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African elephants face extinction amid poaching, habitat loss

Only about 415,000 African savanna and forest elephants remain due to a sharp decline in their population over the last few decades [File: AP]
Only about 415,000 African savanna and forest elephants remain due to a sharp decline in their population over the last few decades [File: AP]

26 Mar 2021

African elephants living in forests and savannas are increasingly threatened with extinction, according to the latest Red List of the world’s most threatened species, with conservationists stepping up calls for an urgent end to poaching and the destruction of the elephants’ habitat.

The new assessments by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) published on Thursday underscore the persistent pressures faced by the two species of African elephants, which are now listed as either “critically endangered” or “endangered”.KEEP READINGFrom poaching to avocados, Kenya’s elephants face new threatAvocados v elephants: Is the green gold putting wildlife at risk?Botswana reports mysterious deaths of hundreds of elephants

“We must urgently put an end to poaching and ensure that sufficient suitable habitat for both forest and savannah elephants is conserved,” said Bruno Oberle, the IUCN director- general.

Oberle sounded the alarm even as he also praised some African countries for their work in trying to reverse the decline.

The Switzerland-based body’s latest survey said the savanna elephant was “endangered” and the much smaller, lighter forest elephant was “critically endangered” – only one step away from becoming extinct in the wild. Video

Before the latest Red List update, African elephants were treated as a single species, listed as “vulnerable”. But following the emergence of new genetic evidence, the two species have been categorised separately for the first time.

The IUCN cited data showing that the populations of Africa’s savanna elephants found in a variety of habitats had fallen by at least 60 percent over the last 50 years while the number of forest elephants – found mostly in Central Africa – had dropped by 86 percent over 31 years.

Combined, only approximately 415,000 African elephants remain, it said.

Sharp decline

Both species suffered sharp declines since 2008 due to a significant increase in poaching, which peaked in 2011 but continues to threaten populations, the report said.

Despite the overall decline, some populations of forest elephants were rebounding due to conservation efforts by countries such as Gabon and the Republic of Congo.

“Anti-poaching measures on the ground, together with more supportive legislation and land-use planning which seeks to foster human-wildlife coexistence, have been key to successful elephant conservation,” the report said.

In Southern Africa’s Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, savanna elephant numbers were also stable or growing, IUCN said.

“While the results of the assessment place the continental population of savanna elephants in the endangered category, it is important to keep in mind that at a site level, some sub-populations are thriving,” said Dave Balfour, IUCN’s assessor of the African elephants.

IUCN’s latest assessment – the first of three annual updates – assessed 134,425 species of plants, fungi and animals of which more than a quarter are threatened with extinction.

Barney Long of the Global Wildlife Conservation said the regular assessment of the status of species helps in highlighting “worrying trends” including the status of elephants.

“The health of our planet depends on the health of elephants and the ecosystems they inhabit,” he said.


The world’s last rhinos are in bad trouble – here’s why

By Helena Kriel and Don Pinnock

Saving rhinos Part 1: The crisis. As anti-poaching costs soar, protecting rhinos has become a costly liability. Debates on what to do about it have become a war zone, and the biggest losers are the rhinos themselves.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

In the Kruger National Park, the heartland of state-owned rhinos, numbers have dropped by about 63% over 10 years, despite anti-poaching expenditure in the hundreds of millions of rand.

Private owners now own more than half of the rhinos in South Africa, but have had to ramp up their already expensive security costs to counter increased levels of poaching.

So, for many private owners, rhinos have become too costly and too stressful to keep and they could end up ditching them.

Caught between a rock and a hard place, rhinos have become a liability, their horns an Asian commodity. This could spell the beginning of the end for this ancient species in the wild.

Anticipating trouble?

“Baby coming in! Mother poached. Manyeleti Reserve.”

Sanctuary staff scramble like a fighter squadron. Manyeleti is a killing field. Rhinos there know they’re in the danger zone. They scan, anticipating trouble, jumpy, ears twitching, standing rump to rump because, invariably, there will be trouble. And when the moon is full, it comes.

The helicopter crests the hills, a steel dragonfly, coming closer. Dust swallows it whole as it lands. The doors open, the vet jumps out.

Through an opening a very small pink creature is visible. His eyes are blindfolded, his ears stopped up. He’s sedated and lies so still he could be dead, his hide baggy with his umbilical cord still attached.

The team’s ready. The baby is tilted into a blanket and they run with him. There’s a panga wound on his head. He’s fallen from warm amniotic fluid into this.

“We have to hope no blindness,” says the vet, “or brain injury.”

This is Manji and his journey has just begun.

These are the people saving young rhinos, one at a time, at great effort. After every poacher’s full moon the babies come, traumatised, victims of demand for horn that has become a commodity in Asia.

