleeping, watercolour sketch

two dogs greeting each other

Painted dogs are famous for their ritualized greeting ceremonies, performed amongst the pack before they set off for a hunt. Although we did not encounter any large packs during my expedition, we still saw dogs greet each other in this manner.

PDC's anti-poaching units collect snare wire in large quantities. Some of this was used in the construction of the walls of PDC's wonderful Visitor Center, where locally created exhibits in Ndebele and English teach visitors about the life of a Painted Dog.

art centre

Snare wire collected by the anti-poaching units is also used to make crafts in a nearby village. Sale proceeds are divided between the artisan, PDC and the craft project.

teaching classroom

PDC also has close links with many local schools and the children of the area can't wait to attend the Children's Bushcamp to learn about ecology and visit the national park. I spent some time teaching a drawing lesson at this school.

school children sketch

Hwange National Park is home to many species and offered a huge choice of sketch subjects for me. Sitting at waterholes was a pleasant interlude in the tiring business of tracking the elusive dogs.

elephant rescue

While tracking dogs, we encountered an elephant calf stuck upside down in an old drinking trough. PDC staff rescued the calf and the video I made during the incident has been used in 3 TV programs, generating income for the project. You can watch the video below.


alison at victoria falls

In the middle of my 6-week expedition, I visited nearby Victoria Falls to sketch the iconic waterfalls and Zambezi River. After the arid vistas of Hwange National Park in October, this was quite a change of scene.

watercolour sketch of Vic Falls

Alison with local children

An artist's sketchbook always interests passersby. Often I find that the people I was sketching are now standing behind me, looking over my shoulder!

painted dogs on the road

An all-too-common view of the dogs...leaving us behind as they set out on a hunt.

See more of Alison Nicholls' artwork here.


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