Africa is known to be the home to the world’s most magnificent wildlife. Endangered animals are slaughtered so that a single body part, like tusks, pelt, or bones, can be sold illegally for massive amounts of money. For example, Rhinoceros horn is so valuable and sought after that it sells for nearly $30,000 a pound. Pangolins, the most trafficked animal in the world, sell for $1000 in parts of Asia. Deterring this illegal poaching is a massive undertaking and one group is training dog teams to combat poachers in the bush.
Anti-Poaching Dogs in Africa
This is the story of dog teams trained to pursue those who illegally hunt some of the most iconic animals in the world.
Jay Crafter and his teams perform some extremely treacherous work to preserve the protect some of the planets most mystical creatures. It’s hard to imagine the extreme conditions that these teams work in. It’s also difficult to understand the danger involved in working in these remote areas of Africa.
Africa is known to be the home to the worlds most magnificent wildlife. Endangered animals are killed so that a single body part, like tusks, pelts or bones can be sold illegally for massive amounts of money. Rhinoceros horn is so valuable that it often sells for $30,000 per pound. Deterring this illegal poaching is a massive undertaking and dog teams are just one of the ways the animals are getting help. Procuring, training and maintaining these anti poaching teams is a daunting task.
A Special Thanks to Jay Crafter of Invictus K9 for sharing his story.
All photos copyright Invictus K9 @invictusk9
We also want to thank our episode sponsors. Be sure to visit them to learn more and show them your support.
Click ‘Show transcript’ below to read the transcript from this episode of A Life of Dogs.
A Life of Dogs Podcast – Season One, Episode Three (S1 E3)
Episode Name: The Fearless Ones
Jason Purgason; Chris Anderson
Chris: Support for A Life of Dogs is brought to you by Royal Canin. Royal Canin offers precise, effective nutrition for dogs based on size, age, breed, and to address specific needs. To learn more about Royal Canin, visit them on the web at royalcanin.com, and by Dogtra, trusted by professionals. Dogtra ensures your training journey with durable training products equipped with patented, accurate and intuitive control to ensure the best experience. Join us and together we can make every dog exceptional. To learn more, call (888) 811-9111 or visit dogtra.com.
Jason: Thanks for tuning in again to A Life of Dogs. We hope you enjoyed the first part of this double header Catching a Flight, which followed the story of Piper, the airport canine. Recently Sudan, the last male Northern white rhino died. He was the last male of his sub-species, many of whom were wiped out by poachers. Animals like these are getting some special help to save them from extinction. In this episode, we explore an amazing story of dog teams hunting humans to protect some of the most iconic animals on earth. Chris Anderson starts us off with The Fearless Ones.
Chris: Recently the UN reported that up to a hundred elephants are being slaughtered each day in Africa by poachers who are engaging in the illegal ivory trade. Animal poaching in Africa is at a crisis level and intervention is challenging. As such, teams are being trained to deploy in some of the most demanding and dangerous conditions to save these majestic animals. Taking on this task requires special dogs and people. After hearing this story you will understand why we call these teams The Fearless Ones. We start with Jay Crafter, an experienced dog trainer and the owner of Invictus Canine. Jay is a trainer of anti-poaching dog teams in Africa.
Jay: So I was born and raised in Zimbabwe, educated and everything. The political situation in Zimbabwe started changing around 1996, 1997. I decided to leave Zimbabwe and go and basically pursue my education in the UK. Not a lot of options, so we ended up joining the British Army and then I joined the Royal Army Veterinary Corps.
Chris: The Royal Army Veterinary Corps is an operational branch of the British Army that is responsible for the training and care of animals.
Jay: Never looked back, loved every second of it. Made some good friends and I learned a skill set that I’m still using today, so I’m very grateful for it. At 17, I was very young. Really didn’t know what I was getting myself into, but it all worked out in the end. I served for eight years. I decided to get out and go back to Zimbabwe, which I did. I left the army and then I got offered a job working in Iraq working at Baghdad International Airport, running the kennel there. So I went on to that, did six months and then while I was there, I bumped into a few dog handlers and we shared training areas and things like that. Next thing I’ve got some random email offering me a job working in Fort Leonardwood, Missouri. I was totally confused. Thought it was probably some Nigerian trying to get money out of me and just ignored it. Few months later, the same thing happened again and it ended up being real.
Went to work for a company in Missouri. We were working with the engineers training the demining dogs, and I was there for three months and a contract was secured down in San Antonio, Texas and I was flung tears. I went down there and I was working with the specialized search dog program and we were training off-leash detection dogs, explosive detection dogs for Afghan and Iraqi IED detection basically, and that went really well. I loved it. I was down there for four years, decided to get into the private sector and I got into the IDD program. I ran the US Army combat tracker dog program, which was… what I learned from tracking in Arizona and preparing dogs for Afghanistan really helped me out for a lot of the places where we’re working today in Africa, so I’m grateful for that experience. But all of that kind of culminated. I became a US citizen and that’s when I decided that it was time for me to do my own thing and I’ve always wanted to have my own company. That’s when I set up Invictus Canine and my very first job was to go to South Africa. My first contract was South African and just be an independent subject matter expert for elephants that have been trained to detect TNT and in Botswana – sorry, not Botswana, Angola – elephants are navigating minefields and they are walking through minefields and they’re not getting blown up and other animals are.