We watch a secret video tape of poachers being interviewed. They stare into the camera, balaclavas keeping their identities secret. They’re dressed in swanky designer gear and leather jackets. One sports a Rolex, another holds two iPhones: one for personal, the other for poaching updates. They let the filmmaker know they will poach the Kruger till there’s no longer a rhino left standing.

Until fairly recently, poaching used to be about survival. Now poachers have large houses and expensive cars. To impoverished communities they’re rock stars, and youngsters want to be like them. And they train, teenagers, beginning with a duiker and ending with a rhino.

For the team of three on the video it’s a poacher’s moon. They’ve burned a hyena’s tail for protection and walk quietly through the night’s silver light. They tread in single file, wearing shoes with soles sewn on backwards to fool the guards. Suddenly they stop. Ahead is a mother rhino followed by her young calf.

One of the team takes aim and shoots the cow through the heart using a high-powered modern weapon. The night explodes. The rhino staggers, falling forwards, keening, screaming. The calf runs back and forth.

The team closes in, hacking. They slash at the calf to get it out of the way. The mother’s horns come away with a rip of blood and mucous while she’s still alive.

The horn is zipped into a backpack and they run. The injured calf inches closer, then stands in confusion by its mother’s side, face slashed and bleeding.

Stomach-turning images show us what that looks like. On social media you find videos of poached mother rhinos lying on their backs, butchered, swollen udders ready to give sustenance. Their young calves stand alongside in terror and confusion.

But these images can’t impart the sentience of the animal – and the love: what else can you call it? Rhinos walk together and eat side by side. They sleep with their bodies touching. A mother rhino keeps her baby beside her for three years.

An orphaned baby rhino will suffer severe trauma after watching its mother being killed. It will need medication to keep it from stress-induced ulcers. Rhinos in rehabilitation turn the corner only when they find a new rhino to connect with. Connection for the rhino is everything. Is that anything different from how we humans feel?

Poaching hit Africa’s rhinos from 2005, but there are two opposing narratives about why that happened. Conservation NGOs say it was kicked off by Vietnamese criminal syndicates exploiting loopholes in South African legislation and their subsequent stimulation of demand for rhino horn in China and Vietnam. Private rhino owners insist it’s because South Africa banned domestic sales in 2007.

Either way, with millionaires in Vietnam growing by 150% in the last five years, rhino horn as a status symbol means guaranteed income for Asian criminal syndicates and poachers, with an estimated 10 to 15 teams working the Kruger Park daily. Called “grey gold”, rhino horn is now more expensive than heroin on the black market.

Rhinos in private hands are relatively safe for now. They are TB-free, they have DNA certification and less than 5% of poaching takes place there. At great cost, poaching numbers there are low. But as rhinos dwindle in Kruger, Botswana is increasingly being hit. When that supply runs out, poachers will set their sights on the last stocks available –the game reserves of private rhino owners.

Counting rhinos

In their various body forms, rhinos have been around for 55 million years. Some stood as high as a house and saw off giant hyenas and crocs half the length of soccer fields. With a thick hide and weaponised noses, adults defended their young like a military squad with fixed bayonets. Then we came along.

There are now only five species left and they’re hanging on by their toenails. Northern white rhino? Two females left, so they’re gone as a species. Sumatran rhinos? About 80 in Sumatra and Borneo. Then there are 80 Javans on the western tip of the island, where a tsunami could wipe them out. This leaves the southern white and black rhinos.

According to most authorities, there are now fewer than 20,000 rhinos left on Earth, down 2,000 from three years ago. If they were human that would be equivalent to a small town. South Africa is home to about 80% of them.

According to SANParks’ head of conservation services, Dr Luthando Dziba, by its 2019 count there were 3,549 white rhino and 268 black rhinos in Kruger Park, but the latest count is still being collated. Taking 2020 poaching figures into account, the numbers will be lower. Because Kruger had not posted numbers for some years, disclosing the drop from 10,700 in 2010 sent shockwaves through the environmental community. Deaths were exceeding births and the only way that story goes is down.

In Botswana, once a safe haven, it’s even worse. The Okavango Delta may have fewer than 20 rhinos, down from several hundred a few years ago.

Across all state and provincial parks in South Africa, there are an estimated 6,100 rhinos. According to the Private Rhino Owners Association, an additional 8,100 (60%) are in private facilities – about 2,500 on intensive farms, the rest in private game reserves of various sizes. At one end are large commercial farming operations. At the other are private tourism reserves who see rhinos as an essential component of their Big Five holding, or owners who just like having rhinos on their property.

The greatest number of rhinos in the world are now in private hands. We need to take a hard look at why they have them and what they plan to do with them.

