Dogs aren’t just man’s best friend, they’re changing the face of conservation and wildlife management in South Africa’s national parks and nature reserves. Wild celebrates some of South Africa’s four-legged conservation heroes. By Rebekah Funk

South Africa’s conservation heroes aren’t always what you might expect: furry, panting, and overly excited about a game of fetch. Believe it or not, dogs have proved invaluable to various projects in our national parks and nature reserves: they help save endangered species, sniff out poachers, fight crime on Table Mountain, boost staff morale and aid in overall park operations.

Five commendable canine programmes

1. Sniffing out tortoises

When a devastating fire roared through the Western Cape’s Elandsberg Nature Reserve in 2012, conservationists became worried about the survival of one of the world’s most critically-endangered land tortoise species. The geometric tortoise Psammobates geometricus is rapidly disappearing from South Africa’s landscape. In an attempt to update data and know exactly how the species is faring, CapeNature has initiated a pilot project to investigate how detection dogs could help with geometric tortoise surveys.

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CapeNature has initiated a detection pilot project utilising dogs, in an effort to save the geometric tortoise. It’s the third-most endangered land tortoise species in the world. Picture courtesy of CapeNature

Last year, they welcomed Brin to their ranks: a two-year-old Malinois pup that has been trained to sniff out the rarely-seen geometric tortoises. Over the course of six months, Brin has been trained to carry out field work by his handler, Vicki Hudson. He is the first dog to do this sort of work in South Africa and has already become a vital part of the CapeNature team, according to Hudson.

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Two-year-old Brin will sniff out geometric tortoises to help gather statistics on how the endangered species is faring. Picture courtesy of CapeNature

Fully operational since September 2013, the detection team has already carried out presence/absence surveys, species diversity surveys, total population estimates and search and rescues. Hudson says conservation detection dogs don’t have to be of a certain breed to be suitable – they just need a zeal for hunting and play, as well as an ability to adapt to the conditions of the South African veld and climate.

2. On bird patrol

At King Shaka International Airport near Durban, meanwhile, staff use dogs to reduce the number of collisions between planes and birds. They’ve recently introduced a new 22-month border collie to their senior bird patrol, now that two original patrol dogs named Mac and Tweeny are nearing retirement.

Buzz is the newest member of the Bird Control Dog team at the airport. He has been in training on a game farm near Alldays in Limpopo where he has learnt to chase a variety of birds whilst keeping an ear out for commands from his trainer Rox Brummer at all times.

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King Shaka International Airport uses border collies (like the one pictured above) to scare birds from the airfield. They’re integral to reducing the number of collisions between birds and aircraft. Picture by Creative Commons

It’s an environmentally-friendly and ethical programme that’s proved incredibly effective, according to the airport’s senior bird and wildlife controller, Marius van Rooyen.

“One of the most effective techniques for controlling bird numbers is the use of bird control dogs such as border collies,” he says.

“The birds perceive the dogs as predators and move off to safer grounds beyond the perimeter of the airfield.”

Although collisions are not frequent, when they do occur they can be costly and have serious consequences – it’s estimated that bird and aircraft collisions have cost the international aviation industry more than R15 billion per year (through direct damage and the indirect costs of delayed flights and passenger reimbursements).

Why border collies, you may ask? They’re hard workers and very intelligent, explains Van Rooyen. They can also be trained to strictly obey orders, which is a prerequisite for an error-free airfield environment.

3. Guarding sheep

In Namaqualand, farmers used to set traps for leopard, caracal and jackal to protect their flocks. Now, however, a clever project by the Namaqua National Park is using Anatolian shepherd dogs to ward off the predators.

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Elanza van Lente of SANParks says using dogs instead of traps helps prevent the deaths of other animals such as porcupine, aardwolf, steenbok and tortoises. Anatolian shepherd dogs have a strong protective instinct and their lumbering size  (74–91cm in height and weighing 41–70kg) keeps predators at bay.

Van Lente explains that the dogs come to view sheep and goats as their family, since they’re placed in pens with the flocks from as young as six to eight weeks.

Since the park started breeding Anatolians in 2008, almost 40 dogs have been placed with farmers – the majority in Namaqualand, but some as far afield as the Eastern Cape. Farmers who have Anatolian shepherd dogs see a marked decrease in livestock losses, from 30–40 sheep a year to less than five a year.

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4. Mountain security

Table Mountain National Park has its own elite dog unit that helps with visitor safety and crime fighting, made up of 11 German shepherds that are paired with a ranger handler.

The dogs flush out suspects using their scent, searching empty buildings and caves, and warning the rangers if danger lurks. The dogs also track those who commit crimes in the park, as well as people who commit crimes in the city and hide in the park. Since they’re gun trained and immediately react to knife-wielding suspects, they can help keep their handlers safe when apprehending criminals.

According to the Honorary Rangers, staff morale is up since the dogs have been introduced. Everyone shows respect to a ranger with a dog and, when on patrol, they have a friend, a protector, and a weapon next to them.

5. Tracking poachersDogsTrackingPoachers-Jul 2014

Counter poaching has a new cuddly face, after SANParks Honorary Rangers introduced three foxhounds with warm brown eyes and floppy ears.

Foxhounds have excellent tracking abilities and three dogs have been trained to ignore animal spoor in favour of their human quarry.

Named Jetta, Kombi and Chico, the dogs and their handlers have learned to operate in wilderness situations so that they can be deployed to fight rhino poachers in the Kruger National Park.

The dogs will form part of a rapid reaction squad, helping the counter-poaching team track poachers faster and more efficiently, and preventing them from escaping capture by fleeing across the borders of the park.