In ancient days, dogs were domesticated because they were helpful companions. In modern times, we keep dogs because they are great friends, but many “working dogs” serve as useful members of society, like K-9 units with the police. In South Africa, rangers responsible for stopping poachers frequently face danger, even life-or-death situations. Modern poachers often come from criminal syndicates and are heavily-armed. One of the resources available to rangers today: canine units.
Since 2012, dogs have been assisting rangers in South African national parks. Depending on their breed, they help in different areas. Spaniels and labs are trained to sniff out elephant tusks, rhino horns and more, while bloodhound-Doberman mixes track down poachers. The high-speed tracking dogs run through the bush while their human handlers follow above in helicopters. Using dogs to protect the Kruger National Park’s 8,000 rhinos has helped reduce poaching by 24%.
A military dog instructor – Daryll Pleasants – came up with the idea while volunteering in Kenya. Knowing dogs as well as he did, he saw how they could contribute to anti-poaching efforts. In 2016, he founded Animals Saving Animals, which trains dogs for conservation work all over the world. Rhino Conservation in Botswana is using these dogs, while one day dogs may help guard tigers in India.
How do you train a dog to protect endangered species? 12-week old dogs begin their training in the United Kingdom with socialization and environmental training. More advanced work includes tracking, firearm searches, and working in more stressful situations with gunfire or smoke grenades. When the dogs are 12 months, they move to their national park for another six months of training before their career begins.
Dogs and rangers form a close relationship. While shadowing Pit-Track, a self-funded rhino protection group, filmmaker Tyrone Marcus met a dog named Diego who made a habit of coming into the tent at night to sleep in his sleeping bag. Hulk, a South African mastiff, would take over in the morning and “guard” Marcus. A dog’s natural instinct to protect humans is clearly extending to other animals, as well.