Chris: You heard right! In Angola, one of the world’s most mine-contaminated countries, elephants have been observed navigating minefields safely, which is a skill they learned all on their own.
Jay: Somebody thought, well, maybe they can smell the landmines. Whatever it is, let’s see if they can detect TNT. It’s not that anybody is going to use them to go and do demining with, but there’s something going on there. So I wanted to make sure it was…well, my job was to make sure that it wasn’t going to be some dodgy elephant experiment and make sure that it was good, and it was great. It was very impressive. The elephants were successfully doing the double blinds and it was great though. They could really do it. And so while I was there I took the opportunity to go home to Zimbabwe to see family, and I met a couple of people there who put me in touch with the Frankfurt Zoological Society, and that was just pure luck. I had no plans to get into anti-poaching and there’s a lot of issues in Africa. There’s also a mindset that dogs can’t be used in the bush and that they’re too scared of lions, a natural fear of snakes and all this stuff and they just don’t work. but again, those same people have not really come across a true working animal, one with the genetics and the drive and all the characteristics that we desire in a working dog. So I went down, met the project manager there. We had a coffee and we talked about it and I said, yes, you need dogs and I can help you with that and it just went from there.
If it hadn’t been for that program, we wouldn’t be in any of the other countries we are now. They were super supportive. They put us in a good place. It helped build our name and I’m eternally grateful to that work, but that one led on to two more projects in Zambia, and then we started doing assessments of other areas where they were looking at potentially putting dogs in and it has just grown from there.
Chris: The use of dog teams in anti-poaching operations has grown considerably.
Jay: We are in six different countries. We are working in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia, Kenya and Democratic Republic of Congo.
Chris: These dog teams perform a variety of functions to impede the operations of poachers. Here Jay explains.
Jay: So we have two primary capabilities – the detection dogs and the tracker dogs. Some of our programs the dogs are dual trained where they do both. Some of our programs just have one or the other. The detection dogs are trained to find ivory, rhino horn, pangolin.
Chris: The pangolin is the most traffic mammal in the world. These gentle cat-sized, nocturnal anteaters have large protective scales covering their bodies, and are the only known mammal with this feature. They are hunted for their scales and meat and have been poached to critical numbers nearing extinction
Jay: Bush meat, weapons and ammunition. So those are the six primary odors. We have one dog that was also trained to find poison that’s used in watering holes that the elephants will go to. Like for example, in Ranchi in Zimbabwe, there are 300 elephants that get killed from poisoning, so there’s certain parks where they like us to train on the poison, but just being frank, it’s just something I’m very careful about exposing the dogs to as it’s very dangerous, and I like the handlers to be a bit experienced before we start like delving into the poison side of it. So there’s six odors. We can do poison as a seventh, but like I said, not all the dogs are on that.
The tracker dogs, they are more of a hot sand track dog, so we try to get them up to about a six hour hold, 8-track. Obviously that’s in normal conditions. In favourable conditions, they can go older. But it takes us about six to eight months to get them up to be consistent at that six hour old track. So we teach that course and then we carry on with follow-on training and continue to develop that detection piece. Most of the areas where we are tracking in are national parks, so it’s really favorable for us when it comes to putting the dog in the right place. If you’ve got footprints on the ground or an entry point or a carcass or something, really there should be no other humans in there, so our start points are always very clean and the dog gets on to that initial scent and then follows it and it’s not that complex working in that environment.
Depending on the time of the year, conditions can be very favorable, green grass in the ground, but with the seasons changing, you have wet and dry season basically. With the dry season, there’s no grass, it’s just rocks. Obviously those conditions are not favorable for the dog so that’d be quite dynamic in their kind of skill set, but obviously they acclimatize as the seasons change. The tracks do go outside the park and they end up in the villages. We’ve had dogs doing pretty significant tracks and they ended up tracking directly to the poacher’s house and they are inside their hut, like straw roof and they are butchering the animal inside that they had poached from the national park and the dogs got to track through the combination of scents – human scents, goats, cows, chickens, kids running around. As soon as the team comes into the village, everybody’s attracted to it and they run over and they want to know what’s going on, but the dog took us right to the house, which is pretty impressive. So we do try and train the villagers, the friendly villagers, just ensure that the dogs get exposed to it but like I said, most of our start points at least are in favorable conditions where there’s no other human scent. It’s not like we’re tracking through the middle of the city. It’s always going to be a nice rural environment.
Chris: They use various dog breeds for this type of work. Jay explains the pros and cons of the individual breeds.
Jay: So the breeds that we like to use, my personal primary breed is a German shepherd for tracker detection, the reason being is the mals generally, I feel they need a more experienced handler. So the guys that we’re dealing with they come from a different background, a different culture that don’t look at dogs like the way I did growing up with pets and stuff like that, so it’s seen as a tool. It’s something you tie to a tree and it warns you when there’s a predator coming or when there’s someone in the yard that shouldn’t be there. It’s just some kind of a response. If something happens to it, they’ll replace it immediately, no problem. There’s no issues about that. So it’s literally seen as a tool, like a shovel or a pick or something like that. So with that in mind there’s also their natural fear for bigger…you know, the Malinois and German Shepherd, pointy eared dogs. There’s that intense gaze that they provide and people are very fearful of that. So with the cultural differences, with the fear factor, lack of confidence, I feel like the German shepherd is a good dog for it.
