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InvictusK9 trains dogs to fight elephant poaching

In Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe, which is affected by the rising threat of poaching, we have setup our first anti-poaching dog units including the two German shepherds Samy and Roxy. We talked to Jay Crafter from InvictusK9, who trained the dogs, their handlers and prepared them for action.

Sniffer dogs are well known to be used to detect explosives, drugs or weapons. What are Samy and Roxy doing in our conservation project?

Samy and Roxy are both being used to track tracks or spoor of people who have illegally gained entry into the park or to conduct follow-up on a track after a poaching incident. Both Roxy and Samy are also trained to search for and passively indicate the presence of ivory, weapons and ammunition with plans to train them to find poisons and bush meat.

Excellent sensory skills make dogs a good choice for tracking. What other characteristics are necessary to shape a great tracker dog and how do you select a suitable dog for the job?

Jay Crafter InvictusK9 at Gonarezhou (Photo: Jay Crafter)
Jay Crafter founder of IncitusK9 with Roxy at Gonarezhou National Park.

Canine selection is a lengthy process. To find a suitable candidate I test about 10 dogs to find the right one. I start by watching the dog in its home kennel and then expand my observation to known and unknown surroundings. I want to know if the dog has any negative traits such as food aggression, kennel aggression or fear of strangers. It is also important to see how the dog accepts human contact and demonstrates its ability to trust. It may need to be placed up into an attic or into a lorry or a vet may need to perform a procedure. I also conduct a range or search test to ensure that the dog has the natural ability to hunt but more importantly that it does not look for help. Independence is key to the success. Tracking requires a naturally independent dog that will focus on the task and not the handler. After my hunt tests I conduct a series of tracking exercises that tell me two things: Does the dog grasp the tracking concept and how quickly does it learn. I am basically assessing the dog’s trainability. My final testing is veterinary. I ensure that the dogs receive a full health check. It is important for me to not only provide an excellent working dog, but a dog that will have a quality working life. 

Why did you choose Samy and Roxy to be trained as anti-poaching dogs?

Samy and Roxy are both superb dogs and it has been nothing but a privilege to train them. They are opposites in many ways too. Samy is an ‘extreme’ dog. He wants to do nothing more than work and literally tries to find a track or piece of ivory when he is taken for a short little walk to use the bathroom! A friend of mine best described a dog like Samy as ‘all sail, no rudder’. Roxy is my little princess. She loves to work too. Roxy’s got an outstanding intelligence and she knows it! I regularly found myself cross-examining her behaviours realizing that she was beginning to manipulate me into rewarding her. She plays the game well!!! She is incredibly loyal and has a phenomenal nose on her. 

When do you know a dog is ready to be used in the field?

I knew Samy was ready after about a month of training and Roxy after about two months. The key to success is selecting the right handler and teaching them how to handle the dog correctly. The course is 12 weeks long for the handlers and they started with semi-trained dogs.

Jay Crafter InvictusK9 at Gonarezhou (Photo: Jay Crafter)

How do you prevent anti-poaching dogs from chasing wildlife?

We spent a lot of time acclimatizing the dogs to the working environment. We would go on 10 to 15km road walks through the bush and the dogs would come across all sorts of wildlife. At first they were very interested but we made a game of handler focused exercises around the wildlife to take the focus away. 

Are our dogs equipped with protective gear? Like a vest or GPS?

Neither Roxy nor Samy have anything like that. They are worked under complete control of the handler. They are worked off leash in a controlled environment where they can’t escape and then on a 15ft leash when they are tracking.

What have been the most challenging training tasks for the dog units in our project in Gonarezhou NP?

If I was to narrow it down to a single task, it would probably be tracking in hot conditions. It is risky work as the dog is more susceptible to heat injuries. Having said that we spent a great deal of time countering the threat with a solid understanding of what the heat will do to the dog. Vigilance is key.

Samy, Roxy and their handlers Edward Hlatshwayo, Promise Kanuka and Daison Hlelelwa have completed basic training and are the first certified anti-poaching canine units in Zimbabwe. What is next for the teams?

