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  • Writer's pictureBushwise Student

Unleashing our secret weapon: How dogs are fighting poaching in South Africa

This blog was written by Keenan Rencken, a Bushwise Professional Field Guide student. Each student takes a turn as camp manager, and writing a blog is part of the experience.

4 min read

Since an early age I have had an undeniable passion for dogs, their innate abilities to learn various commands and the utilisation of various breeds for specific functions. Growing up on a small holding on the north coast of KwaZulu-Natal, I had the opportunity to have several dogs and see many of them in action. The first dog to have a profound impact on my life was a border collie. I was intrigued by his intelligence, natural or genetic disposition to listen and his fierce loyalty to his loved ones. 

Tapping into these traits that various breeds have allows us a select opportunity to tailor dogs for certain requirements. This fascination of mine has led to many hours of researching dogs and understanding the psyche behind them. Dogs, like humans, need a “purpose”, and like many of these breeds their jobs have become redundant. However, their abilities to do things that people, or even technology, still at this present time cannot do, gives dogs the opportunity to be at the forefront of stopping and deterring poachers.  Dogs, therefore, have a strong place in conservation and the protection of South African wildlife

Before the Bushwise course I had an opportunity to see the Manyoni K9 unit in action. The things that I took note of were the undeniable bonds between the handlers and their canines. Secondly, every dog was treated differently – what motivated them, how they were trained, what they were used for – ensuring that the dog received positive reinforcement even if it was slightly off the mark. Their handlers are so in tune with these dogs that they can sense whether the poacher is within a 100m radius or if the scent has been lost. Whether they are trained to track pangolins or a specific person in a vehicle, these vital resources (which can cost anything upwards of 100K) have an important role to play in the conservation of that area. 

Since I joined Bushwise doing my 6 months Field Guide Course, I have come into contact with many of the dogs that are at the K9 unit just below our Campus at SAWC in Hoedspruit. Whether it be in passing on a game drive as the dogs are out on their morning training activities, on campus while the dogs get some socialisation and exposure to various sights and smells of the campus or at night hearing them howl while I lie in bed. These are all things I treasure and cannot wait to experience on the course. 

There have been several breeds that I have been in contact with, each utilised slightly differently. Bloodhounds have been in operation all over the world, primarily in use of tracking, often on old trails. However, due to their size, in recent times they have been crossbred with dobermanns to ensure that they are a little sleeker to fit the helicopter, and for increased stamina and endurance. The German shepherds and malinois are used more on new and shorter tracks as well as for the apprehension of poachers. 

The K9 unit at the SAWC campus has been the pioneer for handler-free pack running dogs. These are usually hounds such as the “Blue Tick”, “Red” and “Walker Treeing” variety. These are used specifically on fresh tracks due to the pace that the pack is able to track. Dogs (5-8) are flown by helicopter to the point at where the poachers were lost and fitted with tracking devices and GPS harnesses. From this point they are released and the armed handlers remain in the helicopter while the dogs trace the scent of the poachers. The helicopter follows the dogs and will be alerted by their behavior and GPS movements. Once the poachers are apprehended, the dogs are rewarded and taken back to camp. This ability to let the dogs loose with no handler ensures a faster apprehension. This is a “game changer” with something where time is of the essence. 

Some statistics that have been taken from Feb 2019- Dec 2022: 

  • 81 rhino saved 

  • 193 arrest made 

  • 88 weapons removed

These statistics show an increase in apprehension from 10% to over 60% when off-leash or on-leash dogs are utilised. These dogs are seen as a great asset in the fight against poaching. Not only are the dogs carefully selected, they are also paired with the appropriate ranger. This is seen as a “must” for a field ranger to competently do his job. 

As is evident, these canines ensure efficiency and effectiveness in the apprehension of poachers due to their ability to pick up on subtleties such as perimeter intrusions, ability to follow tracks and their ability to apprehend. This tool is fundamental to the success of the park's efforts and ensuring the longevity of animals for future generations. With all these added efforts I feel we have barely scraped the surface of human/canine potential. And with a dog and handler relationship being more and more recognised for higher successes, this can only go up. 

Explore Bushwise programs now and become part of the solution to safeguard our wildlife.



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