We do a pretty hectic selection and procurement, just to make sure we have the right dogs, that they are balanced, that they are not showing any types of aggression towards the handler. We do have Malinois that have gone to the more experienced handlers. We have kind of spent some time with them, managed to kind of develop a lot earlier on and they are fine. They are great dogs. But generally as a rule of thumb for tracker detection starting a brand new program, we’d go for German shepherds. They’re more balanced. They tend to train better. Obviously we’re on a schedule, so we want to make sure we can meet the clients’ request to finish the course in time, and the German shepherd seems to be the best dog. We go for a lightweight German Shepherd, so it’s smaller than your typical dog. A German shepherd, the 25 kilos. That’s probably around a 50 to 55 pound dog, and the reason is we looking for the dog that’s going to track big distance. So we don’t do one, two mile tracks. We do 10, 15 mile tracks and that’s a normal track. So you need to have the marathon runner, not the sprinter. So that’s the kind of dogs that we look for. They can pace themselves. They’ve got the drive to push on for long periods. But again, they’re not just crazy in the head completely out of control. A couple of Mals that we have had in the kennels have created issues themselves, whether it’s an health problem or just some kind of issue in the kennel perhaps or in the vehicle or people walking past, and with the German shepherds, we see less of that so that’s kind of what we go for. If I find a nice Malinois, then I’ll absolutely take it.
So when we’re doing our selection piece, we absolutely will select the best dog that we find. If that happens to be a Malinois, so be it but I do try to look for the smaller, light frame German shepherds, and then once a program evolves and they stop bringing more dogs in, then we can promote those handlers, bring in Malinois. They can take on the Malinois, and the German Shepherds can go to the new hands that are coming into the program. We’ve got a Vizsla. We’ve got a pointer and so once again, we’ve got a Weimaraner. He’s a fantastic dog. He’s Jack of all trades. He can do pretty much everything supporting the police down there. So our airport program for example, we’ve got 2 Malinois. The original plan was for them to be our workhorses working in the cargo area out back. Nobody’s going to see them. They are just going to keep going, and then we’ve got the Vizsla and that pointer for upfront public space, just easy on the eye, approachable. These guys walking around the terminal might scare the living daylights out of everybody, but they’re both fantastic dogs in the back as well. They are work horses and can do a good job too.
So again, it’s not breed specific. I really enjoyed working that pointer. It’s been a while since I’ve trained one and she’s a fantastic dog. She has got a superb nose on her, so from a single purpose detection point of view, I was very impressed with her and it’s definitely a breed that I would look at again.
The Malinois and the Shepherds, the Labrador to an extent, it’s a pretty consistent training plan so we can approach it the same. Every student will progress through the course at the same pace, but with the Vizsla, we found just with that kind of puppy behavior that they tend to show, that little crazy that they have, we did have to adjust the training plan for him and obviously there’s a knock on effect so we are a business training dogs, so we want to make sure that we can get everybody on the same sheet of music.
Chris: Not only is this work demanding and difficult, even the training for the dogs is pretty intense.
Jay: The dogs are all trained in country, so my process. I go to Holland. We go through our testing and our selection. I do some additional things that I don’t normally do, going out into public spaces and farm areas around other animals and things like that, big animals, and then once I’ve selected my dogs, Hank arranges all the transport and everything. I fly in country and like Zimbabwe for example and just wait for the dogs to arrive. Dogs land and we take them down to the new kennels. We let them settle for a day and then we spend a month just the trainers working the dogs. There’s no students or anybody else. We have some helpers maybe laying tracks, something like that but nothing crazy. We literally train them. We take the dogs on road walks. We’ll literally go for a 10 kilometre walk into the bush and just expose the dogs to elephants, just to different wildlife, predators, you name it. As we drive around, if we see a serious predator like a pride of lions, we get the dogs downwind. We bring the vehicle up nice and close, let the dogs get used to the smells. If they move off, we’ll take the dogs out there to walk around the area where they were lying, see how the dogs react, but just make it part of everyday life.
I’m a big, big believer in you want to train on home turf. So if you’re going to work in Africa, you need to train the dogs in Africa for when they become operational. There’s no point in me training a dog in North Carolina, taking it over there and I find out that I have got issues with them. He’s used to bears and all this kind of stuff and he looks fine around animals and then I get over there and I’ve got problems. In that first month, it gives me plenty of time to weed out any issues and really slowly just expose the dog to just the environment. The environment itself is so hostile and they’re just not used to it. Every dog we get gets their pads ripped open in a few days just from the hot earth. They are obviously high drive dogs, so they’re running around trying to get everything and they end up start hurting the feet pretty quickly. So we knew they are inevitably going to be on kennel rest, but they toughen up pretty quickly and we can carry on with the road walks. The dogs are going from typically from winter in Holland. With the projects normally, there’s a six month rotation so we can get up there in January and then maybe again July, August, so the January dogs had come in from winter to one of the hottest months of the year in Africa, in southern Africa, at least so there is a huge adjustment. But what’s nice is because we’re doing those initial tracks, for example, that are less than a hundred meters long, just short, sharp, high reps developing the dog we can work the dog as he acclimatizes at the same time. I’m not asking him to go out there and do 2 kilometre, 3 kilometre track in the heat when he’s come out of Holland so they develop nice and slowly as they are acclimatized at the same time.
