THERESA TAYLOR and lali van zuydam
THERE were no caps and gowns when Toby and Russell graduated yesterday. But there was plenty of applause as the pair marked the successful completion of their tracker training.
By the end of next week the dogs – Belgian Malinois – will be at work helping to track rhino poachers in the Kruger and Pilanesberg parks.
The training programme, run by Denel Mechem, is expensive, as it takes 14 months to train dogs for this work, starting when they are puppies at just eight weeks old.
The project was undertaken by Jacaranda FM as its contribution to the fight against rhino poaching.
At the graduation, the handlers and dogs demonstrated how they track and apprehend poachers, how to find explosives and how they pull poachers from a moving car.
The dogs completed all the tasks efficiently and with complete obedience.
Allister Gibbons, manager of the Mechem dog unit, described the project as ground-breaking in the field of anti-poaching efforts.
On July 21 Toby will be deployed to the Kruger National Park and Russell to the Pilansberg National Park.
According to Gibbons, the dogs love riding in a helicopter but are expected to give lions a wide berth.
In the parks the dogs and their handlers will support game rangers as they track and apprehend rhino poachers.
The dogs have spent the past six weeks at Denel Mechem dog and handler training centre with their handlers, two game rangers who were chosen from each park to learn to guide and care for the animals.
Key to the dogs’ work is discipline and they have schedules and weekends off like normal working people.
Before their training in weapon detection, horn detection, tracking and hot scene intervention they were carefully socialised, and balls and play toys were used to teach them.
From six months they underwent intensive training which included setting off firecrackers near them to make them accustomed to loud noises and taking them on outings to crowded places. Recently they were also taken to game farms and the Lion Park to acquaint them with the sights and smells of game.
Gibbons says the focus of training has not been teaching them to seek out rhino, but to track poachers and sniff out any dropped items along the trail which may be used as evidence – such as a piece of horn or a scrap of clothing.
But the training of the handler was just as important as the training of the dog. The dogs will become “one-man animals” who will only be touched by, and listen solely to, their handler.
Pilanesberg game ranger Hendrik (who did not want his full name used for fear of retaliation by the poaching fraternity) says that despite his innate love of animals the first two weeks of training were difficult, but he and Russell have now truly bonded.
“Some of the nights are too long,” he says, explaining how he has looked forward to working with the dog every day.
For a dedicated ranger with 17 years experience, it’s been emotional to be a front line witness to the attacks on rhino.
“It’s a sad tale to tell. We are meant to be taking care of the animals… it breaks your heart.”
Hendrik hopes that with Russell in tow they can track poachers better, as with visual tracking they frequently lose the poachers’ trail, allowing them to escape.
According to Jenny Griesel, marketing manager at Jacaranda FM, the cost of training one dog is approximately R50 000-R60 000 but with StopRhinoPoaching.com, and the help of the Parlotones and M-Net’s The Wild, they had raised enough to train 10 dogs by the end of the year.