Editor's note: This story was updated following publication to clarify the specific location of the hound program and the initial role of the Southern African Wildlife College.
Two years ago, Joe Braman was living a regular family life with his wife and two daughters on his remote ranch in southern Texas. A part time cop, businessman, and cowboy, he’d never given a thought to the rhino poaching crisis in South Africa. But in May 2018, Braman and his free-running hounds were sprinting across the acacia plains close to Kruger National Park chasing armed rhino poachers.
To date since then, according to authorities, his hounds have helped law enforcement teams in the greater Kruger region catch an unprecedented 145 poachers and confiscate 53 guns, boosting the overall rate of successful arrests and providing a new strategy to fight poaching in Africa.
“Just think about it,” Braman says. “If you spun a globe and threw a dart and it stuck, what’s the odds you’ll find a low-key guy in southern Texas’s coastal bend gettin’ picked to stop the extinction of a species?”
Some 8,000 rhinos, whose horns are smuggled to Asia for unfounded medicinal uses, were poached in South Africa from 2008 to 2018, with more than half killed in Kruger, the country’s signature national park, and the surrounding private reserves. There are some 20,000 white rhinos and just over 5,000 critically endangered black rhinos in the wild across Africa. South Africa is home to about 80 percent of the world’s last remaining rhinos.
The Texan connection started early in 2017, when Theresa Sowry, CEO of the Southern African Wildlife College—a wildlife management and training facility based near Kruger—visited Braman in Refugio, Texas, to discuss his experience with hounds and watch them in action. She’d heard about a unique bloodline of aggressive free-running pack dogs—black-and-tan hounds—used in Texas law enforcement to track down escaping prison inmates.
Previously, South African National Parks, the agency that oversees Kruger, had asked the college to test a pack dog program as a new tool for rangers during a time of dire rhino losses.
The anti-poaching teams used individual dogs (bloodhounds and Malinois) on leads to track humans. But often the man-dog pairs were unable to keep up with fleeing poachers. Gun fights between rangers and poachers were common, rhinos were dying, and arrests were few.
“Kruger was very keen to test free-running dogs,” Sowry says, adding that the college had been tasked with proving the concept of the pack dog program, but with barely any money or resources. “Building a pack dog team is a massive undertaking,” she explains. “You need the right genetics, the right training, and, most importantly, the right mind-set to bring it all together.” Nobody was up to it before the Texans got involved, she says.
To bite or not to bite
As the beneficiary of a lucrative working ranch, Joe Braman might have deemed it unnecessary to become a cop. But he felt a calling to law enforcement—and he’s always been drawn to the chase.
“I grew up runnin’ pack hounds with my father,” he says. “We would chase bobcats and racoons, training 15 or 18 dogs at time to follow the scent of animals.” Their dogs, broadly called American coonhounds because of their ability to track down raccoons, came in various breeds: black-and-tan, blue tick, red tick. After becoming a deputy game warden for Texas Parks and Wildlife, Braman joined the Houston Police Academy in 2001 and has been working for the sheriff's office in Refugio and Victoria counties ever since. He also has a master chef degree from culinary school and says he takes his interests to the extreme. “Everything I do, I do it to the fullest of my capability. I push myself to be the best.”
The same goes for his dogs. On Braman’s ranch, Sowry and her colleagues were impressed by a demonstration of 10 of them trailing a human decoy in the brush. The excited hounds would split up and compete, yipping and howling, to be the first to pick up the scent. They would then work as a team to stay on scent while deputies on horses followed quickly behind. On contact with the decoy, the hounds would surround him, baying and barking as the terrified escapee shinnied up the nearest tree.
“We had no idea if free-running dogs would work for anti-poaching purposes in Africa,” says Ivan Carter, whose conservation foundation, the Ivan Carter Wildlife Conservation Alliance, put Braman in contact with Sowry and helped finance the project. “The team from the college was excited by what they saw in Texas. We hoped Joe would be able to help.”
Shortly after the demonstration, Braman accepted an invitation from the college to travel to Kruger to assess its K9 unit. “I was just gonna go over and do an evaluation and help them train a few dogs,” he says. But things didn’t go as expected.
Johan Van Straaten, who grew up with dogs on a farm in South Africa’s Karoo region, is the unit’s lead trainer. At the time, he was experimenting with training their local dogs to run as a team. But, he says, “I had never trained my dogs to bite or attack.”
Braman believed that aggression was an essential trait in the free-running hounds. “It’s all about intimidation!” he says. “If a dog starts attacking you, the first thing you’re gonna do is throw the gun and climb a tree.” That leaves time “to get in and take a poacher into custody.”
Teaching a hound to bite a person and hold them at bay “is one of the hardest things in the world,” Braman says. You have to separate new puppies from their mother for short periods and withhold food, which “makes them mad at you. And you let ’em know it’s ok to bite and bark.” In the field, the dogs learn to follow an individual human scent trail, and then to nip and bite while on the run. “We teach them to stay with that person,” and if they don’t, they get their “behind kicked.”