Counting the costs

In South Africa, most poaching is in national parks and provincial reserves, and anti-poaching costs there have gone through the roof. From 2010 to 2020 the budget jumped from R74-million to R207-million, paid for by grants and tax revenues. But the huge investment into solving the problem has not brought down poaching, though incidents have declined because there are fewer rhinos to poach.

Kruger Park was always seen as a rhino heartland, but its geographical position between impoverished populations has made it the epicentre of poaching. Rangers within the park have also been arrested and charged with poaching. It’s clear the park will need a considerable shake-up and an urgent rethink. As a rhino sanctuary, Kruger must not fail. It would be a conservation and public relations disaster.

Adult and young black rhino. Pencil drawings:

Private ownership took off in the early 1950s when Ian Player, then warden in the iMfolozi Game Reserve, pioneered methods and drugs to immobilise rhinos for translocation in order to disperse gene pools to different countries and venues. At the time there were only about 400 white rhinos in South Africa and their future as a species was uncertain.

Player launched Operation Rhino, with animals being moved around the world – an effort credited with saving the southern white rhino from extinction.

White rhino numbers over the following decades escalated to about 20,000, with large numbers in private hands. The private game reserves cared for and protected their crashes of rhinos at their own expense because of their Big Five tourism value, and the numbers grew. They were seen as conservation heroes.

But that was before the poaching tsunami hit. Anti-poaching costs have now become exorbitant. State parks are heavily subsidised by the government, some with NGO and international funder support. But private game reserves have to pay their own way through tourism, grants or from personal wealth. There’s no subsidy system deduction.

These owners now require costly Intensive Protection Zones (IPZs), 24-hour guards, trained anti-poaching dogs, mounted patrols and drones. Rhino speculators and farmers such as John Hume each have about 1,800 rhinos, but the average private rhino owner, according to

Tertia Jooste of Rhino Connect, an organisation working with private rhino owners, has maybe between two and 20 rhinos. The cost of protecting a small family crash of up to 10 rhinos is between R30,000 to R40,000 a month. Until now it’s been working.

For owners there are four potential sources of income from rhinos: tourism, trophy hunting, selling the animals or selling their horns. All but hunting are presently roadblocked until tourist occupancies start to pick up again. And there’s a growing public opinion against trophy hunting internationally.

According to Pelham Jones of the Private Rhino Owners Association (PROA), rhino prices have dropped from an average of half a million rand to around R100,000 an animal. Added to this, Covid-19 lockdowns and international travel bans have taken their toll on tourism, further reducing income streams, putting some private rhino owners in deep trouble.

There’s another roadblock. Led by large commercial rhino farmers, many owners hitched their wagon to the one-trick pony of selling horn on the international market, which was banned in 1977 by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites). Given increasing sensitivity to animal welfare and unclear trade economics in Convention meetings and a growing NGO lobby, that’s not likely to change any time soon.

According to Dr Adam Cruise, who has written extensively on the organisation in National Geographic and elsewhere, “given current moves on biodiversity and strengthening the restrictions on their own ivory market, the European Union is unlikely to back a lifting of restrictions. And neither China nor the US seems to have an appetite to open this issue.”

So hoping to fund rhino security and conservation through the sale of horns on the international market any time soon is simply magical thinking. But as costs rise and incomes dwindle, the Private Rhino Owners Association (PROA) and economists like Michael ’t Sas-Rolfes disagree.

There’s no doubt that as anti-poaching costs soar, owners with smaller numbers of rhinos are the ones hurting the most. Although the issue of selling horns had probably not been on their minds in the beginning, as the situation worsened horns in their vaults began looking like gold they cannot spend. To them, bans make no sense.

“In a perfect world, animals would be free,” says Johan Odendaal, MD of a privately owned Big Five game reserve in South Africa. “This isn’t a perfect world. Anyone who is against the rhino as a commodity is driving the species to extinction. The guy who wants to run a small farm cannot afford rhinos now. We are losing those guys.

“They say: ‘Take my rhinos, it’s too expensive to look after them.’ And then what do they do? Sell the farms? Get rid of the rhinos? Who will take them? I haven’t seen a rhino on auction for 18 months. There’s no longer a market for a living rhino. If wildlife doesn’t have a value, you will get rid of it. And they’ll go back to cattle farming.”

Carmela D’Arrigo, a small private rhino owner, struggles every month to meet her costs. She owns rhinos, she says, for the love of the animal.

“We have a close relationship with them. They all have names. They roam free in this place, which is 5,000 hectares. It costs upwards of R30,000 a month to protect them. With the threat of poaching, my phone is next to me constantly. It takes over your life.

