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Anti-Poaching Dogs – Rhino Conservation Heroes



It is a sad fact that rhinos still face a constant threat of extinction at the hands of poachers. If it were not for the rhino horn trade, rhinos would be able to lead the long, peaceful lives that they deserve.

However, this is not currently the case. In the last 10 years, 9,442 African rhinos have been lost to poaching. But hope is on the horizon – poaching numbers are on the decline. In 2015, the peak of rhino poaching, 1,349 rhinos were killed, in 2019, this number dropped to 754. Rhino populations are by no means thriving, but the future is looking positive.

This decline is largely due to the tireless and constant efforts of rangers, conservation teams, anti-poaching units, communities, organisations and individuals who have committed themselves to saving our wonderful rhino.

What you might not know about rhino conservation, is that there is a group of animals who are as dedicated to saving their fellow wildlife. Dogs have been introduced to anti-poaching units and are proving extremely successful in their contribution to decreases in rhino poaching.

Dogs are naturally effective hunters – it is in their DNA. They have a fantastic sense of smell and are extremely quick. In the words of Theresa Sowry, CEO of the Southern African Wildlife College: “They find great joy out of doing what they are born and meant to do, which is hunting. And they love having that bond with a handler as well, they need to have a purpose.”

Raising the Dogs

Raising dogs to be successful members of anti-poaching units requires extremely specialist training.  There are many aspects to their training, but the three main traits that trainers focus on developing in the dogs are scent-tracking ability, baying ability and aggressiveness (not to bite or attach but to ensure poachers are intimidated enough not to run or attack back). They are trained to run until they find the poacher.

Dogs are not just trained to track down poachers but also to sniff out and detect firearms, rhino horns, pangolin scales, ivory, bush meat and other concealed illegal products.

Which Breed is Best?

When discussing anti-poaching dogs, the significance of breed can sometimes be overemphasized. According to Benny Van Zyl, who leads the canine team at the North Luangwa Conservation Programme, a dog’s effectiveness with tracking or detection often boils down to its inherent drive, the training methods used, and the time and effort dedicated by its training team.

His preferred breeds are German Shepherd, Belgian Malinois, Dutch Shepherd, Spaniels and Golden Retrievers. However, success has been seen among mixed-breed dogs.

Their Success

The Kruger National Park is a living success story of the anti-poaching dogs. From 2008 to 2018, more than half of the rhinos that were poached in South Africa were poached in Kruger. South Africa is home to 80% of the world’s last remaining rhinos, making it a central part of rhino conservation.

Without dogs, according to the college, enforcement teams on average were catching only 3 to 5% of known poachers (this is generally accepted as the average). With the K9 unit, the rate has increased to 54 per cent – a 10-fold improvement.

The anti-poaching team is considered the best in Africa – since 2011, over 90% of the arrests that have been made in the Kruger National Park have been through the assistance of their canine unit.

From February 2018 to December 2019, alone, the K9 Unit was deployed 120 times, made 134 arrests and seized 55 weapons.

Anne Kruger, who works in the K9 Conservation Unit, states that the dogs have reacted extremely positively to this new role: “They find great joy out of doing what they are born and meant to do, which is hunting. And they love having that bond with a handler as well, they need to have a purpose”.

These units are not just found in the Kruger but also proving to be successful in Kenya, Zimbabwe and Botswana.

In search of more interesting information?

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