The first of 20 new counter-poaching dogs arrived at South Africa’s OR Tambo International Airport from Texas, United States of America (USA) in July this year. Destined for the Southern African Wildlife College (SAWC), these specially trained, free-running pack dogs have joined the highly motivated K9 Unit handlers and are being deployed in counter-poaching operations in the Greater Kruger area.

“We are incredibly excited to be working with these dogs. Our early successes with free-running pack dogs fitted with GPS collars have shown us how effective they are in the field. These dogs are also trained in apprehension work and have already helped stop poachers in their tracks whilst waiting for the helicopters and law enforcement teams to arrive at the scene to make arrests,” said the college CEO, Theresa Sowry.

“With these successes comes the need for increased security of our dogs. On hearing about this, the Edenvale branch of the SA Hunters and Game Conservation Association (SA Hunters) stepped up to the plate to provide a donation towards the much-needed security lighting at the K9 Unit as part of their conservation initiatives.  We are most appreciative of the interest in, and funding provided to the K9 Unit,” Sowry added.

While on-leash tracker dogs are commonly used by counter poaching teams, pack dogs that run off leash are relatively new to the scene but, as is evidenced with the new packs, they are really proving their worth. They can track at high speeds over even the most difficult terrain; recent exercises have seen them cover 30 kilometres in two hours. Their top speeds, measured regularly over short distances, are around 40 kilometres per hour! Using aerial support to follow the dogs allows the rangers to catch up valuable time in the field.

The new dogs are a cross between Black and Tan Coonhounds and Redbone breeds. They have been bred for nearly a century in the USA to track humans for law enforcement purposes. “These dogs will track and then use whatever force is necessary to hold the suspects once they’ve caught up to them. If the suspect fights, the dogs will too.  “But if the person stops fighting, the dogs will become passive,” said Joe Braman who has played an instrumental role in training the dogs in Texas and getting them to the college.

One of the redbone counter-poaching dogs that arrived in South Africa from the USA to be deployed in the Kruger National Park. Redbones work in free-running packs to track and apprehend suspects.

The establishment of the SAWC K9 Training Unit, which has received funding from many different sources, was a necessary link in the anti-poaching tool kit. “To bolster counter-poaching efforts, the college now uses a four-tiered approach to anti-poaching training and implementation,” says Sowry. “We need to have well-trained and equipped rangers; aerial surveillance to plot and monitor rhino movements and, during an operation to support the dogs and rangers on the ground and suppress poachers so they do not break cover; a K9 capability which is primarily as a result of dogs being able to track at speeds much faster than people, and in terrain where the best human trackers would lose spoor; community involvement and support.

“Adding tracker dogs to the field ranger teams is a real game changer, but as their successes increase, so too do the risks they face. This is why SA Hunters decided to provide support for immediate security upgrades for these valuable, hardworking dogs,” says SA Hunters’ manager for conservation, Lizanne Nel.

“This support aligns itself with one of the latest initiatives of SA Hunters and its 79 branches focussed at eradicating wildlife crime. Other initiatives include funding for the Rhodis project in developing the rhino horn DNA profile database as part of a strategy to combat rhino poaching, anti-poaching strategy and operations for conservation areas, sweeping areas for snares, whistle-blowing and raising awareness. These dogs really complement the work being done by field rangers, through aerial support and within communities and we at SA Hunters are proud to support this conservation initiative,” she added.

As the demand for well trained dogs and handlers grows, there is potential for the college, as a SADC training institute, to play a major role in replicating the K9 Unit’s early successes in protected areas throughout Africa. – Press release