K9 Unit Update – Wildlife Guardian News Q1 2023

Johan van Straaten – Dog Master

Thanks to the amazing and ongoing support of a number of donors including the Ivan Carter Wildlife Conservation Alliance, Garmin, Foundation Hans Wilsdorf, Metamorphosis Foundation, Friends of African Wildlife, Tusk Trust, Our Horn is NOT Medicine donors including the Edgar Droste Trust and Seaboard USA as well as other individual donors, we have been able to add substantial impact to the anti-poaching efforts not only in South Africa but in our neighbouring countries too. We are also delighted that the Chamberlain Foundation Trust announced a new award for the K9 Unit due to its outstanding achievements. The Chamberlain Foundation has been a long-term supporter of the College via our natural resource management programmes, and we are very grateful for this support to the K9 Unit. 

With the support of our donors, we are proud and thankful to report on the below highlights of the first quarter of 2023.

The Skukuza Mobile Unit in the Kruger National Park is finally operational after much hard work and planning was put into this extraordinary effort between the South African National Parks (SANParks) and the SAWC. The mobile unit based in the heart of the Park, also referred to as the Intensive Protection Zone, will now allow our team to get airborne much quicker and thus drastically speed up our reaction times to incursions. An official opening launch of the mobile unit was planned for in February 2023, but due to the heavy rains brought on by hurricane Freddy, this had to be postponed. 

At the end of 2022, the K9 Unit’s Dog Master, Johan van Straaten, traveled to Zinave in Mozambique to assess the K9 Unit being established there. In February 2023, two of the Zinave K9 Unit handlers were sent to the SAWC for Dog Hander training, under the request of Peace Parks Foundation. The K9 Unit in Zinave is now growing from strength to strength and has been able to go operational from March thanks to the training which was provided by the SAWC.  

In the next few months Johan will be heading back to Zinave to provide more assistive support as well as training support for both the hounds and handlers based on-site in Mozambique.  

Award-winning journalist, bestselling author and writer for the Guardian in Chile, Jonathan Franklin visited the Southern African Wildlife College in early March 2023. This time not for the Guardian, but for Bloomberg News, New York City. Franklin generally covers Chile including crime and human rights and recently published his latest book, 438 Days but is now doing a feature on the survival of rhino. His hope is to find some positivity in what seems to be a hopeless situation.  

Jonathan spent a few days at the College meeting the hard-working teams on the ground and got to spend some time with our K9 Unit and our ranger trainers. Jonathan was blown away by the expanse of the College and its offerings and very generously donated his conservation book, A Wild Idea, to the College’s student library. We are eagerly looking forward to reading his article in June when it is published.  

Towards the end of March 2023, Johan also traveled to the Bubye Valley Conservancy in Zimbabwe, during which time he assessed their K9 Unit upon their request. The College has been working with the Bubye Valley Conservancy for several years, having sold them two hounds initially some five years ago. The Conservancy is getting another two dogs from us shortly, at which point Johan will head back to spend one month there training the team on-site. What is really exciting about the Bubye Valley’s team is that they have added horses to their K9 Unit patrols and this is proving to be very effective in this area.  

We are also in the process of training an entire pack of free-running hounds for the Bubye Valley Conservancy, but as you can see from the stunning images the puppies still have a long way to go. 

At the very end of this quarter, Johan again donned his travelling shoes, this time to the Kalahari to give Tswalu Kalahari Reserve a demonstration of what our hounds are capable of, even in harsh weather conditions. The reserve contacted the College as it is very enthusiastic to add a K9 Unit to its counter poaching efforts but was concerned that it may not be possible as the bush and weather conditions there are too harsh to run dogs in. However, this was not the case and the reserve was so taken aback and impressed with the capabilities of our hounds that they asked Johan to come back to assist them to start up a K9 unit. A very successful night tracking demo was presented, which showed the team what can be done at night when the extreme heat of the day has cooled down, and how the dogs can still operate in the dark; with extreme temperature fluctuations and the lack of long grass. This for example can heavily impact what scent is left to enable hounds to track a poacher, but thanks to the amazing work Johan has been doing, our hounds are still proving to be very effective even in such environments.  

Other highlights during the first quarter included: 

  • Garmin’s visit to the unit and the very kind donation of new tracking collars and new handheld GPS’S. This addition, together with our older collars and GPS’ has left us with enough collars for each dog in at the College and at our new Satellite Unit within the Kruger National Park. 

  • At the Satellite Unit near Skukuza we were also sponsored with ten beds for the dogs too sleep on. A big shout out to Hound Sleeper for sponsoring the beds.   

  • Our new litter of puppies is now officially 2 months old. And they have already started with tracking, all doing about 20-meter tracks. It doesn’t sound like much, but for them it’s far as the concentration required for a puppy that age is not the easiest!  

  • Zinave National Park, located in the Inhambane Province of Mozambique sent two rangers to attend two courses, Dog Handling and Tracking, with the K9 Unit. This training lasted four weeks, launching on 03 February 2023 and concluding on 03 March 2023. The students who completed this training were Lusbemarmando Romao and Miquelda Maria Nhavche. 

  • Once again a huge thank you to Pack Leader Pet Products for keeping our dogs in tip top shape and well-conditioned with Orijen dog food, both at the College and at the Satellite Unit.