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Anti-poaching dogs of the Chyulu Hills: when domestic animals work in wildlife conservation

In all my travels across Africa, I have never encountered elephants with tusks as long and as heavy as those in southern Kenya. In many parts of Africa, large-tusked elephants have all but vanished, eliminated by the reversal of natural selection through human activity. Poaching and trophy hunting have systematically removed elephants with the biggest tusks leaving small-tusked elephants to dominate the gene pool. The same goes for lions with the biggest manes, big leopards and other species targeted by the wildlife trade. Today, large-tusked elephants are heavily protected but the threat of international organised poaching syndicates still exists. The elephants with tusks so long, they graze the ground, are continuously monitored to protect them from the threat of poaching and in some cases retaliation as a result of crop raiding.

The mafia-like poaching gangs operating across the continent are highly organised and heavily armed. The illegal trade of wild fauna and flora is estimated to reach a turnover of several billions of US dollars this year alone. What makes Africa’s ivory poachers so successful is that organised crime syndicates controlling the trade are rich to begin with. They arm local poachers with sophisticated weapons and they run secret supply and smuggling networks. These syndicates recruit people in poor areas who have few alternatives to make a decent living and the syndicates offer them high salaries, making it difficult to refuse. The hired poachers are increasingly daring, going after animals in national parks, in private conservation areas, and even in extreme cases, in zoos and museums. With deep pockets and a “nothing to lose attitude”, these syndicates are successfully decimating wild populations of species that are endangered and already threatened by other causes (loss of habitat, climate change).

So, how do these dogs fit into the complex mosaic of wildlife conservation and organised crime? At first glance, the tracker dogs seem like the cutest of pooches but after spending some time with them you quickly realise that these are far from your friendly neighbourhood dogs. As soon as one of their handlers slips on the “work harness”, the dog’s demeanour changes. The animal knows that play time is over and it is time to get serious. The handler puts a cloth on the track that needs to be followed. He then places this cloth in a sterile plastic bag and holds it to the dog’s nose for a few seconds or minutes to fully expose the scent. The dog is then ready to track the scent and it is up to the handler to keep up. Once the dog is on the move, things can go quite quickly!

The training programme focuses on tracking, obedience and compliance skill sets. The course also equips the handlers with dog handling skills, maintaining a rigorous regime of daily exercise and general cleanliness. The tracking aspect of the training is the most important as this is the skill set the dogs will need to master for their future role. Once they are fully trained, they go through a six-day patrolling routine with regular ten-kilometre runs. During the patrols, the dogs test their skills through mock exercises that are geared towards improving their skills, fine-tuning their obedience and better their response time. Sundays are set aside for resting and grooming.

The dogs and their handlers attend the training programme together, honing their skills and strengthening their bonds. Once the trainer deems the handler and the dog ready, both join the main anti-poaching team with the Big Life Foundation.The handlers themselves, tend to have interesting stories; “anti-poaching dog handler” isn’t the most obvious job across Kenya. Most of the handlers are from near-by and have a story that begins in the vicinity of the Big Life Foundation. One gentleman was a former cook for the dog unit; his interest and dedication led to him becoming an accomplished tracker dog handler today. Others begin as rangers for the Big Life Foundation and transitioned to handlers when they discovered a passion for the dogs and their work. Still others have more remarkable stories such as Mutinda who started off as a career poacher, spending much of his teenage and later years involved in wildlife-related criminal activities. Thanks to the dedication and persistence of Richard Bonham, one of the founders of the Big Life Foundation, Mutinda was attracted by the prospect of a legal, steady income and today is one of the team’s most charismatic handlers.

The Big Life Foundation was created by a trio of visionaries, photographer Nick Brandt, conservationist Richard Bonham and entrepreneur Tom Hill. Since 2010, the Foundation works towards protecting elephant populations in Kenya and in the bordering areas of Tanzania. The Big Life Foundation plays a crucial role in controlling elephant poaching in Kenya and Tanzania by launching transboundary anti-poaching efforts, partnering with local communities that are sometimes caught in human-wildlife conflicts, and protecting land that sustains fragile populations of wildlife. The Amboseli-Kimana-Kilimanjaro complex are at the heart of their operations.

Acknowledgement: thank you to Nikki Best and John Kasaine from the Big Life Foundation

Read the whole article in the latest edition of the Kent Alumni Magazine:

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