With a superior sense of smell, fine hearing and dogged determination, Kruger’s canine protectors are taking on rhino poachers – and coming out on top. By Arnold Ras

They say dogs are a man’s best friend, and clearly rhinos’ too. Around 505 poachers have been arrested in the Kruger National Park (KNP) since the introduction of dogs as support to the park’s anti-rhino poaching operations three and a half years ago.

It’s an impressive number of arrests. Ken Maggs, the KNP’s Head Ranger, says if properly trained and managed correctly, dogs have an exceptional ability. “They have an advanced sense of smell to assist rangers in tracking down poachers and contraband, such as firearms and endangered species products.”

Park management takes the role of the canine unit in anti-poaching seriously, providing the necessary funding, training facilities, equipment and manpower for the dogs to excel. Today 31 canines, ranging from Belgian Malinois and German shepherds to hound-type dogs and spaniels, fight just as hard as the park’s rangers against the ongoing onslaught of rhino poachers.

“The hounds are trained to follow cold tracks – tracks that are older than three hours – they are bred for this purpose. The Malinois are trained as patrol dogs although some of them can do attack work. They are also good for tracking, but on fresh tracks (up to three hours old). The gate detection dogs are trained to find guns and ammunition or wildlife products,” explains the KNP’s Canine Unit Commander, Johan de Beer.

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Ranger Solly and Vicky from Malelane Camp doing apparatus training.

Johan served in the SAPS police service dog unit and has 22 years of experience in working with dogs and training them. He joined SANParks as an investigator but soon rekindled his passion for dog training. He explains that SANParks has its own dog-training centre close to Phambeni gate, where dogs return every three months for re-training.

Both dog and ranger have to be trained to perform optimally in the dangerous world of poaching. “Rangers are chosen through a rather rigorous selection process. They then undergo a six-week intensive training process with their dog to prepare for all eventualities in the operational environment. The ranger or dog handler is armed and trained to protect the dog in any likely situation both day and night,” says Ken.

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Ranger Edward and Locco from Special Operations doing bite-work.

Johan recalls a memorable moment with a hound-cross, Badger. “Badger and I were on reaction-standby and were called out to Tshokwane Section Ranger Post after gunshots were heard. A chopper dropped Badger, myself and the reaction team, but before we could find any spoor, Badger quickly picked up the poachers’ tracks. He tracked the poachers for about 3km and suddenly… We walked right into them. We recovered the rifle and the horns of the two rhinos they had shot.”

Ken is confident that the future role of anti-poaching dogs in the park is as vital as ever. “They play a very important role in complementing our current counter-poaching tactics.” The dogs deter criminals from entering the park and when rangers have to react to poaching activity, their canine teammates provide invaluable support. Let’s hear it for these four-legged protectors!

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Ranger Eric and Bravo from Protection Services searching a vehicle at one of the Kruger’s gates.

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