Man’s Best Friend Plays A Vital Role In The War Against Poaching

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Earlier this year I had the privilege of meeting some of the Kruger National Park’s anti-poaching team, and I fell in love with one of them. Muscular and strong, he embodied everything you would come to expect in this line of work. A fierce protector, he also had a heartbreakingly vulnerable side. He cowered when faced with the inevitable shouting and shooting that comes with successfully tracking down a poacher; visibly upset. He required affirmation at this moment, some sort of acknowledgement for a job well done. Because this lovable ranger had been trained a little differently and, as a four-legged, waggy-tailed member of the canine team, he stole my heart.

A HISTORY OF CANINES IN CONSERVATION

Man has trained dogs to help with work for generations. From security hounds and police force canines, to hunting dogs, herding dogs and Anatolian shepherds that work to protect domestic livestock from predators, dogs are not only man’s best friend but have proven themselves to be some of our most valued employees and colleagues.

When it comes to anti-poaching, canine units are now all the rage, but this wasn’t always the case. Eric Ichikowitz, Director of the Ichikowitz Family Foundation, whose initiatives include the establishment of one of the largest anti-poaching skills and canine training academies in Africa, explains: “The first canine was introduced to Kruger National Park in December 2010 to help fight poaching. At the time, the use of canines in a Big Five game environment was met with a lot of resistance, and most commentators were of the view that canines were not suited for an anti-poaching role when faced with the Big Five.”

When the PAMS Foundation in Tanzania first started talking about the amazing abilities of tracking and detection dogs, little was known about working with dogs in Africa, and law enforcement and conservation officials were sceptical. But after seeing them in action, many a raised brow turned into a crinkled one as people began to formulate plans to establish anti-poaching canine units, and criminals who observed them in action soon started to fear them.

Kruger now has over 50 working dogs spread throughout the park

After the success of Ngwenya, the first dog to be introduced into the Kruger National Park, everyone began to see the impact that properly trained dogs and handlers could have in anti-poaching teams. Says Ichikowitz: “These days, almost all big reserves have a canine unit assisting their anti-poaching units. Since the launch of Paramount Group’s Anti-Poaching and K9 Academy, we have seen a rise in national parks – not just in South Africa but in many African countries – and private reserves that are establishing canine units in their parks.” For instance, Kruger now has over 50 working dogs spread throughout the park under the guidance of the dedicated and passionate Johan de Beer, who has been instrumental in setting up the canine centre in Kruger for the continued management of this programme.

TYPES OF DOGS

While it would be wonderful to adopt every single rescue dog and turn them into anti-poaching pooches, the reality is that these dogs need to be selectively bred for efficiency in their specific line of work. As Kirsty Brebner, Rhino Project Manager at the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), puts it: “You wouldn’t use a dachshund to cover long distances at speed – it just doesn’t have the legs. Breeds of choice are generally shepherds (Belgian and German), but other breeds include border collies, labradors, springer spaniels, beagles, bloodhounds and bloodhound crosses. Working Dogs for Conservation (WD4C) works successfully with shelters, but it is difficult – it takes assessing a lot of dogs to find the right dog with drive.”

For instance, in the Detection Dog Programme, supported by PAMS Foundation, which falls under the Tanzanian Police Horse and Dog Unit, there are nine dogs in the team. Five of these are a mixed-breed of local Tanzanian dog with some German shepherd. These dogs are more resistant to disease than foreign dogs and are better adapted to the local climate. And at Big Life Foundation in Kenya, they typically work with two breeds – bloodhounds and shepherds.

However, there is a mixed breed rescue dog, called Didi, who is an exception to the rule. Jeremy Goss of Big Life Foundation explains: “She was selected because she certainly has some German shepherd in her, but that’s about all we know. Thanks to her diverse genetic background, Didi has turned out to be remarkably resilient to local diseases, and this makes up for her relative lack of scent receptors.”

When it comes to dogs with a strong sense of smell, you can’t go wrong with a hound. Foxhounds, blue ticks, and bloodhounds are all instinctively tracking dogs and are able to follow older tracks in difficult circumstances. It is said that one dog, together with its handler, can cover 60 times the area that a ranger without a dog could. Hounds also have great stamina and are able to handle extreme temperatures better than other breeds.

In Kruger, the latest additions of four bloodhound-doberman crosses have been a great success. One particular dog, Kilalo, even surprised her handler on a recent practice patrol when she led him on what he initially believed to be an incorrect detour after he lost sight of a poacher’s footprints. However, the dog was indeed still following her nose and managed to cut out a massive section of track by taking a nifty shortcut. Together, Kilalo and her handler have already led to 18 successful poacher arrests in Kruger.

The rest of Kruger’s canine unit consists of a mix of bloodhounds, malinois and sheperds, with each dog playing a unique role. Specialised tracker dogs can follow spoor for up to two to three days; search dogs are used to detect species items such as rhino horn and ivory, or sniff out arms and ammunition at road blocks, park gates, crime scenes or at suspect’s houses; and assault dogs are trained to attack and detain poachers.

Conraad de Rosner, founder and director for K9 Conservation, is well known for his work with weimaraners and Belgian malinois. Weimeraners are used to track animals, detect animal remains and snares, locate wounded animals and occasionally assist wildlife vets and/or scientists with their work. His malinois, on the other hand, are used for tracking human suspects, detecting firearms and bullet casings, and performing restraining functions when detaining suspects requires force. Rosner says: “Whilst both breeds are classed as ‘patrol dogs’, their functions differ somewhat and often their individual skills and abilities complement and assist each other in the field. For this reason, and depending upon the situation, two field rangers – each with a different dog breed – are sometimes deployed together. All our dogs are trained in protection work and they are capable of suspect apprehension should the need arise. These dogs are specially trained to bite or apprehend a suspect only upon command, and to detain that suspect with minimal force.”

With so many personalities around, it’s difficult to pick a favourite pooch. That said, van Straaten’s favourite breed is the Belgium malinois. The reason, he explains, “is that it’s a good all-rounder. It can track, apprehend a poacher, protect the handler, and search for evidence and illegal substances.” However, he does say that every dog he has worked with has a special place in his heart – they are all individuals.

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