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Painted to Last

By Alison Nicholls

The African wild dog (Lycaon pictus), also known as the Painted Dog, is a lithe, long-limbed canid that has been extirpated from much of its range. Although their huge ears, white-tipped tails and dark facial features are shared characteristics, each dog also has its own unique coat markings - ideal for an artist aiming to embed a conservation message in a painting.

Man’s Best Friend? Acrylic on canvas, 24x30 in by Alison Nicholls ©2016

The dog in this painting has the outline of Africa hidden in its coat, with the entire continent tilted to the left, and the tip of South Africa on the dog’s belly. Within the continent, some regions are painted in darker shades of red and orange - southern and East Africa; a wide band south of the Sahara Desert; and several elevated areas in North Africa – showing the approximate range of painted dogs in 1900. Look even closer and you will see small white and yellow shapes in southern and East Africa - indicating the area occupied by free-ranging packs today.

The dog is painted in red and orange, colors associated with alarm, and consistent with the species’ listing on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Since 1900, they have gone extinct from 25 of the 39 countries forming their historical range, and their numbers have declined by 99%, plunging to approximately 5000 - 6000 individuals today. What caused these drastic reductions? They were treated as vermin by ranchers, pastoralists, and in earlier times by game rangers; are frequently killed on roads or as a result of inadvertent snaring (in snares set to catch other species); are susceptible to infectious disease such as rabies and distemper transmitted by domestic dogs in rural areas; and have experienced declines in their prey base due to the bush-meat trade. There is one common factor – human presence. For this reason, there are 2 more elements hidden in the dog’s coat – a human footprint (to the right of the Africa outline) and a human handprint (near the dog’s elbow, with fingers pointing downwards).

We, as humans, have pushed painted dogs to the edge of extinction, but these dogs are survivors and are able to overcome many obstacles, just as the dog in this painting is able to leap the wash of painted color. If we can remove some of the man-made obstacles they face, these endangered canids may not only survive, but thrive.


Alison Nicholls is an artist inspired by Africa. She lived in Botswana and Zimbabwe for a number of years and returns annually to sketch in the bush, work with conservation organizations and lead art safaris for Africa Geographic. Website.