Van Staaten refers to the Texan style of training as old school. “They’re really hard on their dogs,” he says. “They work with whips. Shouting at dogs—shocking them if they don't do the right thing.” But, he says, he prefers a more natural approach to training—letting the dogs gravitate to roles they’re good at. “They have to want to work,” he adds.
Braman says that after a few weeks in South Africa, he grew frustrated with the slow progress they were making with the local dogs. “They were pushin’ water up a hill,” he says. “Their hearts were in the right spot, but they just don’t do things the way we do in Texas.”
One day during training, Van Straaten showed Braman a video of a paralyzed rhino whose horn had been axed off that day by poachers. “He was aspirating on his own blood!” Braman remembers. “I don’t think I have ever seen anything as horrific.” He says he watched the video over and over again. And every time, he became more angry.
“I believe in reaction,” he says. “You do something—that means I’m gonna do something twice as bad to get you back. Some of these people are recklessly killing two or three rhino a night. That’s a war. And all is fair in war.”
He told the South Africans: “‘I need to go home and train y'all some dogs!’”
Aggressive by nature
Zeke Ortiz spent 30 years as a dog trainer for the Texan prison system, working with free-running hounds to track felons all over the state. He was just going into retirement in Refugio county when Braman arrived back from Africa and asked him if he’d be interested in partnering on a program to train free-running hounds for Africa.
So Ortiz brought a hundred dogs, many of them donated by the state, to Braman’s property. “The genetics go back over a century of prison training,” Ortiz explains. “They’ve been bred to have an aggressive nature.”
The two men dedicated months to training the dogs—a blend of black-and-tans, blue ticks, and red ticks. They focused on developing the three key traits that make a good, free-running pack hound: scent-tracking ability, baying ability, and aggressiveness.
Van Straaten flew to Texas, hoping to learn new training techniques and monitor their progress. When he watched a trial run of the hounds, he was shocked to see them jumping and biting and tearing into a human decoy. “After taking off the tackle suit, the man was full of bruises,” he says. “I called Theresa and said, ‘Do we really want to go this way? We are going to kill people!’”
Braman, after initial reluctance, agreed to train a new set of dogs to be less aggressive. “I was trainin’ dogs to be mean. And I mean mean, dude! I wanted to send a message to the poachers. But he admitted: “I was allowing the emotion of the [rhino] video to dictate how we trained the dogs,” he says. “We pulled back a bit.”
He and Ortiz spent another two months honing the skills of 20 of their best hounds, then shipped them to South Africa.
Poachers on the run
Braman had hardly arrived back at the Southern African Wildlife College when the first call came from the field. Poachers had just killed a rhino—and they were on the run.
The Texan dogs were rushed into helicopters. Braman admits to being a little nervous: “My dogs had never seen an elephant before—never seen a lion. Never been in a helicopter.”
On the ground, the excited hounds immediately picked up the scent trail. Fitted with GPS collars, they bolted across the golden plains past herds of impala and wildebeest, darting through thickets and over termite mounds. After they’d covered 10 miles, Braman got the call from one of the helicopters: The pack had made contact with four poachers.
“The poachers were striking them with sticks!” Braman says. “In my mind, I’m still in Texas. And I’m thinkin’, I hope they bite ’em! But the dogs didn’t. They just surrounded them: bark bark bark! We arrived, and my dogs had a guy under a tree. And we took [the poachers] into custody. Everyone was in disbelief.”
The next day, the team caught three poachers, and the day after that, another two. Then more and more on multiple deployments. “To have the hounds catch numerous groups of poachers right out of the gate—it was such a massive affirmation of us being on the right track,” Ivan Carter says.
Ten-fold increase in apprehensions
Without dogs, according to the college, enforcement teams on average were nabbing only 3 to 5 percent of known poachers, which Sowry says is the generally accepted average. With the new K9 unit, the rate has increased to 54 percent—a 10-fold improvement.
Sowry is quick to share credit for the success. From intelligence provided by local people to individual lead dogs, from helicopter operators to law enforcement rangers on the ground—“everything plays a role, nothing can stand alone,” she says. “It’s a massive team work.”
The human support teams also provide safety for the dogs. Helicopters are quick to drive off dangerous predators, and armed men are at hand should there be a gun fight. “It’s a high-risk job for human and dog,” Van Staaten says. “But with training and with standard operating procedures, we try try to minimize the risk.”
It wasn’t long before the Texan hounds in South Africa had puppies of their own. Precious Malapane helps look after them. “We are training really confident dogs who are not afraid to approach a poacher on their own,” she says as bronze, long-eared puppies nip at her legs. According to Carter, these puppies may one day be dispatched to other areas of Africa that have a need for free-running hounds to catch wildlife poachers.
Back in Texas, Joe Braman has a framed certificate from the U.S. House of Representatives commending him on his efforts in Kruger. He and Ortiz, inspired by their success in Africa, are continuing the hound program in Texas, training pack dogs for law enforcement and to counter human trafficking across the state.
And they’re having success running down suspects with dogs that don’t bite. “I learned a lot in Africa,” he says. “When I got there, I just wanted control. I had to learn patience. I had to collaborate. And it made me a better person.”
Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at nationalgeographic.org. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.