“We struggle so much financially. We have to dehorn our rhinos for security, so we have horn sitting in vaults. Money for a horn would pay for their protection. But I wouldn’t even know where to start. And I’ve never believed in selling it.”

“If private rhino owners run out of money, what will they do?” asks wildlife vet Dr Johan Marais, founder of Saving the Survivors. “If John Hume, the biggest private rhino owner, decides tomorrow this is all too expensive and says ‘Here are my rhinos, you take them’, what then? Who will look after them? I don’t care if they’re like cows. We still have rhinos!” Hume claims he is on the verge of bankruptcy.

How does Marais feel about some of the rhino farmers being in it for the money? “If they’re protecting my heritage and I can see rhinos in 10 years’ time, I don’t care. I’ve always said: the future of conservation lies in private hands. They have massive costs, but they get it right. My question is simply this: Are there rhinos on your property? Are they breeding? If yes, support them.”

The aggressive drive to legalise horn sales, however, has put private owners on a collision course with global environmentalists, conservation NGOs and wildlife economists like the late Alejandro Nadel. According to the wildlife trade monitoring organisation Traffic: “Legal supply may legitimise or encourage rhino horn use and increase demand.”

Economist and former rhino-owner Colin Bell says selling horn doesn’t add up to a survival plan for rhinos, only for rhino farmers.

“Firstly, a legal trade in horn would stimulate demand and increase poaching, because poaching is cheaper than rearing a rhino. And, secondly, even if we dehorned all private rhinos and sold all stockpiles, demand would soon outstrip supply and lead to further poaching.

“Most of those rhinos are in private game reserves where viewing rhinos with horns is cherished by tourists. That leaves probably only 2,500 individual rhinos on farms that can be rounded up and anaesthetised every second year to have their horns shaved.

“At its peak in the 1970s and 1980s, poaching was supplying Asia between 45 and 70 tonnes of horn a year. We could never sustainably supply that level of demand legally from stocks, shavings and mortalities. Poaching won’t stop if we go the route of attempting to flood the market.”

So here’s the situation as it stands: The demand for rhino horn in Asia is almost limitless and possibly rising with increasing wealth in countries such as Vietnam and China.

Poaching syndicates are highly professional and have the power to manipulate the market and pay poachers.

State parks are unable to stem the poaching despite huge costs and, in some cases, because of internal corruption.

Private rhino owners can no longer sell rhinos at high prices because of the costs of protecting them, and the possibility of persuading Cites to open up international trade is remote. Some are on the brink of financial collapse.

Trade bans like those in 1993 for rhino horn and 1989 for ivory have worked in the past and can work again, as long as demand is not stimulated. Yet, as things stand, despite innovative demand-reduction campaigns by NGOs in Asia, poaching is not going down – largely because of the mixed messaging coming from diverse African stakeholders, the sophistication of syndicates and horn’s status symbol in destination countries.

Because of a fierce standoff between intensely anti-trade rhino range states, NGOs and pro-trade rhino farmers – the people who in coalition could best formulate a survival plan for rhinos – there’s no forward movement.

What is to be done? It’s crisis time for rhinos. Will they go extinct on our watch? Or is there a workable solution, a way forward?

And what of Manji, the day-old calf who arrived with umbilical cord and machete cuts gouged into his head? Rhinos weep, and during his first few weeks in the sanctuary he cried, unable to eat, listless and traumatised. In his loneliness, he befriended a tractor tyre. It took human love and 24/7 care to coax him through.

Now he’s a full-grown bull in a stronghold and flanked by the cows in his crash. He might not be in the savannah, but he’s within an electrified perimeter fence and is safe.

Yet every full moon his sanctuary gets the call: “Baby coming in!” and the staff leap into action.

Another traumatised baby rhino, a mother lying in the bush, face ripped apart. And in Asia someone is being gifted a piece of rhino horn as a show of status. Can they begin to know the suffering of that small offering? DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.

Wildlife protections, especially in Africa, cut sharply during pandemic -IUCN conservation group

By Emma Farge

GENEVA (Reuters) – The COVID-19 pandemic is undermining nature conservation efforts, cutting park and anti-poaching patrols in more than half of Africa’s protected sites, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) said on Thursday.Rhinos graze in the Pongola Nature Reserve in Jozini, South Africa, October 6, 2018. REUTERS/Rogan Ward/File Photo

The collapse of international tourism due to efforts to slow spread of the coronavirus has led to heavy revenue losses for many wildlife parks, cutting budgets and threatening longer-term closures.

IUCN, a Swiss-based environmental network, said research released in a series of articles in its journal PARKS represents the most comprehensive review to date of the links between the pandemic and nature conservation.

