On the Trail with our Canine Unit

Published on the 29th of July, 2021

31st July marks World Ranger Day, honouring our guardians of the wild and the sacrifices they make. Being a ranger isn’t just a job; it’s a calling. Every day, these men work tirelessly to protect our natural world and forge a better future for wildlife. As we come together to celebrate rangers the world over, I wanted to highlight a very special group within our own organisation — and the four-legged rangers who work alongside them. I am speaking, of course, about our Canine Unit.

In fact, an incident earlier this week serves as a potent reminder of the impact of our Canine Unit. During a routine patrol last week, they came across over 100 snares in the Tsavo Conservation Area. They lifted the snares and expanded their patrol area to find the bushmeat poacher responsible, covering over 50 kilometres as they gathered evidence.

On Tuesday morning, we finally had a breakthrough when rangers spotted footprints along the fenceline. They visually tracked the perpetrator for 2 kilometres, before Naiko (our veteran canine — you'll read more about him below) and his handler, Semeli, took over. They soon tracked down the poacher and KWS arrested him. This poacher had over 200 snares in his possession, which potentially represents scores of wild lives lost. Thanks to the complement of the Canine Unit, another significant threat has been removed. Outcomes like this have been mirrored over and over again since these incredible dogs have come into the Tsavo landscape.

– Angela Sheldrick

On the Trail with our Canine Unit

Our anti-poaching operations began humbly. In 1999, we established our first Tsavo-based team in partnership with the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), in response to the rising threat of bushmeat and ivory poaching. Over the years, our presence has expanded across the country, now spanning 18 Anti-Poaching Teams that secure key habitats and protect the creatures who call them home.

As we continued to build out our anti-poaching presence, we realised there was a missing link. While rangers are extremely specialised in their craft — they are more observant, diligent, and brave than any other people I have ever met — humans are not a species blessed with a supernatural sense of smell. Thus, scent-based tracking is a distinct weak spot in any ranger’s skillset. In the bush, successfully tracking down poachers often hinges on combining the strengths of both man and dog.

Zora, Aya, And Naiko don't blink an eye at boarding our aircraft to access remote locations

To increase our capacity, we knew it was time to recruit a four-legged force that could complement our teams. The KWS had individual canines in various locations, including Ngulia, but no comprehensive unit existed in Tsavo — and given that Tsavo is Kenya’s largest National Park, a bastion of wildlife and home to the country’s biggest population of elephants, we knew this was an area that would benefit enormously from the presence of tracker dogs and their handlers. And so, in 2016, we officially launched our Canine Unit in partnership with the KWS.

Symon and Aya share an incredible bond

Bringing dogs into this landscape was an enormous undertaking and a serious commitment. Tsavo is a difficult place to work, between its arid climate and constant barrage of threats. The first thing we did was construct a state-of-the-art kennel, ensuring the dogs had an oasis within this challenging ecosystem. We built it in Tsavo East just a stone’s throw from our Kaluku Field HQ, ensuring every detail was attended to, from fly-proof kennels to snake-proof fencing around the dogs’ runs to a climate-controlled system that keeps temperatures down. A dog’s emotional well-being is just as important as their physical condition, so we carved out areas for play, bathing, and grooming.

The team must be vigilant during their all sorts of creatures during their daily patrols

And with this infrastructure in place, it was time to assemble our team. Matching a handler with their dog is a precise, painstaking process, one we undertake with our partners at Invictus K9. The selection process takes many weeks as candidates go through a rigorous series of tests designed to assess their verbal and non-verbal communication, physical and mental fitness, observation skills, and ability to multitask. The assessment isn’t for the faint of heart: From memory tests to clicker training, each exercise really puts the candidates through their paces.

Our Canine Unit shares an incredible rapport with the Anti-Poaching Rangers they work alongside

One of the most demanding exercises is the multi-task assessment, a 100-metre race through the bush. As they manoeuvre through extremely tricky physical obstacles, they also must field radio calls and respond to on-the-fly memory tests throughout the course. And the biggest catch? The whole race must be completed while holding an egg on a spoon. This herculean exercise is a great simulation of what unfolds in the field: The handlers are tracking down perpetrators through extremely challenging conditions, remaining in constant communication with the rest of the team, all the while mitigating the fact that their quarry may be armed and dangerous, and managing external threats such as lions. The egg and spoon represent the leash and canine; first and foremost, the handler must always be finely attuned to their dog’s needs, leading them firmly but gently.

Semeli and Naiko are our veteran duo

This rigorous recruitment process has yielded the all-star team we have today:

Naiko is our veteran. Born in 2014, this Belgian Malinois has really matured into his role. Unlike many dogs, he thrives in the heat. Naiko is very methodical. He doesn’t blaze along a trail, but he is very diligent and never gives up. One day, he tracked down a perpetrator over the course of 15 kilometres. (For reference, a typical police dog tracks for about 1 kilometre.) Naiko’s handler is Semeli, who also serves as the Team Leader for the Canine Unit. He used to work for the Anti-Poaching Units but showed a great ability with dogs and was moved over to head the Canine Unit.

Aya, a three-year-old Belgian Malinois and German Shepherd mix, is our workaholic. She is remarkably focused on whatever task is at hand and never gives up. Her handler, Symon, mirrors her work ethic. He is a very stoic, serious worker, but his affection for Aya is clear: Even when they’re fully focused in the field, Symon is always smiling when Aya is by his side.

Zora, another three-year-old and a full Belgian Malinois, is our tank. She is a bit bigger than Naiko and Aya and has enormous power, pulling at a million miles an hour. While Naiko would diligently find a path around a thorn bush, Zora would blaze right through it. However, she is a sensitive soul and needs delicate handling. She gets that from her handler, Antony. He understands her need for a sensitive approach, and they share a very special connection.

Collectively, our anti-poaching presence is making a real difference on the Tsavo ecosystem

Our Canine Unit has emerged as an incredible complement to our other anti-poaching efforts. Their mere presence is a deterrent; would-be poachers know that nothing gets past the dogs. In fact, on several occasions, the Canine Unit has tracked down a shocked perpetrator to their front door! On every patrol, they are accompanied by armed KWS rangers, who then move in to make the arrest. They have an incredible rapport with the Anti-Poaching Teams. On every long-distance patrol, the handlers must carry enough water for themselves and their dogs, which adds up to a not-insignificant volume of 8 litres of water. Oftentimes, we witness Anti-Poaching Rangers volunteer to shoulder this burden, such is their affection and respect for the Canine Unit.

Patrols are gruelling for man and dog alike, covering great distances in challenging conditions

To see the Canine Unit in action is to witness an extraordinary partnership unfold: man and dog, working together towards a shared goal of conservation. Every day, Naiko, Aya, and Zora and their handlers deliver on that goal, making Tsavo a safer place for all the creatures who call it home. Outside the impact they make, it is also so heartwarming to see the incredible bond that exists between the dogs and their handlers. Just as we see this in the field, we also see it during the quiet moments, when the men are quietly grooming their dogs in the shade of the trees or playing a game of fetch.

Aya shows off her incredible agility in the field

Angela Sheldrick produces Field Notes as a special monthly email, providing her personal insight into varying aspects of Kenya's wildlife and habitats, along with the work of the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. To receive the monthly email edition of Field Notes, which includes interviews with members of our team, please subscribe here.

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