A day in the life of a ranger’s dog

A day in the life of a ranger’s dog involves jumping into helicopters, tracking poachers in the Kruger National Park or searching for illegal firearms or rhino horn in vehicles entering or leaving the park. Rangers’ dogs are often the first responders to incidences of suspected poaching.

The CSIR assisted the South African National Parks (SANParks) with developing specifications for canine units to be deployed in the Kruger National Park as part of an on-going partnership between the two organisations.

The CSIR spoke to Bruce Leslie, regional ranger in the anti-poaching unit located in Skukuza in the Kruger National Park.

What does a day in the life of a ranger dog look like?

Depending on the breed of dog, as well as where the dog works, it might be out on patrol in the field with rangers or be on standby with reaction forces ready to track poachers if an incident takes place. There are also dogs working at the entrance gates of the park to search vehicles entering or exiting the park.

How does a dog find poachers in an environment such as Kruger?

Dogs have a highly sensitive olfactory system – far superior to that of humans. They are able to discriminate between different human scents. Scent-carrying skin cells drop from a living human leaving a trace that dogs can follow. Tracking dogs work on leads through a variety of terrain where human visual tracking might not be possible. They are able to successfully outmanoeuvre counter-measures where poachers might try to confuse the dogs. This makes rangers’ dogs incredibly useful and important members of the counter-poaching teams. We have had numerous successes and arrests thanks to our canines.

Which breeds of dogs do you have?

Currently we have Belgium Shepherds who mostly work with the reaction forces. They are excellent with tracking scents that are less than three hours old. Our Bloodhounds are used when we have to track a scent that is ‘cold’, meaning between three and eight hours old. We also have Foxhounds that operate as a pack.

In what kind of conditions do the dogs work?

Depending on the season, dogs work in various temperatures. The optimal temperature for a dog to work in is below 30 degrees Celsius. The dog handlers must take extreme care in summer when the temperatures in the park rise to deep in the 30s. A ranger’s dog will work itself to death as it won’t stop because of heat or exhaustion – it loves its handler and wants to do a good job. Belgium Shepherds will run the soles off their feet if you let them.

What kind of equipment do they use?

Rangers’ dogs use specialised equipment such as harnesses, tracking leads and chains, as well as booties to protect their feet. They are conditioned to know that when they wear their harness it is time to work. Some of the attack dogs also wear muzzles that they use to knock a suspect down, instead of biting them. Sponsorships are always welcome as the equipment does not last long, because it is used daily. Organisations such as StopRhinoPoaching.com help by procuring new booties, harnesses and specialised leads with donor money when the ones we have are worn out.

What kind of support is needed to keep a canine unit running?

By the end of 2015 there will be around 40 dogs in the unit. A dog can cost between R40 000 and R50 000, so we need to ensure that it is in perfect health for as long as we can. We have access to basic veterinary care in Skukuza and sponsors who help with emergency care for a dog that is seriously injured. The food bill is enormous, as these dogs require good quality food. It keeps them in a good condition, which gives us the best chance of keeping the dog healthy for six to eight years. Hills Pet Nutrition has been assisting us with food donations. We also have a sponsorship for Seresto collars that help with keeping off ticks and fleas, which is a great help.

Dogs, just like people, who constantly work as part of a reaction force are frequently exposed to stresses such as gunfire. We try to rest a dog as much as possible between incidences to prevent post-traumatic stress, but there is always a risk of a dog running away when shots are fired. We are incorporating tracking collars on some of the dogs, but these are very expensive.

Can I adopt a ranger’s dog when it retires?

A ranger’s dog is not a pet. Although they truly are a ranger’s best friend, they are trained to work. People often make the mistake of wanting to touch the dogs, but it is very dangerous as they are trained to attack. The more the dogs work with SANPark forces, the more they are able to distinguish friend from foe, which is remarkable. We advise people not to reach out to the dogs for their own safety.

First prize would be to retire the dog to its handler’s home. Unfortunately, rangers cannot always afford to take care of the dog, so sponsorships such as food and veterinary care in that regard would be helpful. Second prize would be to retire the dog to an ex-dog handler from the police, armed forces or the private sector. A dog that has given its life in service should be taken care of in retirement.

For more information send an email to dpps@csir.co.za.