My goal is to sever my own umbilical cord so the project is not reliant on me. In a dream situation I would return every weekend – Gonarezhou is beautiful! As the dogs conduct more and more operations successfully I hope the project will want to expand the program with additional dogs for other roles. This will allow me to provide oversight into the more seasoned handlers. Both Hugo and Elsabe van der Westhuizen are fantastic leaders who are very aware of both the capabilities AND the limitations of these dogs. We discussed the dogs daily during my time there and I am confident they will identify any issues before they become a problem. 

Gonarezhou Conservation Programme

Gonarezhou, when taken on its own merit, is a jewel amongst African National Parks, but also plays a key role in one of Africa's most progressive conservation initiatives: the creation of one of the largest conservation areas in the world: the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Park - a 35,000 square kilometers tri-national animal kingdom.

Visit Gonarezhou Conservation Programme

Why is the dog handler important for a successful anti-poaching dog?

The handler is the brains of the outfit. The best handler in the world can make an average dog good. The worst handler in the world will make a great dog useless. The single biggest concern for me was the cultural considerations when selecting a handler from the Lowveld in Zimbabwe. My concerns were calmed very quickly. The handlers brought a ton of hidden empathy and when they saw the motivation and drive that both Samy and Roxy had, they applied themselves further. The dogs are incredibly infectious with their work ethic and all the dog handler applicants, selected or not, were exemplary scouts and I was humbled by their devotion to duty.

What is the dog’s motivation to team up with a handler for work?

Love, trust and loyalty. Samy and Roxy both work exceptionally hard to earn their reward. But they work even harder to earn their reward from their handler. The interaction that they experience with their handlers after successfully completing a task is what they live for. 

How and why did you become a trainer for anti-poaching dogs?

I have been training dogs since I joined the British Army in 1998. I was lucky to work on the US Army Combat Tracker program. The similarities in dog training were the same: dogs deploying into hostile environments, working in high temperatures and covering great distances. I was born and raised in Zimbabwe and when I went back home in March 2015, I met a few people and explained what I could provide. Training dogs is the easy task for me. The hardest thing was for me to find someone who trusted me as an outsider. Hugo van der Westhuizen was very honest up front about his concerns for the dogs not meeting expectations because of the environment and wildlife factors. But he also admitted that he couldn’t be narrow-minded and was willing to try and enhance the project with a canine program. I was very fortunate to work with people who actually speak AND practice conservation first without emotion affecting the project. 

Jay Crafter InvictusK9 at Gonarezhou (Photo: Jay Crafter)

What is your most memorable experience while working with our team in Gonarezhou?

The first time Mr. Hlelelwa completed a blind track (training term for when the handler does not know where the track goes). He was provided a starting point and direction of flight. Daison and Samy came off the track twice but reacquired it comfortably. When Samy found his reward at the end of the track Daison had the biggest smile on his face. Disbelief/joy/amazement/pride were all beaming out. He was genuinely happy. Without any guidance from me he picked Samy up and carried him towards the vehicle. He told Samy ‘thank you’ and ‘I will carry you’. I asked him why he thanked Samy, and he said it was because Samy led him to the end. I can teach guys like that all day long!

On your website you describe yourself a conservationist. Why are you involved in fighting wildlife crime?

I have had a career that has taken me in a full circle. Before I joined the army I was working for my uncle in the Zambian and Zimbabwean bush. My grandfather helped establish National Parks in Zambia and it is something I am very proud of. He taught me things about the bush and I have always been captivated by it. I left Zimbabwe before the land redistribution program started and every time I returned to Zimbabwe I became more concerned with the issues that people in the government and private sectors were having to deal with. Everything was focused on people and we were forgetting about our wildlife. Areas I grew up in were decaying and animals were vanishing. I wanted my kids to see Africa for what it really is. A harsh and sometimes brutal, but untouched wilderness. We need to preserve the wildness of Africa on a grand scale. It is what makes it so beautiful. I want to do my part in ensuring that Africa survives like that and we can protect it.

How will canine units change the way we fight wildlife crime in the future?

Canine teams bring a huge psychological advantage to an area that is under threat. The presence of dogs alone will have an impact on the local community. Dogs can be used to provide additional information and secure evidence that would have otherwise been missed. A well-run program will ensure the poacher thinks twice before attempting to enter an area illegally. We all know that dogs aren’t a silver bullet, but they do compliment a well-run anti-poaching program like in Gonarezhou.

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