Surveys showed that more than half of protected areas in Africa had been forced to halt or reduce field patrols and anti-poaching operations. A quarter of protected sites in Asia have had to reduce conservation activities, such as guards to protect against rhino and tiger poaching in Nepal.

“Parks have emptied out to a large extent and there’s no money coming in,” said Nigel Dudley, co-author of a paper in the journal, raising concerns about the longer-term impact of falling tourism on conservation budgets.

Bush meat hunting has also increased significantly due to both patrol reductions and growing poverty, he added.

In the same publication, a survey of rangers in 60 countries showed that a fifth of them had lost their jobs due to pandemic-related budget cuts. Others had their salaries reduced or delayed.

“We cannot allow the current crisis to further jeopardise our natural environment,” said Rachel Golden Kroner of Conservation International, one of the authors who contributed to the journal edition.

In one positive development, some animals appeared to enjoy the respite from visitors with more park sightings reported of some species such as a pig-sized endangered mammal called the Mountain Tapir in South America.

“That’s a lesson for us for longer-term management, that animals need to have a rest and that tourism is wonderful but can also bring problems,” said Dudley.

Reporting by Emma Farge; Editing by Bill Berkrot

Botswana Denies 120 Rhinos Poached in 18 Months

By Mqondisi Dube

FILE - Rhinos graze as the White House press corps awaits U.S. President George W. Bush as he toured the Mokolodi Nature Reserve in Botswana, July 10, 2003.

GABORONE, BOTSWANA – Botswana, confronting an unprecedented rise in poaching, has refuted reports by former President Ian Khama that at least 120 rhinoceroses have been killed in the last 18 months. Instead, the government says, wildlife crimes have dropped by 70 percent since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

Botswana’s former president, Ian Khama, who stepped down in 2018, said Monday that poachers have killed 120 rhinoceroses in the past 18 months.

Khama said poachers were killing rhinos with or without horns, and that “after corona there will be none left for tourists to see,” referencing the coronavirus.

But the government swiftly moved to deny the accusation, instead saying wildlife-related crimes were down by 70 percent since coronavirus restrictions were introduced last March.

The Department of Wildlife and National Parks director, Kabelo Senyatso, said Khama’s claims were misleading.

In a statement Tuesday, Senyatso said the government could not disclose official figures and other information as it was a sensitive matter.

Senyatso said revealing the numbers and location of poached animals jeopardizes the anti-poaching operations.

However, the Bhejane Trust, a non-profit rhinoceros conservation group, said 12 of the animals had been killed in the iconic Okavango Delta in just the last two weeks.

Current President Mokgweetsi Masisi said during a recent graduation ceremony for senior army officers that the country is facing a poaching challenge.

“Today you graduate at a time when this country is facing a security challenge, such as high levels of poaching which threatens to wipe out our wildlife resources, that’s threatening the tourism sector which is one of the key engines of our economy. The number of poaching incidents, the tactics and the boldness employed in targeting Botswana Defense Force members is not only disturbing but a national security threat as well,” said Masisi.

Conservationist Neil Fitt said the government needs to involve other players more in the fight against poaching.

“I think our government needs to open up more and get help from outside of government. Government cannot do everything. Yes, it is a security issue. Other countries are using NGOs and other bodies to assist them in doing things,” he said.

In a bid to combat poaching, Botswana began dehorning rhinos and relocating them from the Okavango Delta last year.

Most of the poachers are from neighboring Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The poaching is fueled by demand for rhino horn in Asia, especially China, where the horns are used in traditional medicine.

Scientists have determined that rhino horns have no medicinal value.


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‘Educated’ Dogs Take On Poachers

Highly Trained Dogs Are Tracking Down Contraband, Protecting Wildlife and Saving Lives

As poachers go high-tech with helicopters, animal sedatives and high-powered rifles, the men and women protecting endangered wildlife are going old school — with dogs.

Conservation authorities in Zimbabwe and South Africa say that poachers now fly in helicopters over game parks to identify rhinos and, while airborne, shoot drugs at the animals to sedate them.

Once targeted animals become weakened, the rustlers land and brutally cut off their horns with chainsaws. There are no mercy killings here; the animals are left to bleed to death. To put them out of their misery would be to attract vultures, which would, in turn, alert authorities.

The scope of the problem is devastating. For instance, Kruger National Park in South Africa spends $13.5 million annually on anti-poaching efforts. It has the most highly trained and dedicated anti-poaching force in Africa. The conservation news service MongaBay reports that the park has been divided into 22 sections, each with its own section ranger and a team of field rangers. The rangers have helicopter support and the South African National Defence Force to help. Yet with all this money spent and all the effort, hundreds of rhinos are still poached each year in Kruger. Although the number has decreased in recent years, it is partly because there are fewer and fewer rhinos left to poach, with their numbers having declined in Kruger since 2011.

