With her keen sense of smell, Brin is helping CapeNature save the geometric tortoise from extinction, in the first dog project in South Africa aimed at live target detection. By Dale R Morris
In the Western Cape, among the fynbos and renosterveld habitats of the lowlands, you’ll find one of the most ingenious dog projects ever. We are in a secret location in the veld, somewhere in the Breede River Valley, searching for a critically endangered geometric tortoise. These tortoises are extremely well camouflaged, which makes them almost impossible to spot.
Surveys using CapeNature staff were very time consuming and labour intensive, so they brought in some four-legged help. “It’s the first programme of its kind in South Africa,” said Vicki Hudson of CapeNature. After hearing of a project in the USA which uses dogs to detect rare tortoises in the Mojave Desert, CapeNature decided to try out the same thing here.
That’s where Vicki, an ecological co-ordinator for CapeNature, and Brin, a conservation detection dog, stepped in to lend a helping hand and a helping nose. Zigzagging through the long grass in front of us, a happy and excited Brin is on the hunt for one of the rarest species on earth.
Geometric tortoises face extinction. They are found only in the Western Cape and only in low-lying areas, most of which have long since fallen to agriculture. Their habitat is fragmented and shrinking fast, predation from domestic animals has increased, invasive plants are jeopardising their food supply, and veld fires burn them to a crisp almost every year. Illegal pet trade is also a problem. Worse still, they don’t breed well in captivity.
The future looks dim for geometric tortoises, or at least it did before Vicki and Brin showed up on the scene. “With Brin’s keen sense of smell and obsessive personality, we are starting to learn more about their current distribution across the landscape and also get a handle on their overall numbers.”
From April to October each year, Vicki and her team head out into reserves and private lands in order to seek out tortoises, an almost impossible task without the help of Brin’s keen sense of smell.
“It took six months to train her to associate the smell of a geometric tortoise with a reward,” Vicki told me as Brin dashed here and there, “but now she is fully competent and an invaluable asset to our project.”
Brin, tongue flopping in the early morning light, rushed this way and that, lifting her head occasionally to check on her handler’s whereabouts while Vicki followed attentively, a few metres behind.
“We need to remain quite quiet,” Vicky said, silencing my barrage of questions. “I need to stay very focused on what Brin is doing. I need to watch for the change in behaviour that will tell me if she is onto something.”
Brin, like other detection dogs, was trained to associate the smell of her favourite ball with a target, in this case, a geometric tortoise. “She is ball obsessed,” says Vicki, “and will do anything for her reward of getting to play with that ball. She would work all day if that was asked of her, forgo eating and ignore everything else in existence.”
Fortunately for Brin, she will never be asked to do any of those things. “The health and welfare of the dog is always top priority,” said Vicki, “that’s why in summer we only work early mornings when temperatures are low.”
When a detection dog picks up the scent of the target, be it drugs at an airport, explosives on the battlefield or in this case, a tortoise in a shrub, they are not thinking of that target. All they are thinking of is the ball.
When Brin does finally find a tortoise, after a mere 20 minutes of searching, it’s a moment of joy and happiness for both dog and trainer. Brin lies down next to her find, looking expectant. The tortoise, small and beautiful, detects the dog and retreats into its shell.
“Good girl Brin,” shrieked Vicki in that particular tone of voice with which all dog owners will be familiar. “Well done, good girl. Who’s a good girl then? Who’s a good girl?” There was much fuss and excitement and affection. Brin leapt around as Vicki produced a pink chewy ball attached to a piece of rope, then they played whilst the tortoise stayed put like a clam on a rock.
Five minutes later, Vicki was back to take a GPS reading and some measurements pertaining to the tortoise. Its unique shell markings will go into a database and its location will add a data point to the overall project. “With population, sex ratio and distribution information now available to us, we at CapeNature, in conjunction with our partners, can formulate a survival strategy for the species.”
But it doesn’t end there. Back at Vicki’s bakkie, parked in the shade, is a pet carrier from which a little puppy named G’aimie is busily trying to escape. “She’s the next dog to be trained,” said Vicki as she extracted the excitable little creature from its box. A ball is produced and off they go for a walk and a play.
“We have trained these animals to help us with finding tortoises,” said Vicki as G’aimie runs rings around her feet, tail wagging, “but the possibilities for dogs aiding in other kinds of conservation work are almost limitless. They can be conditioned to find almost any species, plant or animal, they can be trained to sniff out alien plants, they can even target poachers’ snares or hidden stashes of ivory and rhino horn.”
In other words, dogs are an invaluable part of the future of conservation in Africa. It’s long been true that dogs are our best friends, but now they are becoming endangered wildlife’s best friends too.
The domestic dog Canis familiaris has been with us for perhaps more than 16000 years, which is about 4000 years before we began domesticating plants and livestock. Whether they descended from wolves, foxes or one of several long extinct canid lines, dogs were probably kept close by prehistoric hunter and gatherer clans. For a very good reason, too. If they accept you as part of their pack, they will defend you, they will help you and they are awfully nice to have around.
Now, as well as helping the blind, rescuing survivors from disasters and wars, guarding property and being part of the family, domestic dogs are finding their way to the forefront of wildlife conservation. Throughout Africa, specially trained sniffer, tracker and even attack dogs are becoming increasingly common in the fight against poaching.
Sniffer dogs have been trained to detect horns or other animal products. They are often used at roadblocks to sniff out hidden contraband in vehicles.
Tracker dogs are being used in parks and reserves to alert bush patrols of poaching signs, thereby giving the good guys an added advantage. They are able to lead anti-poaching teams right to a poacher’s camp or stash, and many have been specially trained to sniff out rhino horn, ivory and ammunition.
Attack dogs can be sent in to ambush or distract poachers. In areas where crimes are committed against park visitors, such as on Table Mountain where muggings have occurred, park security wardens patrol with trained dogs that are able to track down a criminals by their scent and even apprehend and bring them down. These dogs are specially trained to deal with gun- and knife-wielding suspects.
Dogs have been herd protectors for aeons. Shepherds all over the world almost always had guardian dogs by their sides. Namaqua National Park is breeding Anatolian shepherd dogs as an innovative solution to the age-old problem of farmers losing livestock to predators and setting traps in response. This large mastiff-like breed has a strong protective instinct and has been used in Turkey for centuries. Their impressive size, between 74 and 90cm in height and weighing up to 70kg, and gruff bark are usually enough to keep predators at bay.
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 to 40 sheep a year to less than five a year. The dogs are so good at their job that some farmers don’t even send a shepherd along any more. Read more about these dogs on our website by typing Anatolian dogs in the search box.
The Landmark Foundation and The Cape Leopard Trust are two more organisations that help pair farmers with speciality dog breeds. If trained correctly, such dogs become one with the herd and will actively protect it from predators.