Fierce passion to end poaching
LIFE’S WORK FOR CURATOR
BEING shot at, beaten up, nearly trampled to death by a 5000kg elephant and sleeping on the ground may not seem an ideal way to spend your spare time, but Perth Zoo curator John Lemon describes his conservation efforts as “the greatest thing I could do with my life.”
John’s love of animals began while he was at high school when he worked part-time in a pet supplies store.
Straight after leaving school he took up a position at Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo in New South Wales where he soon developed a keen interest in cheetahs, painted dogs and other carnivores.
After further studies, John’s passion for the animals he loved so much became more of an obsession, which led him to successfully apply for the NSW Friends Fellowship.
John went to Zimbabwe in 2000 and from that mo- ment he was determined to make a difference – and that included making dramatic changes to his own life.
“I quit my job at the zoo in Dubbo, sold everything I owned, except my house, and stayed in Zimbabwe for more than two years,” John said.
“I joined the Painted Dog Conservation group as a project officer and in 2003 we built the largest rehabilitation holding facility in the world.”
He says his passion for international conservation quickly became a major focus of his life. “I quickly realised the extent of the problem when I saw dogs that were in road accidents, shot by farmers or poach- ers, had been attacked by other predators or been ravaged by diseases such as parvovirus and rabies.”
He said he was shocked to learn how much poaching was going on, to the point where painted dogs were going to be extinct within the next 10 years.
“I went on regular poaching patrols with trained teams of local people working on a 365-day roster covering more than 40km a day,” he said.
“We had a shoot-to-kill policy and there have been violent confrontations, but that is the reality of going up against poachers.”
John says joining forces with the Zambian government led to further success in the anti-poaching campaign and educating the local population about why painted dogs and other native African species is important to the nation’s own well being.
“As I became more involved with local associations such as the Wild Dog Project, the Zambian Carnivore program and Painted Dog Conservation Inc I became deeply involved with the locals as well,” John said.
“An important part of what we were doing was getting the locals involved in these programs – we had former poachers who were now part of the anti-poaching patrols because they had the best knowledge about the methods used and where snares to capture wild animals were placed.
“Through lectures and spreading the message online, the conservation message spread and I managed to raise funds to support these patrols through Perth Zoo. I was also able to gain support from celebrities such as Simon Reeve, from Million Dollar Minute, Sir Richard Branson and the “Lion Whisperer” Kevin Richardson.”
Through his local contacts in Zimbabwe, John quickly learnt why poaching is so popular in Africa.
“I learnt that products taken from the animals poached in Africa were often sent to Australia and then funnelled through to Asia and end up in traditional Asian medicines.
“Powder from a rhinoceros tusk is worth more than an ounce of gold, so unfortunately there is still a huge incentive for poachers to risk their lives and kill or capture these animals.”
John said the horror stories did not stop there.
“Some animals caught end up in ‘petting zoos’ or things such as ‘lion parks.’
“These parks would publicly state that the animals were ‘released into the wild’ after time spent in these petting zoos, but that is a lie; they end up in what is often called ‘canned hunting.’
“They are put in an area no bigger than about one acre where they are killed by a game hunter, usually from overseas, who has paid big money to kill a lion or another large carnivore.”
John and his wife were so incensed they wrote to Federal politician Greg Hunt and late last year they were successful in stopping the importation into Australia of all lion products.
John says it has taken time, money and effort to achieve what he has so far, but says he will continue to split his time between his work at Perth Zoo and working in the field in Africa.
John Lemon and a volunteer with a lion that had been caught in a poacher’s trap. Right: John Lemon with an antipoaching team in Zimbabwe.