Kruger National Park is about the size of Wales in the UK. They have a problem with poachers which is unsurprising considering the vastness of the park. Since 2010 more than 8,000 rhinos have been killed by poachers for their horns which are ground down for the Chinese market where it’s considered to be an aphrodisiac.
Isaac Phaahla is the park’s general manager and he says that the dog unit a.k.a. “the K9 fast-response unit” is a game changer in the war against poachers. It’s largely to do with speed. The park rangers use a pack of dogs together with a helicopter and their target is to respond to the presence of poachers within one hour after contact has been made. There has been an 80% increase in poachers detained since the instroduction of the K9 fast-response unit. The dogs are Texan black-and-tan coonhounds. They are descended from a hundred-year bloodline of free-running hounds bred by trainers in Texas to follow and capture escaping convicts. They are highly suited to the task because they love to work as a team and are fast and aggressive.
They transport the pack of hounds to the area where the poachers are and then release the dogs who chase at speed to the site of the poachers. The dogs wear a GPS tracker collar. The helicopter follows. The helicopter deters the animals from hurting the dogs which allows the dogs to deal with the poachers. However, although the dogs love the work some of them can end up suffering from PTSD and can become gun shy. These dogs are rehomed and one of them, for example, has been re-employed as a therapy dog at a psychiatrist’s practice. It’s said that he is living the dream!
The organisation is partly funded by a British charity called Tusk. The chief executive of Tusk, Charlie Mayhew, said that the dog unit was highly effective and that, “I am proud that Tusk’s support is enabling vital patrols such as these across Africa. The bravery and dedication of these men and women on the front line of conservation is humbling”.
The K9 unit has helped to arrest 38 suspected poachers in Kruger between January and September. And the helicopter has flown four 607 hours. During the coronavirus lockdown poaching dramatically decreased but now that it has been lifted the converse has happened and the rangers say that it is increasing exponentially. They are very concerned about the future.
The dogs are trained from puppies at the Southern African Wildlife College. The Times newspaper is running a Christmas appeal to help support the dogs in an article, “Sky dogs run rhino poachers ragged”. In addition to the tracker dogs the college has trained a beagle and a bloodhound to track and find orphaned rhino calves; orphaned because their mothers have been killed by poachers.