One dog is able to secure the same area as seven rangers, according to Animals Saving Animals. AFP/GETTY IMAGES

As wildlife officials look for new ways to protect rhinos, elephants and other animals from poachers, they are increasingly relying on highly trained dogs — “dogs with master’s degrees,” as some have called them.

The dogs come from other parts of the world to join the mission. Ireland dispatched a 14-month-old Dutch shepherd named Scout to a South African reserve. The Independent of the United Kingdom reported that such dogs, properly trained, are valued at more than $30,000 and can be used to “help protect the rhinos, park rangers and even reserve personnel.” Although the dog from Ireland was already highly trained, he began a new intensive training course in South Africa to prepare him for his new environment.

Then there’s Drum, who was 10 months old in 2019 when he arrived at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. The charity Animals Saving Animals trained the spaniel from the United Kingdom. The dog, said the conservancy, has proven to have an “exceptional ability” to detect ammunition and weapons. His job mainly involves vehicle searches.

“I hand-picked him from a litter when he was 8 weeks old,” dog trainer Daryll Pleasants told the conservancy. “As a puppy, he was always bouncing around, and that’s perfect for the job; it’s a very active role.”

Animals Saving Animals was founded in 2016 and now trains dogs for use all over the world. Pleasants said he believes his dogs have helped reduce poaching in some areas by up to 72%.


Dogs of varying breeds, including Belgian Malinois, Weimaraners, English springer spaniels, German shepherds and German shorthaired pointers, have been dispatched to Africa to stalk poachers, sniff out contraband at airports and assist in vehicle stops.

Under good conditions, a dog can detect the presence of a poacher up to a kilometer away. This makes anti-poaching officers much better equipped to track at night and cover more ground.

The African Wildlife Foundation established its dog program, Canines for Conservation, in 2014. The dogs have taken part in 400 seizures of illegal wildlife material such as elephant tusks, rhino horns and pangolin scales since then. Most of the products were headed for China and other parts of Southeast Asia to be used in bogus traditional Chinese medicine products.

Wildlife workers who have never worked with dogs, except perhaps guard dogs, have come to respect the animals.

“Dog handling has become a sought-after job among employees of wildlife authorities in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Mozambique, Botswana and most recently Cameroon,” tweeted Albert Schenk of the Wildlife Conservation Society. The handlers typically learn to work with the dogs over the course of eight to 10 weeks.

Canines for Conservation Director Will Powell told the BBC that the program is a public-private partnership with governments that helps them develop dog units within their wildlife organizations.

“That includes strategy, standard operating procedures and veterinary protocol,” he said. “With their help, we select rangers and train them as detection dog handlers.”

Powell chooses his dogs in Europe, in countries that already have a culture of working dogs. His career as a dog trainer began with teaching them to detect land mines.

The first class of Canines for Conservation graduated in July 2015, along with handlers from the Kenya Wildlife Service and the Tanzania Wildlife Division. The dogs were deployed to the primary airports and seaports of the two countries. From January through August 2016, the dog teams based at Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport discovered more than 26 caches of ivory, rhino horn and pangolin scales. 

A member of the Kruger National Park Anti-Poaching K9 Unit and his dog patrol the park. AFP/GETTY IMAGES


Powell’s dogs are trackers, not attackers. But trainers in other organizations sometimes take a different approach. In Zimbabwe, dogs trained by Pleasants are equipped with armor for self-defense.

In 2018, two armored dogs, Polaris and Rogue, tracked poachers and covered enough ground in an hour in low light to find the men.

“The poachers panic, drop their equipment, including heavy-caliber ammunition, and surrender,” The Independent of the U.K. reported. “Before night falls, the poaching team has intercepted and arrested a gang and recovered dangerous arms.”

“At night when our eyes become useless, that’s when the dog nose really helps us,” one dog trainer told the news website Insider. “The idea is to get the team close enough to the poacher that the team will then be able to make an arrest.”

A bloodhound tracks a scent during training in southern Kenya. AFP/GETTY IMAGES


The Belgian Malinois breed, which is similar to German shepherds, has proven useful in tracking poachers because of its intelligence, power, agility and, in some cases, bite strength. The breed has been used in military operations around the world and as guard dogs. Some trainers say that one dog and its handler can cover an area 60 times larger than the area covered by a ranger without a dog.

Conraad de Rosner, founder and director of K9 Conservation, is known for his work with Weimaraners and Malinois. He told Africa Geographic he uses Weimaraners to track animals, detect animal remains, and trap and locate wounded animals. His Malinois are used to track human suspects, detect firearms and ammunition, and use force if necessary.

