In Africa, Tracker Dogs Join War Against Elephant Poachers

It's all hands (and paws) on deck when it comes to the poaching crisis in Africa.

MANYARA RANCH, Tanzania—On October 14, tracker dogs led game scouts to a group of armed poachers who were on the run after shooting and killing a well-known old elephant bull just outside Tarangire National Park. This was the latest in a string of successes by Tanzania's tracker dogs, which are proving to be an effective weapon in the bloody war on elephant poaching in East Africa.

"Apart from their incredible tracking abilities, dogs are wonderful to work with because they don't have any political agenda—they can't be compromised," said Damian Bell, director of Big Life Tanzania, the conservation organization that manages the Big Life Tracker Dog Unit.

"Our dogs have tracked elephant poachers for up to eight hours at a time or more, through extreme conditions—heat, rain, wetlands, mountains—and still turned up results," he said. "They love their handlers, and they do a job until the job is done."

The Big Life Foundation first began using dogs for anti-poaching efforts in 2011, after adopting four Alsatians (German shepherds) from kennels in the Netherlands and honing their skills with the help of Canine Specialist Services International, a dog training facility based in northern Tanzania.

Alsatians were picked over bloodhounds as they have more stamina and can better handle the African heat.

Two of the dogs, Max and Jazz, were stationed in southern Kenya. The other two, Rocky and Jerry, were sent to Tanzania to help out in the Amboseli/Kilimanjaro ecosystem, important elephant habitat that straddles the two countries.

Since their arrival, Rocky and Jerry have helped with countless anti-poaching operations, leading to numerous arrests. In fact, the dog teams have become so popular that Tanzania National Parks (TANAPA), the Wildlife Division (a separate agency), the police, and even the military have requested their assistance.

Bell calls Rocky and Jerry "conservation rock stars." They've served in successful joint operations in the Enduimet Wildlife Management Area (WMA), Burunge WMA, Manyara Ranch, Manyara National Park, Tarangire National Park, Arusha National Park, Kilimanjaro National Park, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, and other cross-border areas.

Canine sleuths aren't limited to the plains of East Africa, either. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, bloodhounds are assisting in the fight against poaching in forested Virunga National Park, where the world's last remaining mountain gorillas live.

In South Africa, Weimaraner and Malinois dogs are helping to find wounded animals and track poachers on foot through the reserves around Kruger National Park.

Anatolian shepherd dogs are also widely used in Africa to mitigate human-wildlife conflict on farms, where the instinctively protective dogs defend livestock from predators.

An Old Bull Killed

It was early in the morning when rangers found the dead elephant, deep in the forested Lesimingori Mountains, just north of Tarangire National Park in Tanzania.

Strangely, the animal's tusks were still in place when the authorities arrived on the scene in the morning. It appeared that the poachers—startled by fast-acting community members and rangers—had abandoned the carcass before they had time to remove his colossal incisors and make their escape.

Rangers soon identified the bull. He was known by researchers as T19, an old elephant from the area, easily recognizable from his hulking tusks, which measured five feet seven inches (1.7 meters) and weighed more than 130 pounds (60 kilograms).

T19 was a Tarangire resident who migrated regularly into Lake Manyara National Park and into Manyara Ranch and other community lands, where protection for elephants is sometimes weaker.

He died, from a single bullet to the head, after wandering into the rolling foothills of the Lesimingori.

"For other anti-poaching operations, this is often the end of the story," Bell said. "Criminals escaped. Scene investigated. Report written and filed away. But that's not how it went down this time."

Dogs on a Mission

This time, Rocky and the Big Life Foundation Tracker Dog Unit were called in to pursue the criminals on foot.

Rocky arrived with his handlers, and soon he was pacing and sniffing up and down beside the dead elephant, about to explode with excitement. He quickly picked up the human scents from footprints near the carcass. It seemed that multiple people had been at the crime scene the night before. Now the dogs were on their dusty trail.

The hunters had become the hunted.

"Usually, the dogs pick up the scent of suspected poachers in the air around the footprints," explained Jeremy Swanson, head of development at the Honeyguide Foundation, who helps to manage the dogs. "Sometimes they'll get the original scent from materials such as blankets and other evidence left behind at a poachers' camp.

"One of the dogs will then begin to follow the trail of that scent until it can no longer be followed. Each dog can work for hours, depending on the conditions."

Rocky led the chase through the foothills and scrublands of the Lesimingori, frantically tugging his handler at the end of the lead. But after five hours of relentless progress, the heat wore even him down, and his protégé, Rosdus, took over.

Rosdus is a new dog on the team—fresh from extensive training at Canine Specialist Services International, at Usa River.

"Rocky seems to be setting the example for the newer dogs in the field," Bell said. "Almost training them up to help lead the unit."

Rosdus didn't disappoint his mentor. He took the team all the way to the main highway, where the unit followed a hot trail through the town and to a particular home.

There, a man admitted that poachers had come to the house in the middle of the night, urgently asking to have their cell phones charged. After further interrogation, he provided information that led directly to the capture of two suspects.

The two men later offered further information, leading to the arrest of five additional suspects from a village in Randilen Wildlife Management Area, just outside Tarangire National Park. A large elephant tusk and a tail were uncovered at the time of the arrest.

Six of the suspects have been charged and are now in custody in Arusha, without bail.

"The operation shows how a number of committed groups, such as TANAPA, NGOs, and communities, can work together and combine their expertise to produce results," Bell said.

As for our canine heroes Rocky and Rosdus and the rest of the team, Bell added, "You can bet you haven't heard the last of them!"

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