Our furry friends are an integral part of the solution to protect Africa’s most threatened fauna…
Anyone who knows me well, will know that I am absolutely, unequivocally and whole heartedly obsessed with dogs.
I cross the road to say hello to a dog. I’ve crashed my car looking at a dog.
I picked my confirmation name after my first dog. (When the priest asked, Why did you choose Saint Zoe?, expecting to hear how she inspired me in a particular life pursuit, he was rather miffed to realise the lack of religious connotation.)
And, my Hinge profile sets the record straight to any potential suitor...
I know a lot of people can totally relate.
So back last year on a trip to Kenya, I was thrilled to get the chance to meet some very special working dogs…
Working dogs can give eyes to the visually impaired. Support children with autism. Guard flocks of sheep from wolves. Rescue travellers stuck out in the snow.
They are also a crucial weapon in the war against poaching.
Meet the bloodhounds
As we all know, illegal hunting continues to be a major problem in Africa's national parks. But a relatively new method for tracking down the baddies is to use bloodhounds.
Armed with a superior sense of smell (sometimes they are even known as scenthounds), and bucketloads of slobber (alas, they’re not called slobberhounds), these valiant canines have been trained to sniff out ivory, rhino horns, weapons and explosives, and to track and apprehend suspects.
It’s a demanding job; the plains of Africa are a challenging environment. Handlers and their dogs travel in excess of 30 km a day in 45 degree heat. They come face to face with wild animals; are harassed by sharp thorns and plagued with tickbite fever; whilst standing fearlessly on the frontline against armed poachers.
I spent time at Mugie conservancy, situated in the Northern Laikipia region of Kenya. An enchanting expanse of idyllic African Savanna with passing herds of eland and oryx, browsing elephants, Grevy’s zebra and prowling lions.
An area made much safer by a heroic duo of loveable bloodhounds.
Meet Boto and Ishmael.
The quickest game of hide and seek
It was a privilege to being able to put these dogs to the test, experiencing first hand just how incredibly skilled they are and why indeed the Bloodhound is the perfect breed for the job.
Squinting in the midday glare, I arrived at the Canine Unit. Already that day, Ishmael had spent a gruelling 4 hours in training. As part of the pair’s intense regime, each dog is individually trained and then rested on alternative days, but both enjoy their daily afternoon walk.
So Boto was harnessed up. Instantly he switched from this goofy playful pup craving affection and rolling around in the dusty orange terrain; to standing regal and tall; alert.
I was instructed to lightly score the ground with my shoe. And then run.
Sprinting through the tall grass, blissfully nonchalant about the prospect of lurking Black mambas, I could soon feel a thin film of sweat on my face. The dogs are much better adapted to running in the extreme heat. With their loose excess skin, they perspire less, running for massive stretches at a time without even breaking into a sweat.
I ran for 20 minutes, before clambering up a tree whose bark was smooth to the touch, like marble. An elephant’s favourite, they like to rub their backs up and down to massage themselves, and in the process they tilt the entire tree. A perfect place to hide, I thought.
Boto’s handler was radio called. Back at the Canine Unit he would be armed with a gauze, taking a swab of my footprint, capturing any scent particles I’d left behind, before giving Boto a short 5 second sniff.
I’m not exaggerating when I say it took Boto less than 5 minutes to find me.
Not even the tall grass could mask my scent.
It was incredible.
This is because the bloodhound is unrivalled in its tracking capabilities. With a sense of smell 40 times stronger than humans, and the ability to follow a scent trail for more than 200 km, the afternoon’s activities were a doddle for Boto.
Bloodhounds can even discern and detect aromas from a footprint over 12 days old, using their long ears to waft the odour to their nose.
This lovable duo, really are true heroes.
Who let the dogs out
Unfortunately, it was too late to save the rhinos in Mugie conservancy.
Unprecedented levels of poaching forced the the protected area managers to move the remaining 25 rhinos in 2012 to other sites across the country.
Dogs were brought in shortly afterwards to save what was left.
Thankfully, the pooches have dramatically reduced poaching of elephants and lions. Simply the psychology of having dogs in the reserve has deterred poachers. Faced with a harsh penalty if caught, they stay away, appreciating how effective these canines are in tracking down culprits.
Dogs have also been deployed across the continent and conservation success stories are springing up. In larger areas where their impact has been monitored, like Kruger National Park, it has even been estimated that 90% of the anti-poaching successes have been due to dogs.
As poaching techniques become more sophisticated, dogs like Boto and Ishmael are increasingly becoming an important component of anti-poaching security forces.
They are helping to fulfil the dream that the next generation of endangered African wildlife can continue to roam these iconic landscapes.
And that’s just another reason why dogs are so great!