By Stephanie Saville

Ending his illustrious career on a high note, tribute was paid to an outstanding police dog, Orca, on Wednesday at an award ceremony to honour the role of police members who had been instrumental in the safe return of two children who had gone missing in the Drakensberg.

The German Shepherd, which has a penchant for chocolate bars and biltong, is the first police dog in the country to receive the Canine and Equine Star for Bravery.

His handler, Inspector Jack Haskins of the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands K9 Unit, said Orca had done much good in the community and that his talents had also been used and appreciated abroad.

Orca, 9, has worked as far afield as India and Algeria, recovering bodies in earthquake-stricken areas. He has a head for heights and has bravely abseiled into inaccessible areas with Haskins.

Orca has also been lowered by helicopter hoist to conduct searches in remote areas.

On Wednesday, Orca, along with inspectors Johan Schutte, Clinton Kraamwinkel, Haskins and Sergeant Romel da Rosa, were recognised for their work during a mountain rescue search in which two missing children were rescued from Monk's Cowl in the Drakensberg in April last year.

Liam Share, 4, and his brother, Frikkie, 15, went missing after losing their way back to their camp.

Police and Mountain Club members searched rough terrain throughout the night, eventually finding the children at the top of the Sphinx.

Although Frikkie was unharmed, Liam was rushed to hospital with severe hypothermia, from which he later recovered.

More recently, Orca was involved in the search for little Shanae Muir, who went missing along the South Coast, and for the bodies of several schoolchildren who were washed away in a swollen river at Msinga.

The awards presentation took place at Mountain Rise Police Station in Pietermaritzburg on Wednesday.

Haskins has worked with two other dogs, Rolf and Vos. Rolf passed on to the happy hunting ground in December last year, because of old age, and Vos was killed while searching for another missing child.

After The Mercury ran an article about Vos's death and that Haskins was looking for another dog, a reader came forward and offered him Orca.

Orca will retire at the end of April after six years of faithful service to the K9 Unit. And his fate?

"He'll be coming home with me," said Haskins, who said he would not be parted from Orca in any circumstances.

Asked if Orca would get bored in retirement, Haskins, with a twinkle in his eye, said there were plenty of cats for him to chase at home.

So, from catching criminals to chasing cats, Orca is in for a well-deserved rest.

Haskins, however, will continue working with Udain, a Belgian Shepherd he is training and which has yet to undergo evaluation.