While we do that four weeks of training with the dogs, we do a handler selection that’s a week long, and then obviously we expose the potential handlers to the dogs to see how they react. They’ll lay tracks for us as part of handler selection and we’re looking at how they pay attention to instructions and follow through with it and all that stuff. They don’t handle the dogs but we carry on training the dogs during that phase, and then once we’ve selected the handlers, it’s a 12 week course. Day 1 – the dogs have the basics in detection, basics in obedience and they’ll do a one mile track, one hour old and we can build from that over the 12 weeks. That’s just the most comfortable foundation that we’ve put into the dog. So the handlers are not going to ruin anything very quickly, but we stay on top of them for the rest of the course.
Chris: These new canine recruits have to get accustomed to some very intense environmental conditions in Africa.
Jay: But the first time a dog sees an elephant, there’s this anxiety, certainly. The dog’s looking at the animal, his hackles go up. It’s just not something he has ever come across and he can’t comprehend that at all. I’m assuming that is what’s kind of what’s going through their little heads, but for example in Zimbabwe, it’s 13,000 elephants there. We walk around, there are elephants everywhere. If you walk in a line for an hour, you come across two or three hundreds, no problem. So they get used to it. It just becomes part of everyday life. The kennels will have elephants there walking past the kennels. Zebras, we had a pack of wild dogs chase down an impala, kill an impala. They’d be a hundred meters away from the kennels. The kennels are on the air strip. They could see the whole thing, so nature is all around them and they’re exposed to it like 24/7. At night-time you just hear the lions, you hear the hyenas. It’s just a constant sound. They just grow accustomed to it. So it’s not like the surprise. Obviously the first few times I like to try and teach a dog to react the same way to wildlife as I would to gunfire. That’s neutral. I don’t want them to be aggressive or fearful or whatever. I want them to, okay, whatever. It’s nothing. We do a lot of clicker training with the obedience just to kind of shape behavior. It’s nice because it allows the handlers to do it as well, and we could teach obedience using the clicker where the instructor clicks when the handler needs to treat so we can get the timing done right. It’s very interactive. But we do that in areas where there’s going to be wildlife present. We’ve had one dog that has had an issue with guinea fowl. That’s like a small ground bird and that’s literally the only issue that I’ve come across where we’ve had to go and do some corrective training and really teach the dog that they have no value. It was tough. It wasn’t an easy training process, but she got through it in the end. My absolute best tracker dog in all of the programs, the first time we took him to a pride of lions, it was actually a young elephant, a baby elephant that had been killed during the night, and I wanted to expose the dog to a carcass and then lay a track from the carcass away, simulating a poaching event. So we went there and you could see the footprints on the ground. It was probably 11 o’clock in the morning and I could smell the lions in the air. They were within five minutes of where we were. They just weren’t far away. It was safe for us to walk around. We could do that, but there was even little patches on the ground where they urinated and she was completely distracted by it. So we just carried on, did some training. We did some obedience around the carcass, had him hop on top of the carcass, and then, just with a Kong, some heel works, some sit-stays, just basic obedience. Nothing crazy and he just forgot about it and he kept on with work and then we laid the track and he was fine. It was a very fresh track. It was like five minutes old. There was totally favorable conditions where for him to be successful throughout a massive, massive disturbed area where there’s a lot of scent.
We had a dog in Kenya. I was doing an evaluation of that program and we finished the track and just up ahead of where we were basically going to end, we could see this disturbed area where some ground had been scratched away and there were these little white kind of dropping piles. And it was basically a territorial marking area from where the hyenas would come up, and it was fresh, fresh, fresh. They had probably been there 10 minutes before we got there and I’d said to the handler, “do you want to track this or should we finish here? And he just confidently said, “No, just go through it.” And in his mind, if it didn’t work out, we could finish successfully after it, get him back on track. But when we did it, the dog went through that area and he didn’t even raise his head up. He was just so focused on the human scent and the footprints. He just blew past all the hyena droppings, the urine and the scratch marks, everything and I was incredibly impressed with that dog for doing that. It was just, to me, that was a pretty serious distraction, so I think if you’re doing a 10 kilometre track through the bush, literally from point A to point B, regardless of what you see, there is so much wildlife that passes over that track. If it’s been out there for four hours, things are just coming and going and passing over it all the time. The dogs just lock into that human scent and it just must be so much easier for them to follow that than have to worry about all the different wild animals that have crossed it. They just do really good, but that initial period is tough if the dogs show apprehension, but like I say, we build them up nice and slow and it works really well.
Chris: Once the dogs are trained, it’s now time to pair them with their new human counterparts. This part of the job can be just as challenging.
Jay: Whether we’re in Africa or in the States or in the UK training, the single points of failure tends to be the handler. You select the dogs and the dogs are great and they’ve got all the potential in the world, then you give them to a rookie handler and maybe somebody who shouldn’t be there, there’s problems with that. One of the things we insist on is doing a handler selection. Our handler selection is very intense. It’s physical but at the same time, we measuring leadership, initiative, communication ability, whether it’s verbal or nonverbal and integrity. That’s a big part of it. These guys are going to be working alone with a dog that they’re responsible for, and we need to make sure that these guys have great integrity and that we can trust them. Poaching syndicates will try and infiltrate the workforce. The dog team tends to be like part of a special operations unit. That’s our high value unit so the potential for them to get bribed or something intimidated to their families or whatnot is high and you have to be aware of that all the time, so we kind of do want an extreme level of loyalty. You can go through a hundred handlers and pick the best four and you still going to have issues with those four guys that you couldn’t have predetermined through a selection process. Well, we’ve been very lucky where at least three out of the four handlers have been excellent, and the fourth one has been above average. So obviously that guy who’s above average, he looks not nearly as good as the other guys because they are superb, but at the end of the day he’s still better than average, and just with time they get comfortable and confident, and normally it’s just due to a personality thing.
