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Ensnared – How Painting Snares got me Tangled in Conservation Issues

Artists for Conservation

Since returning from my stay at the Painted Dog Conservation project (PDC) in Zimbabwe during AFC's 5th Flag Expedition, I had wanted to create a conservation-themed painting. The population of Painted Dogs (African wild dogs) near Hwange National Park in northwestern Zimbabwe has been decimated by snares, illegally set to catch antelope and other game for food.

I spent time with PDC's Anti-Poaching Unit, who patrol 7 days a week in areas bordering the park. One morning we searched for snares in an area where 2 poachers had been caught the day before. Soon we were finding the expected snares - 30 in total, abandoned, yet still deadly. And so, my idea for a painting began.

Ensnared was a complex painting on many levels. I wanted to include a snare and a variety of wildlife species to show the simplicity of the device and its indiscriminate nature. But I also wanted to quite literally show the human face of poaching. As I sketched my ideas, the circular form of the snare became the prime focus. The snare surrounded a circle of animal heads and, in the forefront, the profile of a young Zimbabwean man. In watercolor I knew all of this would be a challenge. My medium and style don't allow for many changes or corrections and I knew a mistake on any single head might ruin the entire painting.

The message I hoped to convey was many-fold. The wide array of wildlife species included in the piece would illustrate the indiscriminate nature of the snares, but I also wanted to show that local people can be considered victims - victims of poverty and hunger.

Ensnared does not illustrate the highly organized, well-armed poaching gangs currently decimating rhinoceros populations across much of Africa to supply eastern markets with horn which has no medicinal properties whatsoever. Instead, it refers to the bushmeat trade, where poachers catch wildlife for sale or for their own consumption, often as a result of a lack of alternative work or income. These distinctions and the poachers' differing ‘tools of the trade' are not always obvious to audiences unfamiliar with Africa and conservation issues.

In addition, after showing the painting to several friends, I discovered another misconception I had not considered. They thought the painting was politically incorrect because I had included an African man along with the animals. When I explained the full meaning - that people were also caught in a vicious circle due to lack of alternative income - they understood. But I quickly realized that this painting had to be exhibited accompanied by explanatory text to avoid misunderstandings which might detract from its intended message.

Finally, I finished the painting, and although I had thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of creating a piece with a true conservation theme, I was also fairly certain that this piece was not going to be a commercial success. But what do I know? It sold the same day I displayed it in my newsletter!

As result of the sale, I was able to donate almost US $1,000 to PDC and I now have plans for several more conservation-themed paintings. I also hope that the audiences who receive my newsletters, read my blog, see my exhibits and attend my lectures, have a greater understanding of a complex conservation issue in Zimbabwe. And I hope they read the accompanying text!

ENSNARED (accompanying text for above painting)

"In many African countries villagers set simple but deadly wire snares to catch ‘bushmeat' for sale or for their own consumption. The snares are indiscriminate and any animal, including endangered species, may be caught and suffer a long, lingering and painful death. However animals are not the only victims. Often the villagers are also ‘ensnared' in a vicious cycle of poverty and hunger, with bushmeat being their only source of income or food.

This is one of the biggest challenges facing conservation in Africa - allowing local people the opportunity to make a living by protecting their local habitats and wildlife. If the preservation of wildlife brings sufficient local jobs, poachers can become game rangers, protecting the source of their income. By doing so they are conserving and protecting their own futures too, breaking the vicious cycle of poverty and creating a new cycle of sustainable interdependence."

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