“While both breeds are classed as ‘patrol dogs,’ their functions differ somewhat, and often their skills and abilities complement and assist each other in the field,” he said. “For this reason, and depending upon the situation, two field rangers, each with a different dog breed, are sometimes deployed together. All our dogs are trained in protection work, and they are capable of suspect apprehension should the need arise. These dogs are specially trained to bite or apprehend a suspect only upon command and to detain that suspect with minimal force.”

A ranger jumps out of a helicopter with a dog during an anti-poaching drill in Kenya. AFP/GETTY IMAGES

All of the trainers say that keeping the dogs from overheating is essential. The dogs, mostly from Europe, have to be protected from heat they have never known before. Some wear Kevlar bulletproof vests that start at about $500. De Rosner said there are companies now testing lightweight bulletproof dog vests that have a special gel that can help regulate the dogs’ temperature in hot and cold weather.

The other major threat to the dogs is sleeping sickness, transmitted by tsetse fly bites. It can kill dogs if not detected early. The handlers go to extraordinary lengths to protect the dogs from the flies, especially at night.

The dogs are hardly maintenance-free. They must have special housing to protect them, and they are fed top-quality food. Still, they are cost-effective.

“Although dogs are not a silver bullet in the fight against poaching, they are a huge security force multiplier,” Animals Saving Animals’ Pleasants told BBC Earth. “One dog is able to secure the same area as seven rangers.”  


There have been almost 400 seizures of illegal wildlife products since the Canines for Conversation program,
funded by the African Wildlife Foundation, started in 2011. Canines for Conservation Director Will Powell, who lives in Tanzania, spoke with
 ADF about his organization’s dogs.

Opposite: Canines for Conservation Director Will Powell works with a dog. AFRICAN WILDLIFE FOUNDATION

ADF: What kinds of dogs do you use to detect poachers and smuggled goods?

Powell: We have 50 detection dogs. There are three types. There are detection dogs, which are used at airport checkpoints and borders. Tracking dogs are used in the bush. And there are assault dogs, which we don’t use.

Our approach to tracking poachers isn’t to get the dogs all fired up, then catch the bad guy and bite him. These dogs quite often overheat. Our trainers are taught to be much more relaxed. They can keep the dogs tracking all day. During the tracking, give the dogs some rest and some water. If you see some shade, and it’s not time to rest, rest them anyway.

If you have a rhino poacher in north Kenya or South Africa, it’s a race — it’s a mad-dash race for the poacher to get the hell out of there. Sometimes it’s a bit too late to catch the poacher, but you get the message out that the risk of getting caught is much higher because of the dogs. In the Serengeti (National Park), we’ve had dogs for eight years. In the last six years, no elephants have been killed. If you poach anything, you’ll be followed home and caught.

ADF: What breeds of dogs do you use?

Powell: We use several types of dogs — Malinois and some GSDs (German shepherd dogs), German shorthaired pointers, Hanoverian hounds.

We have a dog that tracked a poacher’s trail that was 6 1/2 days old. It’s almost impossible when a trail is that old. When the team found the poacher, he thought it was witchcraft. He’d killed an elephant and hidden the tusk in a neighbor’s yard, under some manure. The dog still picked up the scent and recovered the ivory. It was a German shepherd — they have a thought process. You can have a conversation with a German shepherd.

ADF: A news report said that even though these dogs are not trained to sniff out poached turtles, a dog found some anyway.

Powell: When they smell large biological odors, they will have a change of behavior. A dog smelled something, so his handler checked out the bag [a traveler was carrying]. They sniff out things they weren’t trained to find — tortoises, coral, timber.

We’ve got a problem with bush meat trade in Serengeti National Park. Wildebeests and Zebra are killed there every day.

ADF: Where do you get your dogs?

Powell: We select our dogs in Europe. The dogs have come from Holland, the Czech Republic, France, Belgium, Hungary, Poland. When we select them, I joke that they already have a bachelor’s degree before we train them.

Proper selection of the right dogs is part of the trick. We start them off with a Kong, which is a standard dog toy. It’s a great tool for teaching dogs how to track. They have to love the Kong. I’ll hide the toy in different places. We do environment tests, seeing how they do in different places.

After we get them, we train them for two or three months before they get handlers. After that, they get eight to 10 weeks of training. Our dogs are social but independent. They live in kennels.

It’s not set in stone that a particular handler will handle that particular dog. We have dogs here who can be handled by any handlers. We’re choosing dogs which are handler-proof. And we teach the handlers to love the dogs.

We teach the handlers love, care and affection. We try to get dogs who are not too needy, but also dogs who are not too aggressive.

