An ingenious South African program to protect endangered species is showing impressive progress. Dogs are trained from birth to join a special K9 response unit that protects wildlife from poachers. While the pups may be all from different breeds, they share a common mission; and they so far have saved 45 rhinos from illegal hunters.
Johan van Straaten, from the Southern African Wildlife College in Greater Kruger National Park, South Africa, is the man in charge of training the pups for the K9 unit. Van Straaten says the off-leash dog project became operational in February 2018.
According to van Straaten, the locations where the Southern African Wildlife College K9s operate show a success rate of around 68 percent as opposed to between 3 and 5 percent without canine help. However, this particular project could prove vital in the protection of wildlife in the country.
“The game-changer has been the free tracking dogs who are able to track at speeds much faster than a human can, in terrain where the best human trackers would lose spoor,” he shared.
The K9 special unit begins training the dogs as puppies, and their breeds vary from bloodhounds to beagles. “They begin training from birth and are socialized from a very young age,” he added. “They learn how to track, bay at a person in a tree, and follow basic obedience.”
While some pups may be ready to start work at a younger age, the trainers ensure they undergo a rigorous process. “At six months we put all that training together more formally—they do have the necessary skill set to do the work at a younger age but are not mature enough to handle all the pressures of real operations,” van Straaten said. “Depending on a number of factors, dogs become operational at around 18 months old.”
Sean Viljoen, a photographer from Cape Town, South Africa, has captured and shared some remarkable photos of the dogs in action at the Greater Kruger National Park. According to Viljoen, the K9 initiative is vital for the “survival of southern Africa’s rich biodiversity and its wildlife including its rhino, which have been severely impacted by wildlife crime. South Africa holds nearly 80 percent of the world’s rhino,” he explained, according to The Daily Mail.
The WWF has classed the African rhinos as “critically endangered,” with only around 5,200 of them still alive in the wild. On its website, the WWF explained that rhinos need protection, as they play a “crucial role in their environment.” Efforts towards their conservation are for the good of the African ecosystem and for the people who live there. “By helping protect the rhino, we’re helping protect its environment for the benefit of both people and wildlife for generations to come,” they wrote.
Despite how few rhinos remain, sadly, it’s humans who are sending these beautiful creatures towards extinction. “Over the past decade, over 8,000 rhinos have been lost to poaching, making it the country hardest hit by this poaching onslaught,” Viljoen added.