They may have wet noses and waggy tails, but don’t underestimate the latest recruits to South Africa’s war on rhino poachers. Foxhounds Chico, Jetta and Kombi are nearing the end of rigorous training and will soon be deployed as part of a rapid reaction squad in Kruger National Park, to be helicoptered in to the scene of poaching incidents to track down the perpetrators before they flee the park.
Richard Sowry, section ranger of the 95,000 hectare Kingfisherspruit part of the park, explains rangers already use Belgian Malinois dogs for routine patrols. ‘They are small, light and extremely driven, and you won’t find a better patrol dog for working daily with a field ranger. But for tracking you have to use them on a leash, so you’ll never catch up with the poachers. When we pick up a scent and confirm it’s fresh with a Malinois, we’ll drop the foxhounds in by chopper, release them with a tracking collar, and follow them by chopper.’
Richard says the idea came from the bush war in the former-Rhodesia, where foxhounds were used to track incursions. The hounds, the same breed used for fox hunting in the UK, are being trained to ignore wild animal spoor and focus on human scent. They will be worked in teams of three, and ultimately Richard hopes Kruger will have a pack of nine or ten animals.
The foxhound project is being funded by Unite Against Poaching, a collaboration between South African National Parks Honorary Rangers and Volkswagen, which donates money to anti-poaching for every Audi or VW sold by the Unitrans dealership (hence the dogs’ names).
‘Krugers’ rangers are fighting a war, putting their lives on the line,’ says honorary ranger Louis Lemmer. ‘They are really passionate people, and for us it’s just an honour to be able to support them. It’s just a matter of time before our guys are going to get hurt. We need to support them. They need training and specialised equipment, such as night vision and camouflage. The dogs are going to add a lot of value. At the moment the poachers hit then disappear over the Mozambique border. The dogs are going to allow us to react faster.’
Latest official statistics, released at the start of October, suggest 430 South African rhinos have been lost to illegal killings so far in 2012, with Kruger accounting for 258 of those. There have been 205 arrests, and at least eight poachers killed.