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Game Watch: Man’s Best Friend


The poaching onslaught on Africa’s wildlife continues unabated, although many high-tech solutions have been proposed. These range from Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV’s), to radar arrays, ShotSpotter technology, infra-red night vision cameras, and more. However, one of the most effective methods is described with a letter and a number: K9. Dogs have proved to be more than just man’s best friend, as they are assisting in bringing poachers to book. Boots on the ground is what is needed − and having four committed paws to assist rangers on the anti-poaching frontline has proved to be a great success.Words & Pictures Bryan Havemann

For field rangers following the fresh tracks of suspected poachers, it is moraleboosting to see a tracking dog confidently running on the human scent trail, and knowing that little time will be wasted in trying to follow physical tracks. When humans are walking or running through the bush, they leave a very distinct scent trail on grass stems, leaves of bushes, and on the ground. It is imperative that one gets onto the track as quickly as possible, while the scent is still fresh. A dog’s sense of smell is so highly developed that it can follow a scent in the dry bush landscape as easily as humans could visually follow bright splashes of paint from a leaking can.

Many dog-training programs have been established because of the growing demand for well-trained dogs and their competent handlers,. Selecting a good dog handler is not easy: not everyone feels comfortable around dogs, and close contact and a rapport between a dog and its handler is essential in the forming of an unstoppable team. Anti-poaching efforts mainly use tracking- and detection dogs which need specialised, ongoing training. These dogs cost tens of thousands of rand, and often donations are solicited not only to buy the dogs, but also to pay for the initial and follow-up maintenance training.

Tracking dogs are trained to be able to follow the specific scent of a poacher. A poacher is often working under pressure, knowing that if he is caught he will go to jail; or, if he tries to fight back, could even be killed. This surge in adrenaline and fear gives off a very specific odour, providing a good scent trail. The type of terrain (rocky, sandy, devoid of grass) also influences the tracking of a poacher, as does temperature, wind direction and strength, the age of the spoor and relative humidity.

A good detection dog will follow a poacher for many kilometres, and the closer it gets, the more determined the dog will become. Some trainers keep the dogs on a long lead while tracking, but this is prone to snagging on obstacles. Dogs that can track without a lead can also help to contain poachers by barking when they find them. However, many of these dogs are also trained to attack and bite, and if a poacher runs, they will tackle him and bring him down. The downside is that poachers are usually armed, and could harm the dog.

A good tracking dog that can also attack is very intimidating, and most poachers are terrified of them. The ideal situation is for the handler to be armed and stay close to the dog − so that if the poachers offer resistance, then the field rangers and dog handlers can protect the dog and return fire if necessary.

Most of the field rangers in the Kruger National Park and the surrounding private nature reserves are armed with assault rifles, and all are para-military trained to tackle this poaching war. Some of the more seasoned tracking dogs have learnt through experience that, when they are close to apprehending poachers, there is a good chance that bullets will start flying, and they clear out of the way. This is also an early warning for the field rangers doing the follow-up, and they proceed on high alert.

Tracking Dog Gallery

Detection dogs are trained to “air scent”, which means that they are able to detect minute odours in vehicles, containers, houses or even in the bush, where poachers might have tried to hide rhino horn, ivory, bush meat or explosives and ammunition. Dogs can distinguish a wide variety of scents because their noses hold an extraordinary number of scent receptors and their brains have a large area dedicated to interpreting odours. Detection dogs can be trained to sniff out specific items, or a multitude of items, and when they get even the smallest of scents, they will persist until the odour is strongest, when they will indicate to their handler that they have detected something. They will then sit, lie down, or even just make eye contact with their handlers to indicate that they have found something. This is called trained indication, and when the handler finds what the dog has indicated, the dog will be rewarded.

It is an absolute treat to watch a detection dog at work, because they are so focused and take it so seriously. In Africa, buses have been emptied of people and luggage because a dog has indicated that something is amiss. In one case, it was only after the dog had homed in on a specific piece of luggage that they found a piece of ivory wrapped up tightly in a plastic bag.

It is essential that proper protocol is followed when some kind of contraband is found, so that a proper case can be built up. It has happened that the case has been overturned even where a poacher was caught red-handed, because of some technicality such as proper arresting procedure not being followed.

Working in the African bush also carries extreme risks for both the dog and its handler when they are chasing poachers. If a dog starts showing signs of overheating (excessive panting and a distended tongue that is darker in colour), immediate steps need to be taken to prevent the dog from reaching the next stage of heat exhaustion, as this could lead to organ failure. The dog needs to be put in a shady spot and immersed in water if possible; failing which, cold water can be poured over the belly and feet to cool the dog. Dogs sweat only through their paws and get rid of excessive heat by panting.

Although there is the obvious threat from wild animals like lion, leopard, hyena, buffalo, elephant, crocodile and others, smaller critters like ticks and tsetse flies are just as deadly to dogs. Venomous snakes, scorpions and spiders can also pose a threat; and when working dogs are focused on the task at hand they are not as vigilant, and can be at risk of a bite or sting.

The kennels in which they are housed also need to be built in such a way that other predators − from leopards and snakes to scorpions − cannot enter. Goodquality food is also needed for a dog to perform at its optimum, and this can be very expensive when added to things like veterinary bills. All this, however, is more than worth it when one considers how much the dogs have contributed to the success of many anti-poaching operations. The value of a competent K9 Anti- Poaching Unit has become very evident. Every poacher that is caught because of the competence of a tracking and/or detection dog means that at least some future poaching has been thwarted.