Last year I got a call asking if I would consider a dog of absolutely no known heritage for anti-poaching. My first reaction was reluctance as, while we would much prefer to use shelter dogs for ALL the work we do, it is often not so straightforward. When dealing with an unknown quantity, the chances of having the extremely high levels of drive and focus seem very low, and the thought of "rejecting" a dog as a working prospect once you have got to know them seems to much to bear. The person on the other end of the phone was quite adamant that this dog just "had it", and so Rhino came from CLAW (Community Led Animal Welfare) to join the Green Dogs team.
First off, he was named Rhino as this was the project he was destined for, and it just stuck. It actually suits him as he approaches life like a Rhino in a flat out charge. No beating about the bush, Rhino was (and still is) a total hooligan. He adores everyone and likes to show this in as physical a way as is possible. With the working dogs, we neither expect nor encourage "pet manners" as they tend to look too much to the handler for guidance in what to do, and we prefer quite the opposite in the bush. If we knew where the poachers had gone, we would not need the dog in the first place. Self-reliance (and an assumption that their handler is a lovable idiot) is essential in dogs working in the bush.
After a short period of wavering about whether or not Rhino would in fact make the grade, I came to the resounding conclusion that he would. After one breakthrough training session, he just suddenly "got" the game of finding whoever was hiding from him. He is a super little dog with a heart of gold and dewclaws like meat hooks.
The training is, quite literally, all fun and games, but the goal remains serious. Rhinos are being poached at an alarming rate and it is time for Rhino to go to work. He has been called out in training to work real problems with poaching incidents, and soon will be moving on to a permanent post working daily in anti-poaching. We will miss having Rhino The Relentless causing havoc, but will be following up on him regularly and have every faith in him that he will every game of hide and seek he plays with poachers. They might be able to run, but there will be no hiding.
Last week we were in Cape Town to take Sherlock to Cheetah Outreach to start his new life as an ambassador for conservation dogs. It is always heartbreaking to let a dog go to their new home, but he is going to have a wonderful life there and do lots of important work. Conservation dogs are a wonderfully non-invasive survey technique and he will be helping people to learn about how unintrusive wildlife research can be. The team there are wonderful and Sherlock is going to have a fantastic life there, but we will miss his sunny greetings and heartfelt assumption that everyone he meets is a friend.
He even came to the Cheetah Outreach Gala Dinner to meet his adoring public. Rather scary stuff for a dog from the bush to be a room full of noisy people, but he handled it like a champ!
Last week saw Rox and Faust working in the Kruger National Park looking for Pepperbark Trees (Warburgia salutaris) in the far Eastern reaches of the Soutpansberg. It is under threat due to unsustainable harvesting for the traditional medicine markets, and the numbers are dwindling.
Working on plants was a first for us and is certainly a challenge, but one that Faust rose to in predictably good fashion. Having the experience of working tricky targets with no easy source of the scent, he did very well at piecing together the smells he picked up in the field. The smell of a small tree in a bag is quite different from the huge cloud of scent coming from a grove of tall trees.
The terrain was very hilly, steep and with rocky footing, so rewards were difficult to deliver, but thankfully Faust is happy to even just work to be allowed to hold his ball. Playing tugger on those slopes would have been dangerous to say the least! We were plagued by pepper ticks, despite trying all manner of repellents, and we were relieved to get rid of them when we got home. Watch this space for the next chapter in the Pepper Bark saga!
There are a many different types of snare set in the bush, ranging from thick cable snares set for catching Buffalo, to smaller wire snares set for antelope. The wide variety of snare types meant we the dogs had to learn them all.
As well as the myriad metal snares set for mammals, we also found many different types of snares set for birds of different sizes. It is a really tough situation when this sort of poaching previously would have been subsistence poaching and at a sustainable level. With the swelling human population and the need for protein, more and more snares are being put out and it becomes more concerning that the bird populations can sustain the off-take. What is the effect of this on their natural predators?
This post is more a personal observation than reporting of news. I will post more on the actual work later on. We work with our dogs day in and day out, and sometimes it becomes all too easy to take for granted just how much they give us. As well as being fabulous companions, the trust they show in us is incredible and the bond you have with a dog that you are working in difficult conditions, would require someone far more eloquent than I am to describe.