The biggest challenge is empathy. How do you measure empathy? How do you assess for that? We try to do one of our tests. We call it the ABC test and literally you have three key points, A, B, and C. At A, they walk the dog on the leash over to point A and they pet the dog and it’s just purely physical praise. We just want to see how they interact with the dog without saying anything. Then they go to B and it’s purely verbal praise, and we want to see what they tell the dog, a story, whatever and then C is a combination of physical and verbal praise.
Jay: And it’s just slow. Is it synchronized? Is the guy in harmony with the dog? And it’s obviously very subjective, but you get a good idea of what you see, if the guy’s going to make it or not. So we’ve had guys, they’re running like a four and a half, five minute mile barefoot along the airstrip, super-fit cats. They do it all day long and they’ve passed all the written tests. They speak well and then you give them the leash and they fall apart. They just literally cannot talk to the dog and we’ve dropped them for it. I’m not saying you couldn’t develop that, but in a 12-week course, you have limited time to develop that to make sure that the client gets the right capability at the end of it. So yeah, our challenge is by far the handler. We don’t have an issue with attrition. Most of these countries work and unemployment is through the roof and people are just grateful for a job. Salary wise, $200, $300 a month at the very most is kind of like what they are earning, and then when they get the dog handler position, they tend to get a pay raise, which obviously is a huge incentive for them.
Chris: Royal Canin delivers precise nutritional solutions so your dog can perform at their very best level. To achieve a perfect balance of nutrients for each dog, they rely on an extensive network of canine experts from across the globe, including veterinarians, universities, dog professionals, and their own research development center in France. Royal Canin helps your dogs train and perform at their full potential. To learn more about Royal Canin and the nutritional solutions they have to offer, visit them online at royalcanin.com.
Astute trainers with proper training tools are the key to unleashing your dog’s full potential. For over 30 years, Dogtra has collaborated with industry professionals to create class leading tools for e-collar training, GPS tracking and ball training to support dog owners in developing top notch dogs. Trusted by professional dog trainers, canine officers and hunters, Dogtra enhances your training journey with durable training products equipped with patented, accurate and intuitive control to ensure the best experience. Join us together as we can make every dog exceptional. Learn more online at dogtra.com.
Chris: It’s hard to imagine the extreme conditions these teams work in. It’s also difficult to understand the danger involved in working in these remote areas of Africa. Jay gives us some insight.
Jay: The heat, like anything, depending on where we were. We were in Kenya a few weeks ago. It was 131 Fahrenheit, and there’s only so much you’re going to get out of a dog at those temperatures. We do find areas that are favorable for training in those conditions, but nobody’s moving during the middle of the day. Poachers have hunkered down, everybody’s hunkered down, no one’s moving. Poachers tend to hunt at night-time. So they lay off during the early evening and then very early morning. They will hunt in the dark as well if there’s a full moon so those conditions are all favorable, so that’s how we counter that. When they want to hunt, we want to hunt them. So we’ll go after the poachers when they want to go after the animals.
Depending on where we are on the continent, the more central we are obviously near the equator, humidity becomes an issue. We get high humidity in all the programs but it comes and goes. It’s normal in some of my areas to have a 60% plus humidity level, and that’s really the killer for the dogs is the high humidity levels combined with the high temperatures. High dry heat, we can get more out of the dogs but we counter that by every single training track that we do, the handler takes rectal temperature. We’ve provided them with a weather meter. It takes the air temperature and the humidity reading, and then they write them down in the notebooks. We provide all of that equipment, so that they take a note of it with the time. They run their track. They complete their track, and 15 minutes later they’ll write down the dogs’ working temperature at the end of the track and then what the air temperature and the humidity is. And over a period of time, what you find is the handlers get to know when it’s this temperature, this humidity, my dogs fit. I can do a five kilometre track before I need to rest and give it some water and they get to really intimately understand what the dog’s capabilities are, and the good handlers have got it down to half a degree and they know exactly how far they can push their dog. So the issues that we face, we try and make sure we counter it as effectively as possible.
Depending on which area we are in, the number one killer is a tsetse fly. That is just a large horsefly type insect, and these national parks have been set up in these areas where the tsetse flies are because you can’t take cattle there. So when the land was originally divided up and people decided what’s going to be agriculture and what’s not, the areas that were heavy with tsetse flies tended to become national parks, and the area that didn’t have it became farmland. So today, with that history, we are working in these areas where there is a heavy tsetse fly presence and domesticated animals have a 21 day lifespan in these areas. It’s that dangerous. So we have so many protocols in place to make sure that the dogs stay alive. They have mosquito netting around the kennels. We have tsetse fly targets, situated 2 kilometres around the kennels, kind of like a dartboard and then the kennels in the middle of the dartboard and every ring out there, there’s more tsetse fly targets.
