Most people don't know the true extent of anti-poaching efforts that happen on a daily basis from within Kruger National Park's fences. From helicopter patrols, anti-poaching units buried deep in the bush, mobile radar units, new scanning systems that reference people to their cars and to their travel itineraries across the park. But one of the most successful has to be the K9 unit.
A mix of canine and chemistry creates impeccably bred hounds designed to track, sniff and in earlier cases subdue. The K9 unit is a use case for when science and an insurmountable respect for animal life merge; and with rhino poaching averaging around 3 a day within a population of less than 25, 000 (black and southern white rhino), these efforts may be the only ones extending this generation's chances to connect to these incredible creatures.
This past weekend I was one of the privileged few who were allowed into Johan de Beer's K9 Unit Centre, the central command for anti-poaching K9 activity for Kruger National Park and the place where dogs from across the park come for their own bit of R&R as well needed respite from the 24 hour, round-the-clock duties they perform in lieu of the conservation efforts.
When we arrived we were quickly reminded of how incredible these pups are, as during a poaching incident 3 days prior to our arrival, a bloodhound picked up the tracks of the poachers, with rangers and choppers following steadily behind. But as they moved through the bush, in the direction of the where the tracks were heading, the dog about-turned and headed back on the tracks in the opposite direction to where they were heading. Rangers thought that this pup might have taken the wrong kind of pellets in morning, but as it turns out the poachers back tracked in order to throw off the hunting rangers and stave off the party, but the dogs picked it up, which lead to a successful arrest.
Some of these guys, like the bloodhounds, can pick up a cold track 20 hours after it has been left by poachers.
The dogs are active everyday (because the poachers are) with around 80% success rate of anti-poaching efforts attributable to them - and the sounds of the helicopters attest to this as they whirl overhead all day. Thus the the K9 unit centre provides much needed rest and fun for the pups; a bit of spa-esque rejuvenation to keep their spirits high.
Our party of around 15 people were put up in immaculate accommodation in the camp and attended to the duties that give Johan, his partner Mandi and the park rangers who do these tasks otherwise a bit of extra hands and also allow them some well-needed breathing room from the dailies.
From around 6am we were up and feeding, cleaning, playing and moving them from their night kennels to their day pens. After the morning activities, we proceeded to do duties around the camp or elsewhere as required - from building fire-pits, to filling holes to netting shade around kennel enclosures. After we were finished (at around 2 - 3pm) we got to do what we liked, but on the last night, Johan took us for sundowners at a dam, which was flush with around 100 hippos and nearly the same amount of crocs, listening to the grunts of these beasts and observing the opulent bird activity as we enjoyed our last few hours of daylight whilst celerating our achievements that day.
But besides all the merriment, the truth is that these guys need your help. With the political climate being as sad as Donald Trump's fake news, money dries up faster than you can say tenderpreneur, and the gravity of the situation and the impetus to do anything honourable from our public sector outside of the Cape Town's monthly parliamentary meetings is left horribly wanting.
In short, they need your help. Whether it be time, money, or just spreading pieces of information like this one across your social networks, the drive to assist in saving rhinos and other endangered wildlife species lies firmly with all of us, and not just these incredible few who surrender the capitalists dream of a flush bank account to live in the hollows of the bush fighting with a world the world that seems to care less and less.
As Mandi said to me, "In the beginning we thought we might not need marketing, but we quickly realised that we really, really do".
So, if you're interested in donating your time or money to this incredible cause, join the SANParks Honorary Rangers (drop a comment if you need any more info and I'll be happy to respond), or donate to the K9 unit by clicking here, every cent counts, and join the Facebook Group KNP Ranger Dogs by clicking here.
A big thank you to our hosts Johan and Mandi and SANParks Johannesburg region Honorary Rangers for an awe-inspiring and eye-opening weekend.