While working in South Luangwa, we were often in areas where it was hard to see too far ahead of us, and with Faust working out in front and going wide, he quite literally stumbled into herds of elephants on a few occasions. He paid no attention to them whatsoever though and seemed to work on the philosophy that if I had sent him that way, it must be OK. We obviously tried to avoid this as far as possible, but as anyone who has walked in the bush will know, elephants can disappear into the bush very easily. I will be honest, it was those times in particular when I was very glad of his solid recall!
One incident that stands out in my mind, and I think will be permanently etched there, is being charged by a Hippo. We had moved areas already to get out of the way of a breeding herd of Elephants (that I had already sent Faust into - sorry Faust!) and were heading across to search for snares in another likely location along the Luangwa River, when there was suddenly a call of "Hippo!" followed by a very panicked "RUN!" from one of the armed guards. Seeing the armed guard running and shouting "RUN FASTER" over his shoulder, we ran after him. I hadn't even seen the Hippo. I had called Faust back at the first call of Hippo and he came, but despite the panic and danger, he did not even consider getting out of the way. He stayed right by my side, between me and the Hippo the whole time. The Hippo pulled up and after we had shaken off the hysteria, Faust was back to work.
While I am talking here about examples with Faust, it is really a thought about all working dogs, and their seemingly endless capacity to give of themselves. They are part of my day to day life, my home and my work, so it is easy to take them for granted sometimes. This post is really just an acknowledgement of how amazing these animals are and how they help us so much, in so many ways. Even people who don't live and breathe working dogs in the same way I do, think about the security you get from detection dogs checking transport and venues for explosives, about how much that service dog you see in the street helps its handler. "Man's best friend" is such a cliche, but I remember being told at school that cliches are only cliches because they are true. I feel truly blessed to having such a loving and loyal workforce in our team.
It has been a while since the last time we wrote on our blog, but we did not sit still. In the mean time we were busy organising the projects for this working season and putting the dogs back into training after they had some time off during the hot summer months.
In 2,5 weeks we will be going to South Luangwa National Park in Zambia with one of our conservation detection dogs to search for snares. Snaring is major problem in a lot of wildlife areas in Africa and because the method is very non-selective it leaves a huge print on animal populations. Most of the snares are being put out on the boundaries between wildlife reserves and community areas. Snares are typically places around waterholes and in riverine vegetation. The main reason for snaring is meat and the poachers are interested in game species. However, other animals that happen to go and drink at a waterhole also become victim and get trapped in snares, where a lot of them suffer a horrible death. With the amount of snares picked up by anti-poaching patrols in certain areas, this could have a large effect on certain animal species. Think about animals like Wild Dogs, who are Endangered, these animals are also getting caught in snares and this will have a definite impact on their population numbers and survival.
We will be surveying South Luangwa National Park for 4 weeks, where we will be working together with The South Luangwa Conservation Society, The Zambian Carnivore Programme and Working Dogs for Conservation. Working Dogs for Conservation will bring two of their conservation detection dogs to Zambia, so we can increase the area surveyed and remove as many snares as we can.
At the moment, we are training both Gala and Faust on the detection of snares and so far they are doing a great job. The scent picture of snares is complicated, because the snares are made of different kinds of wire and the wire is being handled by different people. When the wire is being handled it reacts with the eccrine sweat glands on the poachers' hands. This is what the dogs smell and what they will look for. It is a challenging project, but are very confident in our dogs and are convinced that they again will do an outstanding job in Zambia to combat the fight against poaching!
After a very relaxing and hot holiday over Christmas and New Year, we are looking forward to a new year full of excitement and opportunities!
We will be working hard this year to assist more farmers in this area and other areas in South Africa, that farm in carnivore country, with keeping their livestock safe and to offer them solutions to predation issues. Over the last years, the livestock guardian dogs have proven that they can make a difference and can bring stock losses due to predation down to zero. At the same time, we will be protecting Lions, Cheetahs, Leopards etc. from illegal persecution.