Tsetse flies are attracted to acetone. It’s like a urine type scent, contrast in colours and movement and we just have to make sure that with those tsetse fly targets kinda cover all those areas and we just try and keep them away from the kennels and pull them out and kill them away from the kennel, but we do have to work through them. The dogs are on a prophylactic. It’s not meant for dogs. It’s not a canine prophylactic. There’s nothing out there as a product – but touch wood – we’ve been very fortunate. My business partner in Invictus is on the conservation side. He’s done a lot of research. He’s talked to a lot of different people. I feel like he’s got some really good protocols that he’s put in place for us and made sure that the dogs have a very high survival rate, versus other programs where they’ve lost dogs to the tsetse fly so we’ve been fortunate.
Chris: The tsetse fly is a blood sucking insect, which lives only in Africa that transmits sleeping sickness in humans and a similar disease called Nagana in domestic animals. They kill thousands of people and millions of other animals each year. However, in some circumstances the tsetse fly is the least of your worries.
Jay: You get the lone buffaloes. We call them dagger boys, and it’s just basically a buffalo that’s left his herd and he’s on his own. He’s wise. He’s tough, he survived, he survived for a long time and everybody’s terrified of them. I’m terrified of buffalo at the best of times.
Chris: Black death! That’s a nickname earned by the African Cape Buffalo. They are extremely dangerous, killing over 200 people a year. When angry, it will circle and stalk their prey waiting to tear apart its opponent with its massive thick horns.
Jay: We were doing some night training and we were five meters away from one when he came up and he was just right there, and we were just lucky. He went one way, the opposite way of where we were basically going. He was just as confused as we are when it happened, but it could have ended up a whole different situation. We have got guys that have been nailed by buffaloes, put in hospitals and lost lungs and that kind of stuff. Neighbouring properties and parks and stuff like that. We had a photographer come out from National Geographic one time and they were wanting to take some photos with the dogs, working with the bark. Basically they were too unfit to keep up with us so we couldn’t do it on a real track. So we laid a track along the side of the road so they could sit in the vehicle and take photos out the window, nothing crazy, but it was going to show the dog tracking. The dog was slightly on lower ground and in those situation, they actually put a scout on the roof of the Land Cruiser saying he could just be their eyes and ears because we had the dog, the handler and then Mike, who was the instructor doing the follow-up. So they were moving through the bush with the handler on the roof. Told me, he could see the elephant up ahead and so as we were driving up towards this elephant, I could see it. Got on the radio, told Mike, “elephant 50 meters in front of you and you are heading straight towards him”. This was one of those moments where Mike really like, just his background, his experience was perfect.
Now he measured the wind, felt which way it was going and immediately knew what was going on. He could see the elephant. He felt it was safe. I’m going to track pass the elephant and this elephant is about 15 meters upwind of him and they tracked past it. Crazy. It’s obvious the elephant didn’t react. There was nothing bad that happened but the photographer in the vehicle was in blind panic mode, worried about the dog, even though there were two guys on the ground next to the elephant. That was pretty intense but I think he could have reached out and touched it. That was pretty, pretty hectic.
Every time we go out, something happens. Last time we went to Zambia, Mike was laying a track. He was following a scout up a hill, up an escarpment – it’s a mountainside type thing – and the scout was maybe 10 meters in front and he stepped over a snake, had no idea it was there. It was a puff adder then Mike was following up behind and his foot landed next to the puff adder, and if it was an instant less, it would have nailed him
Chris: The puff adder is known for its wide distribution across Africa and its nasty disposition. It’s responsible for causing the most snakebite fatalities in Africa. Their bites are so strong, it’s been documented that puff adders have even pierced the thick skin of the rhino
Jay: In those areas, you are so remote. You are just so far away from anything that you are not going to get help quick enough. It’s pretty much going to kill you. So we went through doing a follow-up track one day. We went over this low rise, this hill. It was probably, I don’t know, 50 meters long, 10 meters high and couldn’t see over the other side. We eventually got to the top of it. We bump post it over the top. We had a flank up ahead and they hadn’t seen the elephants on the other side of it. It was three elephants literally just standing on the other side of it and they got more of a fright than we did. It doesn’t take much to get it to go the opposite way when they come at you.
I had an elephant charge me in a vehicle from about 300 metres and never had it happen since or before that. The matriarch of this herd, I came over this rise and she made a huge sound and just came running down this hill, straight at us. I was with the handlers, and nobody could believe what she was doing. She just kept coming and I ended up having to move away from her down this hill, which typically is the worst thing you could do. You normally hold your ground and she was so committed, you can tell. There’s certain behaviours that they give when you know that they’re coming for you, and she was 100% committed to killing that vehicle and whatever was inside of it. We had to reverse. She was 10, 15 meters behind us before I managed to get the accelerator and pull off away from her after I turned around.
Yes, just the wildlife factor. One night we went to a water hole and it was our first time doing an overnight trip with the dogs. I was getting the dogs used to sleeping in a tent with the handler, and we had our little one-man mosquito nets and that’s just what we slept in. Just sleeping on the floor. Had a little fire next to us to wake up. Actually, I didn’t wake up. I was getting ready for putting my head down and went to take a leak and took my torch out and just shined right in front of me, and there was about 40 sets of eyes just downwind of us.
