How Havoc the dog is fighting illegal pangolin poaching
They look like prehistoric animals, all scales and attitude. But pangolins have landed themselves an unenviable tag - they are the world's most poached and illegally trafficked mammal, thanks largely to demand for their scales in Asia.
Enters Havoc, a 15-month-old Belgian Malinois and the world's first pangolin antipoaching dog. He recently graduated from special training at a dog school in Magaliesberg, and caught his first poachers in Rustenburg on August 1.
Rampa, a male Temminck's ground pangolin, estimated to be 11 years old, is the first pangolin to be rescued by Havoc and dog handler Anike Verwey, 24.
A conservation organisation dedicated to the pangolin, the African Pangolin Working Group, says in its latest report there has been a rapid increase in pangolin poaching: 25kg of pangolin scales were traded in 2014; 200kg in 2015; 26 tons in 2016; and 47 tons last year.
Professor Ray Jansen, a zoologist and chair of the group, said the weight of scales traded this year had already reached 32 tons. "That's just scales intercepted from Africa."
After Rampa was rescued, it was rehabilitated and fitted with two tracking devices - a traditional one with a signal that can be picked up from 15km away, and a new, experimental GPS model that works like a car tracker.
"We can track the animal on our phones from anywhere in the world," Jansen said.
The trackers were placed at the base of Rampa's tail.
Veterinarian Nicci Wright of the Johannesburg Wildlife Veterinary Hospital, which is helping in the rehabilitation programme, said: "It shouldn't worry him too much because pangolins can only go forward, he can't reverse."
She said members of the project were still learning how to age pangolins according to their weight and scales.
Treating a pangolin is tricky. "They are physically and mentally in shock. They have been starved or haven't had any water. Some even go into shock when they hear male voices or smell car fumes," Wright said.
The dog-training facility, Paramount K9 Solutions, was established by the Ichikowitz Family Foundation, which supports several South African National Parks' antipoaching programmes.
Eric Ichikowitz, director of the foundation, said rangers at Kruger National Park believed dogs were the most effective way of combating poaching.
The Paramount facility trains tracker dogs, which follow the trail of poachers and help to apprehend them, and detection dogs, which use their sense of smell to find anything from rhino horn to explosives.
Havoc has been trained to sniff out four species of African pangolin.
Ichikowitz said the Malinois breed, widely used by police and military across the world, were the best dogs for "discipline and commitment to the scent".
The US Navy Seal team that killed Osama bin Laden had a Malinois with them.
Jansen said those engaged in stopping poaching faced considerable risk. "We actually all carry [weapons]; most of these guys [poachers] are not only in possession of pangolin but have rhino horn and perlemoen, so the stakes are high."
He said that despite conservation efforts, he feared the pangolin could go extinct within two decades.
Jansen has researched the use of pangolin in African traditional medicines.
"Local traditional medicinal use is sustainable, but the thirst from the East is not."