That’s what Belgian Shepherd (Malinois) and German Shepherd dogs are trained to do at K9 Anti-Poaching Training Academy in Rustenburg, which was unveiled on Wednesday by the Paramount Group, a privately-owned defence and aerospace manufacturer involved in anti-poaching. Paramount works with the Ichikowitz Family Foundation on this initiative.
At their dog school, which is situated on a 1200-hectare military facility known as ‘Battle Creek’, each dog’s capabilities are identified when they are youngsters and developed. At two-and-a-half years old, the dogs reach their peak and begin performing.
So skilled are these dogs that they can abseil off helicopters with their handlers using a 50m rope, or jump from a low-flying chopper into a dam to catch a poacher escaping through the water.
That’s what a working Malinois named Venom does on a daily basis.
“He doesn’t realise how big his contribution is. The dogs are the unsung heroes in the war against poaching,” said Eric Ichikowitz, director of the foundation.
Dogs Bangui and Bailey, meanwhile, display other unique talents, which require a disguise. Covered in sand-brown ghillie suits, the dogs hide out in the dense bush with their handlers for hours, or even days at a time, waiting to ambush poachers — no matter how extreme the weather.
So silent and camouflaged are they, that a group of journalists walking past did not notice them.
“They are skilled to be invisible in the bush, and they never use the same place twice,” said Ichikowitz.
“We are training them to be patient, silent and quiet at the OP (observation posts). They can go out [that is, stay hidden in the bush] for three days at a time. They learn to ration food and water and not attract poachers… The handlers know they are living for two, not one, so they ration water for the dog as well.”
Then there’s Bennim, a two-and-a-half-year-old Malinois, and Saskia, a one-year-old German Shepherd, who are more attuned to picking up a range of scents from weapons to rhino horns. In a simulation exercise, two vehicles were stationed one behind the other. One vehicle contained a weapon, and the other a small bottle of rhino horn shavings.
Not knowing what was inside or where it was hidden, Bennim casually walked around both vehicles and sat down when he picked up a scent. The reward from his handler, Marius, was a ball thrown for him to catch.
“It’s a 50/50 partnership. It’s a trust relationship with the dog and handler. There is one dog per handler, no third party,” said Marius.
Detection dogs like Saskia and Bennim are primarily stationed at border posts and at national parks.
Ichikowitz said so far these types of dogs had also been deployed to three other countries, but could not disclose which countries.
He estimated that in five years’ time, 400 “canine solutions” [dog and handler teams] would be needed in South Africa to combat rhino poachers.
“Poachers are not like they used to be. Poachers now come armed with sophisticated high-powered rifles,” said Ichikowitz.
“Poachers are found with hand weapons on them, meaning they are bracing themselves for combat with rangers and conservation officers.”