A canine unit has been established in Gonarezhou National Park as an additional tool to park management. With a sense of smell one thousand times stronger than humans the unit has been created as a rapid response to try and locate poachers before they disappear from the Park into neighboring Mozambique.
Despite an annual growth rate of 6% between 1992 and 2014, the Gonarezhou elephant population have been particularly susceptible to poaching in recent years due to their large numbers, their density and the high proportion of large tusked individuals.
Franfurt Zoological Society, with support from the Elephant Crisis Fund (ECF) began procedures in mid July 2015 to establish a canine unit and by December 2015 it was ready to start operations! Kennels and a training facility had been built, two dogs had been shipped from Zimbabwe. Three handlers had undertaken 480 hours of training over a 3 month period.
The dogs and handlers were primarily trained in tracking human spoor in the field, as well as detection of ivory and fire-arms in open air, within buildings and as part of vehicle searches, with the handlers learning just as much as their canine counterparts.
Unfortunately, in February 2016 one of the dogs died by an undetermined cause – a major setback. Despite this, the unit remains a source of pride to the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority and has had multiple successes.
In particular the unit has boosted the morale of ranger forces especially when the unit tracks into the communal land outside the Park. The dogs sniffed their way there, leading to arrests of suspects at their homesteads. This is normally a safe hideout for the poachers from human trackers. The canine unit has been directly involved in the follow-up of 21 incidents where an incursion into the Park was detected.10 of these cases resulted in a successful outcome, proving the undoubting exceptional additional capability the unit brings to the security of the Park.
However, the challenging terrain, high summer temperatures and the significant size of Gonarezhou NP has provided big challenges to the canine unit’s effective deployment. Similarly, unfamiliarity with the capabilities of the dogs by senior management has also hampered the unit’s progress. The main limitation of their success to date seems to be the distance between where a fresh elephant incident has been recorded, and time it will take to bring the dog(s) to the site.
Given that initially there was considerable concern for even allowing domestic dogs into the Park the fact that GNP management has taken a decision to expand the current program shows the success of the unit and the potential successes the unit could garner.