Fran Blandy, Oman Observer | May 11, 2021
Five-month-old bloodhound Shakaria gambols through the long savannah grasses of Kenya’s Maasai Mara reserve, her playful mood swiftly turning to keen determination as she is ordered to track a human scent.
Straining at the leash, she pulls her handler along an invisible scent path laid down for her until she finds a ranger hiding in the grass, pretending to be one of the poachers she is training to sniff out.
Shakaria is top of her class of five puppies being trained by American experts to join a tracker dog unit, which has become pivotal in the fight against poaching in the Mara Triangle, part of the vast Maasai Mara ecosystem in southern Kenya that merges into Tanzania’s Serengeti.
It is here that over one million wildebeest, and tens of thousands of other animals cross from Tanzania into Kenya on their annual migration, attracting hordes of tourists, but also poachers seeking an easy target.
Lema Langas, 30, a Maasai from the local community, who is warden of the canine unit, said the main challenge in the park was poaching for the commercial bushmeat trade, with dried meat exported to Uganda, Rwanda and further afield.
Rangers used to struggle to chase or spot poachers across the grasslands, so the Mara Triangle first introduced two tracker dogs in 2009.
The unit now comprises four tracker dogs and two more trained specifically to sniff out ivory and guns at the entrances to the park.
“They use their noses to see, not like us who use the eyes,” said Langas.
The bloodhound puppies are being trained by former police officers Linda Porter and her husband John Lutenberg, who spent decades hunting escaped convicts across the United States.
The couple trained and brought the first two dogs to Kenya in 2009, however one was so terrified by all the unusual smells that it impacted his tracking.
The new crop of puppies were born in Kenya “and are progressing very fast,” Porter said.
While the use of community scouts and “private spies” has strangled local poaching gangs on the Kenyan side of the border, and Langas says the majority of poaching now occurs on the almost invisible border between Kenya and Tanzania.
“We are the first line of defence from Tanzania. We prevent poachers coming into the Mara and the Kenyan side,” said Asuka Takita, a Japanese vet who helped start the canine unit.