There are countless reasons why we consider dogs our best friends. To name a few, they are incredibly loyal, brave, and caring.
Even though these fellows are far smaller than a rhino, with joined efforts, they have proven to be highly successful in protecting the massive mammals.
Rhino poaching has become a major problem in Africa since 2008, and the number of killed rhinos has been on the rise until 2015. In 2015, 1,349 rhinos died, and in the past 10 years, 8,000 more lost their lives due to poaching and illegal trades.
Fortunately, this number started to fall since then, but still, a lot of these animals are killed by poachers every year. Consequently, the WWF reports that African rhinos are now classified as critically endangered, and only about 5,000 of them remain in the wild.
Even 80% of all rhinos live in South Africa, so the country had the highest number of recorded poaching criminals. Last year, more than 250 people were arrested for poaching and rhino trafficking.
The Greater Kruger National Park is the home to over 7,000 rhinos, and more than 5,000 rhinos are being protected in the intensively protected zones.
Also, it is the biggest game reserve in South Africa and was created on May 31, 1926, by the National Parks Act by merging Shingwedzi and Sabie Game Reserves. It is also the home of about 150 mammals, 500 bird species, and 100 reptiles.
To protect wildlife from poachers and illegal traders, the Southern African Wildlife College trained dogs, as part of a project run by the College and Ivan Carter Wildlife Conservation Alliance.
According to the K9 Master, Johan van Straaten, with proper training at a younger age, they saved about 45 rhinos since February 2018, when the free tracking dogs became operational.
A 29-year-old photographer from Cape Town, Sean Viljoen, took photos of the dogs in action at the South African Wildlife College.
Johan van Straaten explained:
“In the areas where the Southern African Wildlife College patrol, the success rate of the dogs is around 68 percent using both on and off-leash free tracking dogs, compared to between three to five percent with no canine capacity.
Over the past decade, over 8,000 rhinos have been lost to poaching making it the country hardest hit by this poaching onslaught. The project is helping ensure the survival of southern Africa’s rich biodiversity and its wildlife including its rhino which has been severely impacted by wildlife crime.
The game-changer has been the free tracking dogs who are able to track at speeds much faster than a human can in terrain where the best human trackers would lose spoor. “
The breeds of the free tracking dogs vary, and the program involves Bloodhounds, beagles, Belgian Malinois, Foxhounds, Blue Ticks, and many others. They are trained to ‘benefit required counter-poaching initiatives’ which includes free tracking, incursion, detection, patrol, and apprehension dogs.
Johan van Straaten said:
“They begin training from birth and are socialized from a very young age. They learn how to track, bay at a person in a tree and follow basic obedience.
At six months we put all that training together more formally -- they do have the necessary skill set to do the work at a younger age but are not mature enough to handle all the pressures of real operations.
Depending on a number of factors dogs become operational at around 18 months old.”
The K9 team continues with its work amid the coronavirus pandemic as well, and on May 7th, the Southern African Wildlife College celebrated the first birthday of the black and tan hound puppies. In half a year, they will join the veterans in the struggle to protect endangered wildlife.
Yet, numerous factors are needed to fully protect the wildlife, such as community engagement, biological management, international and national coordination, financial support, and capacity building.