The Pack, A force for Good
Updated: Jan 7
Hounds trained to track down rhino poachers in Kruger Park
Kruger Park, the world’s greatest refuge for rhinos, is losing them to poaching rather rapidly. More are being lost to poaching than they’re being born.
Since 2009, rhino numbers in Kruger Park have dropped from 11,420 to 2,458 and this year they will continue to drop some more. During that time, the number of rhinos poached was double the existing population.
On any night, but especially when the moon is full, there are teams of poachers prowling the park, each with a high-powered rifle and machete. The job of the dogs is to track them down. At this task, they’re proving formidable.
#Enter the Hounds
Rhino poachers entering Kruger National Park are increasingly being run down by packs of unleashed hunting hounds in full cry, followed by a chopper tracking their hi-tech GPS collars.
As the baying pack approaches, the poacher has no idea the dogs are trained to not attack. They won’t bite him (there are legal implications), but if he tries to harm the dogs, rangers will fire from the chopper. The poachers know this and no dog has yet been lost to a poacher’s bullet.
When they find a poacher, they array themselves around him and wait as the chopper zones in on their position. Once surrounded by dogs, poachers know the game is up.
This marriage of an ancient hunting practice and modern technology is being honed, tested and mobilised at the K9 Unit based at the Southern African Wildlife College near Kruger’s Orpen Gate. It’s the first in Africa to run operational anti-poaching pack hounds in a game park and is clocking up successes.
Since it became operational in early 2019, it has been called out 181 times by Kruger Park and logged 109 successes, with 193 arrests and 88 weapons confiscated.
It also operates in private areas of the Greater Kruger National Park area and has trained both dogs and handlers in Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Eswatini and handlers for Uganda and Zambia
#The Right Nose for the Job
Using dogs to supplement satellite tracking collars, navigation screens and helicopters might seem a low-tech approach, but in fact the opposite is true. Nothing humans can make equals the biotech wonder of a dog’s nose.
Humans shed up to a million cornflake-shaped skin cells every minute. There are around 50,000 in every liter of air we inhale when humans are around, and perhaps 500 settle in every meter we walk. They are very personal bits of data and dogs can follow their crumb-trail, able to detect dilutions of one or two parts per trillion. That’s like sensing a drop in an Olympic-size swimming pool.
Their sniff equipment has taken millions of years to perfect. Unlike ours, their nostrils are comma-shaped, with a flap of skin called the altar fold. When they inhale, it opens, but on exhalation, it closes, forcing air out of the tail of the comma, diverting it sideways so as not to contaminate the next in-breath. That’s like a set of nasal binoculars that never loses focus.
Each of our in-breaths goes straight to our lungs. But in dogs, there’s a bony plate that diverts some of the air into a sniff recess where it can be carefully assessed. It’s a scent capture device so precise it’s been likened to our color perception.
The first thing poachers do when they hear the dogs coming is to hide in the bush. The dogs will circle them, and a few will come out to watch for the chopper. A second type of response is to try to run away. But they can’t escape the dogs.
Another tactic is to leopard-crawl through the long grass. But that creates a lot of scent because they’re very scared and sweating. Sometimes they split up — bombshell — and that’s a problem for the dogs about who to follow. Some get away this way, but never all.
Training starts at sunrise with about six dogs to an operational pack. Handlers lay a track by having someone walk a route, then put the dogs on it. Some tracking sessions last four hours, some are overnight, building confidence.
The dogs are trained to watch the chopper and when it drops to land, they’ll come to it.
If the dogs lose the track but handlers can see a clear line of route from the GPS, they can drop and pull the dogs to where their path is likely to continue, and they’ll find it again.
The older dogs who can no longer keep up are not discarded — they become the teachers of both puppies and handlers: they know what to do.
#Eyes from Above
The job of the chopper is to scout out for trouble. A wildebeest with young will attack the dogs, or maybe a leopard or hyena so the chopper can push animals off if they must. Also, with the dogs being taught to come to the chopper, they can pull these canines away from danger.
When they get thirsty, they’ll leave the track and have a drink and swim to cool down. But after about a minute, they pick up the track again and they’re off.
These brave canines are assets in the fight against poaching within the Kruger National Park.
Boasting many successful captures, there’s no doubt about the impact they’re having on keeping our precious wildlife safe for the world to enjoy.