The canine army that’s protecting rhinos

There is a chill in the air. A cloud passes across the face of the full moon and the rangelands of northern Kenya pass briefly into darkness. The rangers lying in wait shift position to scan the horizon silently, acting on intelligence and on full alert.

As the moon emerges and bathes the scrubland with its eerie glow, automatic gunfire explodes into the quiet of the night. A wounded rhino blunders away in pain and her calf disappears in panic into a pride of lions. The mother dies shortly afterwards from her wounds.

The poachers melt into the darkness. They manage to evade the rangers this time, but the prized horn, the reason this majestic creature has been the subject of such a calculated kill, is recovered and will not enter the trade. However, Ol Pejeta Conservancy has lost 2% of its rhino population and the poachers will return.

Organised crime

This happened on 17 July this year, and is not a case of impoverished people seeking to put food on the table. Rhino horn and elephant ivory have become the domain of organised crime – commodities that are illegally traded alongside weapons, drugs and people.

Video courtesy of Ol Pejeta Conservancy.

The poaching of ‘high value’ animals like elephants and rhinos is fuelling crime networks and insurgency. Ultimately it is driven by demand in consumer countries like Vietnam and China, and now – with extinction in near sight for rhinos and far sight for elephants – both governments and civil society are trying to tackle, reduce and extinguish that demand.

Meanwhile Fauna & Flora International (FFI) is helping to secure and retain the remaining populations of both rhinos and elephants in the wild. Our partnership with the Ol Pejeta Conservancy began when it was purchased “for the wildlife and people of Kenya” in 2003 and, together with founder members the Arcus Foundation and Lewa conservancy, we remain on the Board.

This ex-ranch now supports a thriving diversity of wildlife living alongside rare breed Boran and Ankole cattle. It is sustained by a mix of commercial activities such as wheat production to the south and a range of tourism offerings.

The conservancy contributes to the local economy and community development. It runs a dynamic education programme with upwards of 20,000 schoolchildren experiencing wildlife, often for the first time. It works with communities and landholdings across northern Kenya to keep corridors open for wildlife. But the increased and targeted threat to rhinos in particular has dramatically increased the costs of keeping them secure.

So how is Ol Pejeta responding to the threat?

Yes, it has a response unit of highly trained Kenya Police Reserve rangers, putting their lives on the line to tackle poachers who are armed with modern assault rifles. But they also now have expert assistance in the form of a canine defence force – a group of handlers and dogs who are literally in the front line.

Rhino’s best friend

In partnership with UK-based White Paw Training, the conservancy has developed ‘multi-role’ dogs that can seek out a crime scene rapidly then move onto tracking and, if they make contact with the poachers, are able to disarm them by going for the arm with the weapon.

One dog can do the work of a 70-person search team and can operate in darkness.

Dog and handler teams. Credit: Teeku Patel/Sokomoto Photographic Safaris.

Handlers and their dogs work as a team. Credit: Teeku Patel/Sokomoto Photographic Safaris.

The dog unit has already had success in responding to attacks, and trained dogs with handlers will be moving into new areas of the northern rangelands this year.

Training the dogs and handlers requires time and skill. Darryl Pleasants of White Paw Training continues to give both to the task and has agreed to help Ol Pejeta develop a centre of excellence on the conservancy. This is a ten-year plan to provide dogs and handlers across the whole area of threat in northern Kenya.

What is distinctive about this initiative is that the dogs are trained with reward and care, not with aggression, so they do not become a risk to the conservancy, remaining fully approachable and under the control of their handlers.

An affectionate relationship. Credit: Teeku Patel/Sokomoto Photographic Safaris.

The affection between the dogs and their handlers is clear to see. Credit: Teeku Patel/Sokomoto Photographic Safaris.