The tracking dogs in the Serengeti are kept in kennels that are tsetse fly-proof. We put out tsetse fly targets; the flies are attracted to dark blue. Our targets are impregnated with insecticide.

Tsetse fly bites can cause sleeping sickness. The biggest threats to our dogs are tsetse flies and the heat. Dogs are more easily affected by tsetse flies than are humans. As far as tsetse flies go, dogs are the canaries in the mines. These are tough dogs; they’ve been in the field their whole lives.

Our handlers take the dogs for walks and will groom the dogs and make health checks. We’ve had two dogs retired after seven years in the field, and they were never bitten by tsetse flies.

The Masaai handlers in Tanzania will stop and rest their dogs whenever they find shade, even before a rest is needed. It’s best to refresh the batteries before they run flat.

One day we had a dog track a poacher for eight hours alongside a river. Then we brought in a second dog. The second dog had a two-minute track before we caught up with the poacher.

One of our dogs, Jerry, is 14 years old. He worked as a tracker for eight years. He’s retired to a nice house and a nice family in Arusha. Life for these dogs can be pretty good in retirement. Hanging out on a white beach in Tanzania isn’t bad.

There are some risks for the handlers. We don’t want them to be identified. Their faces are hidden, and they ride in blacked-out vehicles. If they are too successful, they are at risk.

People question the efficacy of teams that don’t make finds on a regular basis. That’s not the case. Since our dogs have been at the Mozambique airport [in Maputo], the word on the street has been that you can’t transport anything illegal through the airport because the dogs will catch you. Don’t go there! It’s a prophylactic effect — we don’t seize anything because the dogs have convinced everyone that they will get caught.

ADF: Talk a little about what it’s like in the field.

Powell: When you’re a poacher in the field, you can get tracked all the way back to your home by our dogs. We scoop up the dirt of the footprint. If we lose the track, we use common sense and go to the next bus stop or village, up to 20 kilometers away. There, we present the dirt to the dog again. In the second or third village, the dogs picks up the trail. We go to the poacher and say, “Mate, you’re coming with us.” They think it’s witchcraft.

We’ll do lineups where we will line up suspects. The dogs will pick them right out. The poachers start telling you their whole story.

Kruger rhino populations plummet – latest official stats


After years of silence about Kruger National Park rhino populations from South Africa’s Ministry of Forestry and Fisheries and Environmental Affairs, we can now confirm that populations in the Kruger National Park have plummeted to an estimated 3,529 white rhinos and 268 black rhinos.

This represents a population reduction of 67% for white rhinos – from 10,621 in 2011 and 35% for black rhinos – from 415 in 2013.

Note that the Minister’s regular rhino poaching updates over the last years focussed on volumes of rhinos poached and other related statistics such as arrests and park incursions – but did not include population details. Recent updates claimed progress in the war against poaching on the grounds that the volume of rhinos being poached per year has reduced recently. This population update suggests that the population reduction is a significant factor contributing towards lower poaching volumes, although refined tactics and back-breaking work by a dedicated and passionate SANParks’ team and various service providers are arguably also contributory factors.


1. These latest stats (2019) are available on page 96 of the 2019/2020 SANParks Annual Report: download.

2. 2018 stats are available on page 101 of the 2018/2019 SANParks Annual Report: download.

3. Prior year stats are available here: white rhinos and black rhinos.

The 2017 figure appears to be a statistical anomaly

3 rhinos killed in two separate incidents in Lephalale, Gravelotte

LIMPOPO – Three black rhinos were found killed in separate incidents in the Lephalale and Gravelotte policing areas.

In the first incident, a rhino was found shot and killed at a local game reserve in the Waterberg district on Friday, 22 January.

Photo: Limpopo Police

According to a statement by Police Spokesperson, Col Moatshe Ngoepe, the carcass was found with the horns intact. “It seems as if the suspects never had time to remove the horns and the carcass, believed to be three to five days old, was discovered during a routine patrol by the owner of the reserve, who was flying in a helicopter,” Ngoepe explained.

Photo: Limpopo Police
Photo: Limpopo Police

In another incident on Saturday, 23 January, two rhinos were found killed and dehorned at a game reserve in Gravelotte outside Phalaborwa. “The rangers were patrolling in the reserve when they spotted the animals and immediately called the police,” he said.

Ngoepe explained that the Saps Endangered Species Unit in Limpopo have launched a massive manhunt following the killings of the specially protected species.

“The suspects are still unknown in both incidents and there has been no arrest yet. Anyone with information that can lead to the arrest of the suspects involved in these incidents, may contact Col Alpheus Mokale at 082 565 6524 or Capt Meyer at 082 319 9460. Alternatively, they can contact the Crime Stop number at 08600 10111, their nearest police station or use the MySAPSApp,” he concluded.