KRUGER National Park rangers on patrol hear rifle fire in the night.
They find a dead rhino the next day, its horns hacked off. There are footprints and they start tracking, but it’s an unequal contest: the poachers have a head start and they are skilled in covering their tracks, using rocky surfaces or a concrete weir to make their spoor disappear.
Bring on the hounds. They are trained to track scent, and once they are on to it, they stick to it, over sand or leaves or rock. And they move fast, between 15 and 35km an hour. As SANParks section ranger Richard Sowry says, Bruce Fordyce’s best average speed for Comrades was 15km/h.
This year so far, the foxhounds have tracked down 14 poachers, and recovered seven firearms.
Dogs are one of the newer strings in SANParks’ bow of anti-poaching measures in what has become known as the rhino war. The epicentre of the battle is Kruger, with its relatively high number of rhinos in a continent where most populations have been decimated. The Kruger has a 400km border with Mozambique, where 80 percent of the rhino poachers enter the park.
The first working dog was introduced into Kruger in 2012. Today there are a variety of dogs trained for different purposes – and the dog programme is to be expanded.
Not all poachers cross the border at night, say SANParks officials. Some drive openly through the entrance gates, posing as a family on a visit. This happened recently when poachers entered with a high-calibre rifle, one section taped underneath the vehicle, the other in the engine and the ammunition in the child’s socks.
Incidents like this are part of the reasons that come August, there will be sniffer dogs at Kruger’s entrance gates trained to detect wildlife, guns and ammunition. This week, Sowry showed a media group some of the working dogs.
Daphne, a spaniel, is trained to sniff out guns and bullets. Her handler, a woman SANParks staffer whose identity Sowry asked not to be revealed for her own safety, put Daphne through her paces. Ammunition was hidden in one of several plastic tubes spread out on the ground. On command, Daphne shot off. When she found the right tube, she sat down in front of it, looking at her handler.
The park also has Belgian shepherds or Malinois, trained to track spoor three hours or fresher, to patrol, to sniff out contraband and to attack and bring down a person.
Unite Against Poaching, an NGO that works with the SANParks Honorary Rangers and SANParks permanent staff, has donated R8 million towards anti-poaching measures to date, including funding the first specialist tracker hound unit in Kruger. There are three foxhounds and handlers already trained, and five undergoing training. The cost of one trained dog is R60 000.
Johan de Beer, of SANParks Canine Unit, said the pack hounds were trained to run on spoor, and needed to work with a helicopter to be effective. Once a rhino carcass had been found by field rangers, who call in the GPS co-ordinates, the hounds are loaded on to a SANParks helicopter with their handler and flown to the site.
“They run loose on the spoor because they go faster than they could with a handler,” said De Beer.
The dogs have a GPS device fitted to their collars, and the helicopter follows them at a distance. One dog can track for eight hours at a stretch, and is then replaced with another. The longest distance one dog has tracked was 23km.
When one of the hounds finds the poacher, it does not attack. “It just goes into the bush and waits,” says De Beer.
l The Cape Times’ trip to Kruger was paid for by Rhino Tears wine and the SANParks Honorary Rangers. This is the first of three articles on anti-rhino poaching measures.