The one dog that we had was in heat and there was probably 15 jackals, 20 hyena and it was just crazy. I had never personally seen anything like that in my life. The guys I was with, that’s what they’ve done their entire life and they had never seen anything like that. It’s just such a unique situation and in all my dreams, just seeing them around all these hyenas and stuff, and you got your dog in a tent. It’s not even a dome tent, it’s a mosquito net tent so you can see out. You had all these guys coming up, flocking around the tent in the middle of the night, walking around and just waiting for something to go wrong. Nothing went wrong. They were respectful of people. They stay away from people, but obviously the smell of that blood was just driving them crazy and they wouldn’t leave. Eventually, they did bit it was still a pretty peculiar event for us. So yeah, that kind of stuff, it just happens all the time.
Chris: Africa is inhabited by some dangerous creatures, but some of the most dangerous tend to be humans.
Jay: You’re going after people who want to commercially hunt elephant to supply Thailand with ivory. They need to meet their quotas. They want to make sure that they get the ivory, so it’s absolutely a dangerous job for the scouts. You work the dogs. Our teams in Kenya, they are going up against Somalian pirates. These hunting parties come down from Somalia. They come into Kenya, they are coming into the park. It could be a 20-man team and they are armed with all sorts of automatic weapons. If they ambush scouts, they will execute the scouts. It’s very much a military style situation. Not all the parks are like that obviously. Some other parks and other areas of that park, for example, there’s definitely a bush meat issue and you are going after people with snares and stuff like that, but that doesn’t mean you won’t come across the odd poacher with a weapon.
In Kenya, they tend to get the elephants with bows and arrows, if it’s a Kenyan poacher and it’s all like [unclear;] and they know how to mix all these herbs and reeds and plants. They come up with this really toxic poison that kills an elephant within four minutes. Very powerful poison. You’re coming up against someone like that. It’s low light conditions. You are tracking them. They’re ahead of you and he’s got a bow and arrow or something like that. In my mind, he’s equally as much of a threat to somebody who has an AK-47 and obviously, every poacher we go after, we train the tactics. How do you approach it and how to flank them, and we have all our different pieces that we teach just to make sure as they get nearer the end of the track, the dog becomes less of a kind of resource to catch the poachers and the team takes over the security on them and takes over.
We’ve got a contract coming up in the PRC that is an incredibly hostile area where we were going to. The poachers there – Kenyans, Somalians, Al Shabab, the Military Resistance Army, South Sudanese militia. They have downed helicopters. They have RPGs. It’s a very intense area where we are going, and we do not have a canine capability. Yes, we’re going to be putting the canines in there. Because of the terrain, they lose the track very quickly with the poachers. So the dogs are going to be a huge asset there, but again, it’s going to be a very hostile environment and. Our training packaging is going to be slightly different. It’s going to be a lot more aggressive in the way we approach it, so the guys can defend themselves a little bit better, but it depends where you are. You get to learn your terrain. You get to know who the common enemy is and what that threat is, and obviously there’s different levels that the guys can basically deal with on each different threats.
The poaching issue is very similar to in structure to like a cartel trying to get drugs through a border. So you have different levels of poachers. You have your base poacher who’s trying to feed his family. These are very poor communities around the park. The countries are very poor. There’s not a lot of community help. There’s no electricity, there’s no water and it’s very … especially in times of drought or those kind of bad periods that we’ve had in the last few years, you see any increase in poaching numbers.
Now those poachers are going for bush meat. They are going for small animals in the park. They will set up snares, things like that so they are a priority, but they are not like your next level poacher, which is going to be a commercial poacher who is going to go put a string of snares into a park and he’s basically a butcher and he’s going to get as much out of it as he can. He will probably spend a few days in the park depending on which park it is, and if he has the space, he will camp out and actually start drying the meat while he’s in the park and then take it back into town and try and sell it. If there is a huge demand for it, so he will sell it off very quickly, and then come back in. We found a line of snares. It was 40 snares in one go. We found another one. That was 37 in one go. There were all set and ready to catch. We just got there in time and managed to destroy them.
And then, obviously you get your poachers that are going for, I don’t want to call it, a luxury item but there’s a lot of superstition in Africa, and there’s a lot of witchcraft. So you’ll get poachers that will poison a carcass for vultures to come. One, it kills the vultures because then there’s no bush signal so if we are on patrol looking for vultures in the sky, if we see vultures circling, we’re going to go to investigate. It could be a poaching, it could be a natural death, but we are still going to check it out. The poachers when they eliminate that problem and vultures are endangered now because of that. And what they’ll do is like in, the, the world cup that was in South Africa, the soccer world cup, they had an increase in vulture poaching from a kind of superstitious point of view, if you crushed the brain and the eyes and then you consume it, it apparently people believe that it gives them kind of foresight and they have dreams. And what was happening is people were betting on the games, the soccer games, because they thought they knew the scores was because they had been consuming these vulture brain and eyeballs, and they went and they were betting and it was all around the soccer. So it was pretty crazy to see those numbers pickup like that, so it is a big problem.
Leopards, lions, they will try and get lion teeth. They will take the lion paws. Obviously they will try and skin them and then sell the fur so those are kind of your luxury type poachers, and then then you have your very serious organized crime poachers. You’ll have guys going after rhino, elephant, pangolin. So they going to have a 3, 4 man team go into a park. They’re very professional. They know what they’re doing and they’ve done it for a long time. They get it out of the park and they get it to the middleman who pays them hundreds of what it’s worth and then pushes on from there, and then he will go and sell it.
