Protecting Africa’s wildlife is a task that requires all hands onboard. With poaching being a real threat to the survival of a wide number of wildlife species across Africa, humans have turned to their best friend for a helping hand (or should we say paw?).
Since 2010, anti-poaching efforts in the Kruger & Greater Kruger National Park Area have included highly specialized K9 (canine) units; they help detect wildlife contraband and ammunition, as well as tracking and apprehending poachers after an incursion or an incident on a reserve, protected area or national park.
The noses and skills of dog breeds such as Belgian Malinois, Dutch Shepherd, Bloodhounds, Labrador Retrievers and Springer Spaniels to name a few, have proven a valuable asset in successfully carrying out different anti-poaching tasks, so it’s not uncommon to find rangers working alongside man’s best friend. When going on safari, indeed, it isn’t rare to come across a ranger and dog upon entering different reserves in the Greater Kruger National Par. The dogs at the gates are responsible for sniffing out vehicles entering and exiting the reserve and detecting any possible rhino horn, ivory, gunpowder and in the coming future, likely even lion bones.
“The ancient genetic strengths of man’s best friend is still the most efficient tool in the wildlife conservation toolbox” -Tango K9 Unit.
We recently had the opportunity to participate in a morning training session of the Tango K9 Unit in the Thornybush Nature Reserve and learn more about what goes into place to keep these pooches’ noses and skills sharp, and what it takes to be their handler. Tango K9 prides itself on their team consisting of 5 Multi-Purpose K9s, 1 dedicated trailing dog and 3 (human) handlers. The Multi-purpose K9s (Justice, Murphy, Duke, Spots and the youngest – Xiphoko) are either pure bred Belgian Malinois or Dutch Shepherd-Belgian Malinois cross. Their dedicated Trailing Dog (Bera) is a Bloodhound-Doberman cross.
Spots, Murphy and Xiphoko
With much excitement looming in the air, on arrival we were briefed about the experience and training we were about to witness while the dogs patiently waited in their kennels for a chance to showcase their skills. Albeit being stunning individuals that look ready for playtime, these are no ordinary dogs and after the training session, we definitely shuddered at the thought of being on the wrong side of these seemingly sweet dogs.
In a short Q&A after the training session, the handlers shared some fascinating insights with us that allowed us to better understand the behind-the-scenes workings of a K9 unit.
Why is the use of dogs so widespread for anti-poaching efforts?
The probability for success of tracking poachers when using dogs significantly increases as humans require visual clues such as footprints to be able to follow, whereas dogs do all their work using their sense of smell. Just like they can smell a bag of crisps opening up from the other side of the house, they can also use that skill to follow the poachers. Anything that moves constantly leaves scent particles behind, and the dogs can pick up on the scent the poachers left behind and follow the trail from there.
How do you become a K9 handler?
To qualify as a K9 Handler within a K9 Unit you need to obtain the relevant SASSETA qualifications (Dog Handler Level 1-5). The requirement for our team is to show ultimate passion and drive for the wellbeing and training of your dog, with a strong bond and trust between the pair.
On a personal level though, in order to become a K9 Handler there are a few things you must be willing to sacrifice, namely your sanity, clean clothes, fortunes (you will be spending it on kongs and other chewing toys) and free time. Being a K9 Handler is a 100% commitment as you never really switch off, you’re always thinking about your dog, new training techniques and exercises and ways to improve your skillset as a team.
What is a multi-purpose K9?
It boils down to training. Tango K9 dogs are able to detect various forms of contraband rather than one specific scent only. This allows us to use any of our dogs for multiple tasks on short notice. All our K9s are able to search vehicles, buildings, bags and do field searches for any of the contraband we have deemed necessary. Our multi-purpose K9s are also accomplished man trackers. Their trailing is not one-scent specific as this enables us to trail varying numbers of suspects at one time. These K9s are used for leap frogging where necessary as well as for short intensity tracks, where time is of the essence.
What does the dog training entail?
Training starts at 8 weeks where we start with socializing them with the other dogs and getting them used to the sights, sounds and smells that they will be encountering in their future workplace.
In terms of their future work training, it is at this age that we also start with basic obedience training and with imprinting them on the scent of the contraband (firearms, ammunition and animal products) they will be detecting.
We begin tracking training by playing hide and seek with the puppies, then progressing to larger tracks in the bush as they get older.
The bite work on the other hand begins by chasing and biting a rag on a string which then progresses to a bite sausage, a bite pillow then onto sleeves with the final progression being a full bite suit.
How do the relationships between handlers and dog impact the work the dogs do?
The stronger the bond between dog and handler, the better the team works together. In order to achieve this, the handlers are assigned a dog and given time to form a bond and a play routine. In doing this, when the team works together the dog is more willing to work for his/her handler, and the reward is always more pleasing for the dog as each dog/handler team have their own games and way of playing.
How long do dogs keep their “jobs” for?
The dogs generally have a working life of 8-10 years, but some can work longer depending on how strenuously they have worked.
What happens when the dogs retire?
In the case of retirement, it depends on the dog, its training and drive. Their personalities will ultimately determine whether they can be rehomed/adopted to live their retirement days in a family home, or whether they will be adopted by their handler to live out their retirement days (while the handler starts working with another dog). This is of course all dependent on any injuries or medical conditions.
It has been private guide Ale’s dream to “pay it forward” and adopt a retired anti-poaching dog. Her heart is set on Justice (who isn’t due for retirement for a few years) but Tristan’s eye sparkled with Beara (on the right). The jury is still out on this one, but we will keep you posted.
What is the most rewarding aspect of working with in anti-poaching K9 unit?
The bond and relationship with your partner and best friend is definitely a highlight of being a K9 Handler, as well as watching the fruits of your efforts bloom as your K9 partner grows and evolves. Being able to have a direct impact on poaching and using our team’s skills to promote nature conservation and protect the environment is the reason why we do it, and it’s the most rewarding part of the job.
What is the most difficult aspect of working with in anti-poaching K9 unit?
The most difficult side of working in an anti-poaching K9 unit on the other hand is the lack of resources and funding. As we are a donor-funded team, we rely on the generosity and support of the public against the scourge of poaching.
Spending the morning with such a passionate group of people definitely left us feeling more optimistic about the future of wildlife. If we all work together with one goal and one passion in mind, we can move mountains. If you have booked a safari with us to any of Thornybush Nature Reserve such as Thornybush Game Lodge reach out to our safari specialists to arrange participating in a training sessions or demonstration with the dogs. Otherwise, if you want to start planning and take advantage of some fantastic specials and SADC rates, contact us today.
If you are unable to travel but would still like to support the essential work carried out by the K9 unit, consider supporting their Donation Campaign for their dog’s wish list.