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K9 unit: what conservation dogs can do

K9 units play an essential role in anti-poaching, wildlife detection, human tracking, and conservation efforts in the Greater Kruger National Park. Bushwise videographer and photographer Louise Pavid tells us about the Bushwise experience meeting these important dogs!

When you think of the African bush, you think of the sounds of the wild: lions roaring, hippos grunting, hyenas whooping and a myriad of insects and amphibians singing their sweet songs of love. But when you’re at the Southern African Wildlife College (SAWC), there are other sounds that might be added to the mix. Like the sounds of the hounds!

Dogs in the K9 unit meet Bushwise students

SAWC is home to the anti-poaching “Fast Response K9 Unit,” which serves the entire Greater Kruger area. This area spans over 3,440 square kilometres and contains the iconic African wildlife that tourists and conservationists travel from all over the world to see. 

A rhino mother and calf

These highly trained canines are part of protecting the charismatic wildlife that has captured the imaginations of people for centuries. Their intelligence and physical ability sets them apart from their domesticated brethren. Like most working dogs, they are highly trained and well looked after. In fact, they are taken such good care of that each dog has their own (impressive) food budget!

Bushwise students with K9 unit and handlers

Bushwise Field Guide students were recently treated to an unbelievable experience – we spent the morning with the K9 Unit as they participated in expert training under the supervision of their amazing handlers. Being able to witness and be a part of something like this is a privilege I never thought I’d be fortunate enough to experience.

A member of the K9 Unit

The day started with a short drive to the kennels where the dogs are housed when not working or training. We were shown around and introduced to the dogs in the facility. Once we were all thoroughly sniffed and woofed at, we set out into the reserve for the real fun stuff.

Students greeting the dogs of the K9 unit

After a short chat with the handlers about what to expect while working with the dogs, we were split into two groups. One group walked ahead and left a “scent trail” for the dogs to follow. Exactly 10 minutes later the dogs were hot on their heels!

Anti-poaching is a full-time job for this K9 unit

What we thought might be a brisk, but not too strenuous, stroll turned into what seemed like a never-ending run. I am not a runner, I do not like running and I believe that running should be reserved exclusively for life or death situations. Which, to be fair, is often the case with anti-poaching. About 15 minutes later the dogs had located their quarry and it was time for a short break before the next training exercise.

Tracking in a field with the K9 unit

Up next was the scent training exercise. Tristan, the human “leader of the pack” explained to us that the scent dogs are specifically trained to detect rhino horn, ivory, and pangolin scales. He then walked behind a thicket and hid the prize that his dog, a beautiful Malinois named Torah, would need to find. It took Torah no more than 20 seconds to find her ball, filled with the scent of one of the above-mentioned endangered species. Tristan then performed the same exercise, but this time with the students. The students gave up after a minute, hurling wild accusations at Tristan, claiming he never hid anything for them to find. Tristan laughed it off, gave Torah the “soek” (meaning seek in Afrikaans) command and within 10 seconds she came bounding back, ball in teeth and filled with pride.

A dog from the K9 unit with its prize

We then attended one more exercise, one that truly depicts the capabilities of the free tracking (off leash) dogs, which have proved to be a game changer when tracking down poachers. These dogs, once on the scent, can track at speeds much faster than humans, and over harsh bush terrain.

The pack tracking exercise took place right outside the campus gate. Across the valley Tristan pointed out the individuals the pack would be following. All we could see were a few hats floating through the grass more than a kilometre away. We were informed that the trail being left was 1.2 kilometres long and he asked if we could time how long it would take for the dogs to catch up to and find the pretend poachers.

Learning all there is to learn about the K9 unit

The pack of six was released by six field guiding students. Within 80 seconds, we had confirmation that the dogs had found and trapped their quarry in a large marula tree. 80 SECONDS! It took the dog handlers about 15 minutes to lay the track and find a good spot to hide. The dogs accomplished their goal in 1 minute and 20 seconds – their ability to track, trail and find is almost beyond comprehension! 

It's all in a day's work for the K9 unit

That concluded our day with the dogs and what a day it was! Being fortunate enough to have exposure to this type of conservation operation is invaluable to a field guiding student. Not only does it highlight the effort that goes into protecting these natural landscapes, it also gives insight into the various career paths a well trained field guide can branch out into.

Did you know that field guides can go into all kinds of careers, like working with a K9 unit in the Greater Kruger? Apply today and jump start your conservation career.


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