SA's dogfight to save rhino

03 June 2016 - 09:59 By Kim Ludbrook/EPA

At the secret training camp called Battle Creek in the African bush - two hours from Johannesburg - men are training animals to hunt other men who kill animals.From drones to toxic mass relocations, South Africa's war on poaching is being fought on many fronts. But one of the most effective weapons in the arsenal comes in canine form.An initiative of the Ichikowitz Family Foundation, the operation puts together dogs and handlers to be trained using special forces techniques to try to stem the scourge of poaching that has resulted in thousands of rhino and other endangered animals being killed in South Africa and other African countries in the past decade.Conservationists, the government and landowners are trying more military-oriented operations with dogs and their handlers to stem the illegal trade in wildlife.Dogs and handlers are drilled to find firearms or contraband, track suspects in the undergrowth and abseil in harnesses from helicopters in pursuit of poachers.Handlers and their dogs can go on foot patrols for up to three days carrying their own food and water and hiding in the bush wearing military ghillie suits.The dog and handler sleep together in a sleeping bag.The military-style training camp lasts three months, during which the dogs and handlers make deep personal bonds as they learn the art of anti-poaching warfare together.UP AND AT 'EM: Assistant dog trainer Johannes Moremi plays with four-month-old Belgian Malinois puppies. At present there are 50 adult dogs and 40 puppiesCHASING RABBITS: Dog handler Lucas Mosana and dog Delta sleep in their oversize sleeping bags together in the bush during an overnight training exercise UP AND AT 'EM: Assistant dog trainer Johannes Moremi plays with four-month-old Belgian Malinois puppies. At present there are 50 adult dogs and 40 puppiesWith names like Venom, Killer, Alpha and Delta, the dogs are either Belgian Malinois or German shepherds and are chosen from litters of puppies bred at Battle Creek.The Malinois have become well-known all over the world after a distinguished canine combatant, Cairo, helped a team of US Navy Seals catch Osama bin Laden.Dogs are trained to abseil in tandem with handlers from helicopters that help get them into areas where poachers have been at workto track them.It is estimated that 400 canine units are needed in South Africa's game reserves alone.The camp has about 50 dogs and 40 puppies at present.With no end in sight for the rhino and other wild animals being killed by poachers for their hugely profitable horns, the fight against them will continue and it is hoped that man's best friends and their handlers can play an influential part in stemming the tide of poaching.

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