Rhino horn is on the black market, the most expensive commodity on the planet. Very, very expensive, and most of that is shipped over to Asia. There’s a lot of it that’s going through the ports and airports in Africa and then get it out. The Asian demand is massive. So ivory and rhino horn. Same for Pangolin, rhino horn and the pangolin is crushed down and it’s actually mixed with Viagra by the people who buy it, and then they sell it as a like a aphrodisiac-type substance. The Ivory is just a sign of wealth, and it’s put into large and small candles, hairbrushes, you name it. It’s just trinkets, but it is seen as a sign of wealth, high value items in Asia.
So what we’re doing is we’re trying to just basically be the law enforcement piece on the ground. We support intelligence networks. If they have intelligence that someone’s coming in and they will be in the right place at the right time, or, they will go to villages and do a search whatever it may be, but then obviously outside of that, the next level is going to be government to government, talking about the trade routes and how to eliminate death, and there’s a lot of different programs in place and they’re trying to help that out, but it’s still very early days and that’s a big problem. It’s estimated now that in 10 years’ time the elephant will be extinct just with the current, numbers and the way they’re getting poached.
Chris: Anti-poaching is a demanding and extremely dangerous job, but it doesn’t come without rewards.
Jay: Oh man, like this last trip, we laid a track and it was a 25 kilometer track that Mike and I laid, so start to finish 25 Ks and we had kind of pre-formulated a plan of where we’d want to go using certain waterholes and they’re not part of the strategy so we need to resupplies poachings and hunt because the game is going to go to the water hole, so you can hunt there and target certain animals. So that was kind of like a game plan. But some of those places where we walked through, they are just so beautiful. It’s just incredibly just in this remote, in the middle of nowhere. There’s no roads. Your typical tourist isn’t going to see places like that. So I think the reason we are so lucky. So Mike and I in the evenings we’ll have a beer, a glass of whiskey or something and we always make the same toast and we call it training dogs in Africa. Because training dogs is I think the coolest job in the world. We’re totally fortunate. Our job is our hobby. We’re just lucky that we can do that, but we’re getting to do it in these places and where we were walking through in Kenya, it’s just literally off the beaten track. Nobody’s gone in there and the animals would have been wiped out. Now we’re going back in where people haven’t been for decades, more than that, like 50 years and people haven’t been in some of these places, just the poachers. Poachers have owned it and now we’re coming in there and we’re taking over, and we’re leaving our footprints on the ground. So the poachers know we are there, so if they do come across us, it’s different. Like the roles are reversing.
We went to this one place and there’s just nothing there except for just this rugged, harsh land, and we’re in the middle of it and I know full well that certainly no white person has been there for a very, very long time, and it’s unique for us. It’s just such a nice thing to sit down next to a massive river and you’re cooking your food on an open fire. It’s just very primal and we are getting to do that like I said, in places where people don’t go, and if we do see people there, they just aren’t supposed to be there and we go after them, but it’s a very special situation.
Chris: All of this hard work in Africa is paying off. The successes of these anti-poaching teams is creating a safer environment for these noble animals who otherwise have little defense from humans.
Jay: You know, our teams in Zambia, they’re finding stuff every week. That’s a huge list of what. They’ve probably arrested 30 to 40 people in the last year just with vehicle searches and it’s just searching vehicles, baggage, buses, and finding people there. Inside the park is a different story. In Zimbabwe, our tracking dogs have done some fairly significant tracks. While we were there, we tracked a guy for 17 kilometres right up to his house, where we found two areas where he’d killed animals along the way. So that was a nice piece of evidence and then we found those two animals that he had gutted in the park, and we found him in his house, so he was arrested. So it’s hard to give you the exact numbers of what the dogs are doing, but they are making arrests. They are apprehending poachers. They are having an impact on it.
Just the psychological threat that for example, the dog tracked them through the fence, past all the cows and all that kind of stuff. That’s village there, the poaching incursions from that village has dramatically reduced and it’s the threat of the dog catching them. They just couldn’t believe it had followed them for that long. It has had an impact on the poachers’ kind of mindset, so they’re going to think twice about coming to certain areas but just the vastness of the areas that we work in. Our biggest kennel has four dogs and they’re working in an area that is 22,000 square kilometres. That’s like 10,000 square miles. It’s a huge, huge area and obviously 4 dogs can’t police that. Very under-resourced, undermanned, but the dogs are highly effective.
Chris: Africa is known to be the home of the world’s most majestic wildlife. Endangered animals are killed so that a single body part like tusks, pelts or bones can be sold illegally for massive amounts of money. Rhinoceros horn is so valuable that it often sells for $30,000 per pound. Deterring this illegal poaching is a massive undertaking and dog teams are just one of the ways animals are getting help. Procuring, training and maintaining these anti-poaching teams is a daunting task. These fearless teams work so closely with the animals they protect that they gains strength in their unity. A life of dogs is brought to you through the support of Highland canine training, offering professional dog training solutions and premier canine education. Learn more at www.highlandcanine.com
Jason: Thanks again for tuning into this episode of A Life of Dogs. If you haven’t checked out our first two episodes, be sure to get caught up on iTunes, Google Play, Sound Cloud, or on our website at alifeofdogs.com. Also be sure to check us out on Facebook and Instagram for updates on our upcoming episodes. Don’t forget to leave us a review or send us your feedback on the podcast.