The Conservation Detection Dogs had a break over the Holidays as well. We reached temperatures of 42 degrees Celcius at 10 o'clock in the morning, which made it impossible for the dogs to work. Slowly we will get them back in training and get them ready for our winter and working season!
We will be working with the Endangered Wildlife Trust (www.ewt.org.za) and the International Rhino Foundation (www.rhinos-irf.org) on an anti-poaching project in Zimbabwe. We will be training a tracking dog that will be working in three different conservancies to track down poachers. For more information about the Rhinon situation in Zimbabwe follow this link: http://www.rhinos.org/zimbabwe-lowveld-rhino-program
Furthermore, we will be working with Working Dogs for Conservation (www.workingdogsforconservation.org) on a snare detection project in Southern Africa. Last year, we successfully worked together with Working Dogs for Conservation on the Zambia project where our dogs worked on the detection of Cheetah and Wild Dog scats.
However, most of our wintertime we will be spending surveying the Greater Mapungubwe Transfrontier Conservation Area (GMTFCA) for Large Carnivore scats. We will be working with Faust and Gala to detect Lion, Leopard, Cheetah and Wild Dog scats in parts of Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa. The large carnivores in this area are under stress and threatened by illegal persecution and the continuous issuing of hunting permits. With this survey we will get a great idea of numbers and distribution of these animals and we will collect scientific evidence to support and implement protective measures.
If you would like to sponsor or support us on one of these projects - please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Falco - the newest member of the Green Dogs Team also has a very excited and important year ahead. He is now 6 months and has turned into a big boy. His hair changed from black to blond and to black again. His legs still seem a bit tall for his body and ears a bit big for the size of his head, but he is gorgeous and his energy level goes through the roof! We will keep you updated on his carreer as a Conservation Detection Dog.
We wish everyone a wonderful 2013 with lots of love, luck and unforgetable moments and we hope for your support also in the new year!
We chose one of Thandis puppies to retain for future breeding and here she is! She has been very generously sponsored by Rossack Stud in Mpumalanga, who chose her name. She is named after the Norse Goddess of Fertility and we hope this bodes well for her future.
She is from a very successful working bloodline and is looking great herself so far too. We are very happy with our choice in keeping her and will keep you posted with her progress. Many thanks to Rossack Stud!
Getting hot, Faust checks back in with Rox for a drink of water.
While we get many call-outs to carnivores on farmland, this week saw something new. I was not sure I was hearing right when I heard that there was apparantly a Lion at the Post Office in Alldays, the nearest small town. A Lion right in town? Stranger things have happened. There were no obvious signs of a Lion, and we began to wonder if the Lion was not in fact just a large domestic dog. As strange as it sounds, it would not be unusual for a Lion report to turn out to be a big dog. To make sure we took Faust into the are this morning for a look for Lion scat.
He showed us a Leopard Scent marking tree, and we saw some fresh Jackal scat that was almost completely removed by dung beetles despite being fresh enough to still be wet, but no sign of a Lion.
Faust covers an area closely
Excitement built at one stage as Faust body language changed and he worked and area very closely and excitedly for some time, but could not seem to pinpoint anything. In our experience this is often the result of dung beetles that have been there before us. The smell is still there in the area, but it is dispersed and there is no single scent source for the dog to pinpoint, and nothing visible or tangible for the handler to confirm that the dog is right. Knowing already that there was a Leopard in the area, it could have been a Leopard scat that was dispersed by dung beetles..... or maybe it was the Lion? Faust is trained on both species so without an actual sample we cannot tell.
For now we will wait and see if there are any more sightings of the Post Office Lion and take it from there. If the animal seen really is a Lion, we hope that she has moved back north into normal Lion range and stays out of town and out of trouble.
This week we did another tracking training with the future anti-poaching puppies! They did so well and most importantly, they had a great time. We laid out a 5m track on the lawn with footsteps adjacent to one another to make it easier for them to follow at this stage. On top of the tracks we put a little bit of dog pellets to keep them motivated and so everytime when they found food they got the smell of fresh tracks. At the end of the track, we placed a handful of food as being the jackpot and on top of that they got lots of love and playtime!