Waging war on the poaching trade
Hero dogs skydiving 7,500 ft out of helicopter into danger zones to snare hunters slaughtering elephants and rhinos in the African bush. Sounds right out of a script from Hollywood, doesn’t it?
Conservationists waging war on the multi-million pound poaching trade have employed a new breed of operatives to help them catch poaching criminals.
Equipped with goggles, harnesses, muzzles and earmuffs, dogs are being trained to skydive from 7,500ft into danger zones and snare poachers.
Giant, Killer, Venom, Arrow and Alpha are highly-skilled and fearless members of the Paramount Group Anti-Poaching and Canine Training Academy in South Africa.
Described by their trainers as ‘the Bear Grylls of the K9 world’, ‘Arrow’ the German Shepherd became the first dog to skydive – earning him a place in the Guinness World Records – while Belgian Malinois ‘Killer’ has snared 115 groups of poachers and received a Gold medal from Prince Harry for his contribution to conservation.
A spokesperson for the academy told newspapers that ‘The most critical element for a successful dog and handler is the bond between the two. The bond is critical and you cannot break it. Only highly driven dogs with an exceptional attitude, mindset and passion to please (their handlers) can be used for activities like rappelling and sky diving.’
Poaching is a lucrative and ever-growing industry run by highly-organised criminal networks.
The last seven years have seen the elephant population fall by almost a third – with 100 killed every single day for their ivory.
Rhino poaching has reached epidemic proportions with around 1200 rhinos being killed in 2014 and 2015 in South Africa alone.
So conservationists are fighting back and taking increasingly drastic measures to counteract poaching.
Poaching hotspots are often in remote locations or dense bush and the dogs skydiving skills enable them to reach areas quickly and track skilled poachers using advanced counter-tracking techniques.
The dogs are capable of searching large areas for snares, bush meat and firearms and are able to hunt at night when human trackers are unable to track due to limited visibility.
The two most commonly used breeds in conservation are Bloodhounds and Belgium Malinois.
While Bloodhounds are used to track scents older than 24 hours, the Malinois are used as a rapid reaction and for ‘multi-purpose’. K9 is capable of tracking and searching for ammunition, rhino horns and ivory and for arresting suspects.
The academy breeds the dogs before gauging their personality and matches them to suitable roles-from tracking to skydiving.
The academy spokesman added ‘You need an expert eye, someone with ‘dog whisperer’ capabilities and decades of working and training dogs to ensure you get it right.
Not all dogs are good at tracking, not all dogs are excited by the sight of a helicopter.
‘In Arrow and Giant’s case they go mad with excitement if you only show them their jump harnesses.They cannot wait to get into the helicopter. ‘You can tell by their reaction that they are keen and willing, and when you see them in action you can tell that they excel at it.’
Skydiving has become an important addition to the arsenal of anti-poaching methods,especially useful as a rapid response in remote and inaccessible areas.
Initially met with some resistance from those who failed to see dogs useful in the war against poachers, the first K9 was introduced to Kruger National Park in South Africa in December 2010 to help fight poaching.
Now almost all big reserves have a K9 unit assisting their Anti-Poaching Units (APU) and since the launch of Paramount Group’s Anti-Poaching and K9 Academy there has been a rise in national parks and private reserves establishing K9 units in parks across Africa.
And in another shot to the arm of the group, Arrow the German Shepherd dog has been recognised as the world’s first sky-diving anti-poaching dog by Guinness World Records.
Two-year-old Arrow made his maiden jump with handler Henry Holsthyzen at the Waterkloof Airforce Base on the outskirts of Pretoria, South Africa.
Arrow was specially selected as a puppy for his temperament and trained to descend from a helicopter by rope, strapped to Holsthyzen, and finally, to skydive.
Arrow’s entry to the Guinness World Records came after months of intense preparation. Since Arrow was a puppy he and Holsthyzen have eaten, slept, and worked together in order to develop the inseparable bond needed to carry out the high-pressure anti-poaching tasks together.
Holsthyzen said: ‘With my knowledge of Arrow – knowing him, and knowing his personality- it gave me a very good idea of what to expect and he acted accordingly. He’s a natural born skydiver and an adrenaline junkie – I was more scared than he was!
‘I jumped out of the helicopter and it was just natural for him to follow me. I rely on him and in turn he relies on me. I’m willing to go into battle with him because I trust him. Trust forms the basis of our relationship and that enables the handler and the K9 relationship to excel’.
Eric Ichikowitz, Director of the Ichikowitz Family Foundation added, “In some cases we have to insert the canine into a difficult situation with the poachers or a challenging environment, such as a forest or mountainous region. The parachute helps engage them quietly”.
“At any one stage we have a large number of K9’s at various stages of development enabling us to develop on each K9’s unique capabilities as identified and tracked from infancy through adolescence. The large pool enables us to select optimal pairings between handlers and dogs, and to experiment with combinations.The training protocols have been developed through experience gained in operational environments,working in close conjunction with a number of National Parks special operations units. The training school is a custom developed anti-poaching facility developed to train anti-poaching rangers into specialised K9 handlers and to engage the handlers in the protocols of working with dogs in a wildlife environment.”