(EnviroNews World News) — Kruger National Park, South Africa — Between 2008 and 2018, poachers killed about 4,000 rhinos in South Africa’s Kruger National Park and its surrounding private reserves. These thugs typically take only the horn to sell for unfounded medicinal use in Asia. They oftentimes leave the still-living rhinos to die — some choking on their own blood while the outlaws make their getaway.
In years past, Kruger used man-dog pairs to track the poachers, but the teams were too slow, failing to catch the brazen bandits because the dogs had to remain on a leash. South African National Parks, which oversees Kruger, knew it needed a different approach with the rhino population dwindling toward extinction. They asked the Southern African Wildlife College (SAWC) to look into pack dog programs.
“Building a pack dog team is a massive undertaking,” Theresa Sowry, CEO of SAWC, told National Geographic in an interview. “You need the right genetics, the right training, and, most importantly, the right mindset to bring it all together.” Kruger wanted to test free-running pack dogs but didn’t have the resources to allocate to the project.
That changed in 2017 when Ivan Carter, Founder of the Ivan Carter Wildlife Conservation Alliance, stepped in to help finance the project. “We had no idea if free-running dogs would work for anti-poaching purposes in Africa.” So, Carter introduced Sowry to Texan and dog breeder Joe Braman in an effort to find out.
Braman, a rancher and law enforcement officer, grew up breeding free-running American coonhounds and training them to hunt in packs with his father. Sowry visited Braman in Texas to see the dogs in action.
Braman demonstrated the capability of his pack hounds by using a person in a tackle suit as the target. The pack split up and competed with each other, scrambling to be the first to find the target’s scent. Once they picked up the smell, the pack chased the person, who went up a tree, where he was then surrounded. Sowry was suitably impressed and invited Braman to South Africa.
“I was just going to go over and do an evaluation and help them train a few dogs,” he remembers. But it turned into a lot more than that.
Implementing the program wasn’t all smooth sailing though. Braman met Kruger’s Lead Dog Trainer Johan Van Staaten, who had a different, gentler philosophy on how a canine should be handled all together. But Braman still believed aggressive dogs were the key to solving the poacher problem.
“It’s all about intimidation,” Braman said at the time. “If a dog starts attacking you, the first thing you’re going to do is throw the gun and climb a tree.”
Van Staaten wasn’t comfortable with Braman’s training techniques or results though. He had never trained his dogs to attack, and believes in a more natural training technique that allows the animal to find what it likes to do and is suited for.
“They’re really hard on their dogs. They work with whips. Shouting at dogs — shocking them if they don’t do the right thing,” said Van Staaten. “[The dogs] have to want to work.”
After watching a video of a rhino aspirating on its own blood, Braman decided the South African training process was too slow. He went back to Texas to train dogs. When Van Staaten joined him, he found aggressive dogs that were biting the human decoy so hard it was leaving bruises under the protective outfit. Van Staaten called Sowry and told her what was going on. “‘Do we really want to go this way?” he asked. “We are going to kill people!” After some discussion, Braman agreed the training might be too intense.
“I was training dogs to be mean. And I mean ‘mean,’ dude! I wanted to send a message to the poachers… I was allowing the emotion of the [rhino] video to dictate how we trained the dogs,” Braman admitted. “We pulled back a bit.” He spent two more months working with the dogs and then sent them to South Africa, and the rest is history.
So far, the dogs that Braman trained in Texas have helped apprehend 54 percent of the known poachers in Kruger — a marked improvement from the three to five percent of their standard K-9 units. Through September 2019, the dogs had helped capture 145 poachers and 53 guns.
Men and dogs work as a team with helicopters protecting the dogs from predators and armed men protecting the dogs from gunfire. “It’s a high-risk job for human and dog,” Van Staaten told NatGeo. “But with training and with standard operating procedures, we try to minimize the risk.”
South Africa and the rhinos aren’t the only beneficiaries of the new dog training techniques either. Braman is now teaching man’s best friend to combat human trafficking in the U.S. and successfully using animals that don’t bite.
“I learned a lot in Africa,” he said. “When I got there, I just wanted control. I had to learn patience. I had to collaborate. And it made me a better person.”
According to National Geographic, there are about 20,000 southern white rhinos (Ceratotherium simum) left in the wild and just over 5,000 black rhinos (Diceros bicornis). South Africa has approximately 80 percent of the wild rhino population within its borders. According to the World Wildlife Federation (WWF), western black rhinos (Diceros bicornis longipes) have recently gone extinct, while only three northern white rhinos (Ceratotherium simum cottoni) are left – all of which are females leaving no possibility of a natural breeding. All three live in Kenya, where they are kept under 24-hour guard.