South African companies are training dogs, with military discipline, to track and tackle rhino poachers.
RUSTENBURG, SOUTH AFRICA—The poacher didn’t stand a chance.
Sprinting across the field, Daisy leaps into the air and with one swift, violent twist brings the poacher to the muddy ground.
“Yes, Daisy! Nail him, girl!” screams her owner and trainer, Chantel Lourens, who works at Paramount Group, a South African defence company running the Paramount Anti-Poaching & K9 academy, an anti-poaching dog unit.
At a farm outside Rustenburg, a two-hour drive from Johannesburg, Lourens and her colleagues are training dogs with military discipline to track and tackle “poachers,” with staff dressed in protective gear that resembles a hefty snowsuit.
With her intense concentration and ferocious bite, Daisy is a perfect example of how effective dogs can be in the fight against poachers.
“She’s got this urgency to find a person,” Lourens, 22, says of the eager seven-month-old Belgian shepherd. “Some dogs just have instincts.”
Those instincts are invaluable. Daisy and other dogs like her are at the front line of South Africa’s war against rhino poaching.
The animal casualties make headlines in South Africa, home to the majority of the world’s rhinos, accompanied by photos of bloated, bullet-ridden and hornless carcasses. The South African government said this month that a record 1,215 rhinos were killed in 2014, up more than 20 per cent from 2013. There is demand for the animals’ horns, which are used in traditional Asian medicine.
“This is indeed very worrying,” Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa said Thursday at a sombre press briefing on rhino poaching. “We therefore have to ensure that we continue to work together in stepping up all the measures that we have adopted.”
One of those measures is the use of dogs. They are now employed on the ground in Kruger National Park and at Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo Airport, where they chase down poachers and sniff out the wildlife contraband. It is estimated that there are approximately 100 dogs doing anti-poaching work across the country.
The idea, which took off a couple of years after the poaching epidemic escalated in 2008, was motivated by private companies already specializing in canine services. A dog trained in sniffing for explosives, for example, could easily be taught to detect the scent of a rhino horn.
The dogs are a rare success story. In the Kruger, South Africa’s largest park, Killer and his handler, Amos Mzimba, have caught some 40 poachers in four years, said Reynold Thakhuli, a national parks spokesman.
With such positive results, Thakhuli said the park plans to double the size of the anti-poaching dog program to 40 dogs by the end of 2015, with the goal of stationing them “to all gates and ranger posts” of the park.
Anti-poaching dogs are a trend seen across the continent — from Tanzania, where the dogs hunt elephant poachers, to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where they track gorilla poachers — as demand for wildlife products grows.
“There have been a number of cases where seizures have been made that can be attributed to dogs,” said Julian Rademeyer, author of Killing for Profit, a book on the rhino horn industry. “I think it’s an important tool.”
Rademeyer says dogs have become instrumental in catching poachers at airports. “Poachers stuff hand luggage with rhino horn, covering it with toothpaste and shampoo to cover the stench of rot,” he said. “Dogs would still be able to sniff it out.”
Allister Gibbons, the manager of the canine unit at Mechem, a defence company based in South Africa, can’t say enough about the value of the animals to curb crime.
“There’s no machine, sniffer machine, that can work like a dog,” said Gibbons. “People are waking up.All of a sudden, people are seeing the value a dog can give.”
There are some drawbacks. For one, an anti-poaching dog can cost upward of $10,000, which becomes a pricey arrangement for the cash-strapped parks. (By comparison, a young park ranger is often paid less than $500 a month).
A dog also requires a proper trainer, who needs to be added to the payroll, as well as dog food and housing. Ultimately, the logistical legwork for a dog is sometimes just too much for the parks to handle.
Most of Gibbons’ dogs that are being used in parks have been put there with the help of non-profit organizations. (Paramount Group’s anti-poaching dog unit is also a non-profit).
And for the canine army to be truly effective, it has to be complemented by a robust police force that is persecuting all levels of the poaching syndicate.
That’s not happening. “The problem is most of the arrests taking place these days are low-level poachers,” said Rademeyer. “That’s not doing too much damage to the syndicates. The people who are arrested are cannon fodder.”
Still, at this stage, any anti-poaching help in South Africa is welcome.
Back at the farm, Lourens hopes Daisy will grow to be one of the K9 Academy’s brightest stars, perhaps one day even learning to rappel from a helicopter, like her older cousin Venom.