Four-legged hunters on the front line of the rhino war

27 April 2015 - 16:31 By MATTHEW SAVIDES

Ngwenya is no ordinary pooch and has the scars to prove it. She has dodged bullets, spent hours in the bush chasing rhino poachers and has taken part in half a dozen arrests.

Ngwenya is a five-year-old malinois, or Belgian shepherd, at the forefront of the fight against rhino poaching in Kruger National Park.

She is part of a team of more than a dozen dogs, each with specialist training that enables them to track poachers and detect firearms and ammunition.

Ngwenya - which means "crocodile", because of her sharp teeth - can do it all.

During a training drill at a ranger camp in the park this week, she sat proudly at her handler's feet and listened intently to his every command.

The instruction was "Go!" She bolted into the bush and sniffed furiously in the grass. A minute later she stopped and pressed her nose into the soil. She picked up a rifle cartridge in her mouth and delivered it to her handler, Lexon.

"Human beings could never do this job," Lexon said, as he removed some thorns from Ngwenya's paw. "She can hear things that I can't hear and smell things I can't smell. I don't see very far, but she does. We could not get as many poachers without the dogs."

Lexon's full name and photograph may not be revealed for fear of reprisals by criminal syndicates. He has worked with Ngwenya since 2011 and the pair have formed a close bond after spending hours in the bush together, sometimes covering 20km a day on patrol and sometimes waiting patiently in long grass or under a tree. But more than that, together they have faced the very real dangers of the war on rhino poaching.

On a still night in April 2011, Ngwenya and Lexon were tracking poachers in the park. Ngwenya, on a leash, had picked up their scent and was leading the hunt when they were fired upon. They were under attack.

The rangers returned fire and several minutes later the poachers were dead. The rangers and dogs were unharmed.

Ngwenya is one of the park's "patrol dogs", explained Johan de Beer, head of Kruger's K9 unit. She and her partners have been trained to "bite people, track people down, go into the bush and tackle the people when they're hiding".

There are also tracker hounds, which run ahead of handlers on leashes, picking up scents and leading rangers to where poachers might be hiding, or where they have stashed their kit. Once a target has been identified, the dogs step back and the rangers take over.

Then there is Gladys, the park's only detection dog. Unlike Ngwenya and the others, she can detect the scent of wildlife items such as rhino horn and ivory.

 

Gladys is a fluffy, energetic black and white spaniel on duty at the park gates - to detect any suspicious objects. "She can sniff guns and ammunition as well," said De Beer.

Elsewhere there are "pack hounds" in training. These dogs run off in groups into the wild after having picked up a scent. They are unique in that they are not on leashes but are tracked with global positioning systems in their collars and followed in a helicopter.

Because the hounds have been sponsored by a chain of Volkswagen dealers, they have been given names such as Jetta, Kombi and Chico. "We turn them loose," De Beer said. "They cover so much more ground so much faster than a dog with a handler."

However, the dogs are expensive. It costs about R60000 to buy and train each dog. That is not counting food and extras.

The South African National Parks Honorary Rangers, a volunteer group, has set up a fundraising initiative with Mount Vernon Wines - R15 is donated to the volunteers with every bottle sold of its Rhino Tears range.

Honorary Rangers chairman John Turner said: "We've got serious about dogs. They're a great tool to have in the toolbox." De Beer agreed. "The dogs are helping us a lot to get to where we want to be," he said.

A training school has been set up in the camp.

"They love it," said Richard Sowry, section ranger at Kingfisherspruit. "They wouldn't do it if they didn't love it. You can't force a dog to do something it doesn't want to do."

His area was the hardest hit by poachers last year, and he is the person working closest with training the pack hounds.

"Every success we have is with the dogs," he said. "A dog is your best asset."

Ngwenya is one such asset, an important part of the plan. She might be just a couple of feet tall, but she could be one of the dogs that will make a big difference in the fight against rhino poaching.

savidesm@sundaytimes.co.za

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