A rhino’s best friend: Dogs are trained to hunt poachers in Africa

By May 19, 2020Anti-poaching
Jane Flanagan, The Times | May 16, 2020

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From beagles to bloodhounds, man’s best friend is being drafted in to help to save the lives of dozens of rhinos in South Africa’s battle against poaching.

Although dogs have long been used for security in Kruger National Park, which is roughly the size of Wales, the poaching crisis has given them a new role. Each animal in the reserve’s K9 fast response unit has been trained from birth in a task best suited to the strengths of its breed.

Foxhounds and beagles are naturally equipped to track poachers, detect weapons and find poached horns. Belgian Malinois, agile dogs similar to German shepherds, are also adept at “bite work” and detaining intruders.

“All these dogs can track, it’s in their genes, and now they are imprinted on human scent like narcotics dogs are on drugs,” said Johan van Straaten, from the Southern African Wildlife College where the dogs are trained from puppies.

He described the use of free tracking dogs — which are off the lead — as “a game-changer”. Such dogs are often deployed in packs and can run poachers to ground far faster than people, with handlers following in helicopters. Staff at Kruger estimate that K9 patrols are achieving a success rate of nearly 70 per cent compared with 5 per cent by units without a canine capacity.

Depending on the breed, a dog’s sense of smell is estimated to be between 1,000 and 10,000,000 times better than humans’ and they can hear four times further. Dogs arrive at the college as very young puppies and begin training immediately. Breeds used include Texan black-and-tan coonhounds, Belgian Malinois, foxhounds and blueticks which are drilled in free tracking, incursion, detection, patrol and apprehension. The animals are usually only deployed to the field at the age of 18 months.

South Africa is home to about 80 per cent of the world’s last remaining rhinos and has lost more than 8,000 to poachers between 2008 and 2018. Kruger and its adjoining private parks have become the epicentre of the crisis and account for more than half of the country’s lost rhinos.

The park’s anti-poaching force is now the most sophisticated in Africa — but comes at a cost of £11 million a year.

Still, the investment is having a positive effect: in 2019, 564 rhinos were killed for their horns in South Africa, down from 769 in 2018 and fewer than half the number slaughtered in 2014.

Where once rangers were conservationists, their role has become increasingly military. More than 1,000 rangers have been killed around the world in the past decade in the effort to protect animals from the demand for tusks and horns. The trade in illegal wildlife is estimated to be worth approximately £16 billion a year, with the demand driven mostly by Asia — where imported animal products are prized as status symbols and as supposed remedies.