How detection dogs help wildlife rangers curb crime in the Maasai Mara National Reserve (Kenya)


Sue Palminteri, Pacific Standard Magazine

Date Published

See link for photo.

It took Gage roughly six seconds to find the tiny piece of ivory hidden on the underside of our vehicle. Gage, a Labrador retriever, specializes in finding ivory and firearms, helping his handlers in the Mara Triangle, the northwestern portion of Kenya’s renowned Maasai Mara National Reserve, reduce the options for wildlife poachers to enter with weapons or exit with ivory.

For World Ranger Day 2018, Mongabay recognized the rangers in many protected areas who face a nearly impossible task. A small cadre of rangers with limited equipment must know and patrol vast areas of forest, savanna, or desert, and monitor multiple entry points, against often more numerous and better-equipped poachers and other intruders.

Dogs like Gage, with their outsized capacity to sniff out even well-hidden people and objects, are helping rangers at several major reserves to do their jobs better.

The Maasai Mara is famous for its annual wildlife migration, during which over a million animals, mostly wildebeest, trek between it and the adjacent Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. Hundreds of bushmeat poachers kill up to 100,000 of these animals each year, said Brian Heath, chief executive officer of the Mara Conservancy, which manages the Mara Triangle.

To address this persistent threat to the Triangle’s wildlife, the Mara Conservancy employs two groups of dogs. “For tracking people, we’ve got bloodhounds,” Heath told Mongabay-Wildtech. “For ivory and firearms, we’ve got labs.”

Scent-tracking poachers and other criminals

Heath said the six tracker dogs help his team investigate security incidents, such as thefts in the reserve’s camps or lodges, or cattle rustling in surrounding villages. The Triangle originally borrowed dogs from other reserves to respond to such security incidents before purchasing its own dogs in 2009.

Tracking and detection dogs must be trained and worked regularly. Since crimes in campgrounds, lodges, and surrounding villages occur infrequently and without warning, the rangers began using the dogs in other activities.

“We looked into how to use the dogs to address bushmeat poaching,” Asuka Takita, a veterinarian who supervises the Mara Triangle’s anti-poaching canine unit, told Mongabay-Wildtech. “Most poachers are on foot, so we can put the dogs on their trail to track them in the park, including Serengeti with our partners from TANAPA,” the Tanzania National Parks Authority.

The tracker dogs increasingly accompany anti-poaching patrols, where they can help the rangers follow up on intelligence gained from other sources.

The Mara Conservancy’s recent adoption of several higher-tech tools, including FLIR (forward-looking infrared) thermal cameras to detect poachers at night, complements the ability of the dogs to sniff out intruders who are outside the range of the cameras.

“Using the FLIR cameras,” Heath said, “rangers recently detected poachers at night. They were able to catch and arrest one man, but the other ran off and hid. The tracker dog [and handler] followed him for two kilometers and found him.”

The dogs’ sense of smell helps their handlers follow a poacher’s trail; the scarcity of footprints in the area’s dense grass previously allowed the poachers to easily escape.

“The thermal cameras see the poachers, who run, and sometimes one or two disappear, so that’s where the dogs should be helpful,” Takita said, “so I’ve been training three to four puppies for tracking at night, without a torch. Recently, one of the new trackers caught a guy in the pitch dark, so that’s what I’m looking for.”

Scent disappears over time, and poachers move fast—”past six hours and they are long gone,” Takita said. “In two hours, poachers have walked 20 kilometers [12.4 miles] in front of you, so tracking teams need to make up some 30 kilometers [18.6 miles] in the first hour, which is difficult. You have to have a fast tracker, and both the guys and the dogs have to be fit.

“Dogs can give the ranger team direction—where the poachers have gone,” Takita said, “but they are not effective without the back-up rangers. They provide the guidance but are just one tool in the toolbox.”

Heath also said his rangers initially feared that the dogs would bark during night patrols, which would give away the rangers’ position, compromising their search and their safety. “We’re training our young dogs to go out at night without barking,” Heath added.

With this training and accumulated field testing, he added, the rangers feel increasingly more comfortable bringing the dogs out at night. The rangers also learn how and when to best use the dogs, such as by letting a dog catch a scent trail quickly, before detected poachers “contaminate” the area by running around in different directions trying to escape.

The Nose Knows

“Sniffer” detection dogs like Gage work with rangers at the Mara Triangle’s gates. They are trained to seek specific substances, primarily ivory, guns, and ammunition, during the regular searches of vehicles entering and exiting the reserve, and to notify their handlers of their location. Rangers also benefit from the reduced risk of weapons entering the reserve.

The 2013 Westgate mall terror attack that left more than 200 people dead or injured was the impetus to add detection dogs to the team, because the next target was said to be a major Kenyan wildlife park. The detection dogs were brought on soon after to screen cars and deter people from bringing firearms into the reserve.

Another motivation for the Mara Conservancy to maintain its own dogs was to reduce the incidence of robbery at campgrounds. “We did have a security incident where armed thugs entered a campground,” Takita said. “By screening the cars, it provides our guests with security … and us as well.”

“They are as much a deterrent as anything,” Heath said, though Gage’s speed in alerting his handlers to the small piece of ivory and a practice weapon he found hidden in our vehicle as a demonstration confirmed his effectiveness.

“They find undeclared firearms about every few months,” Takita said. “People carry their private guns, and dogs pick it up. They will find it, [so] you must declare and put it in an armory.”

The canine unit also regularly assists local authorities by sending the detection dogs to crime scenes outside the park to find bullets and other criminal evidence.

Taking a Bite Out of Crime

Since introducing the tracker dog units, the Mara Conservancy rangers have reduced the numbers of incursions into the Mara Triangle from Tanzania and have enjoyed a higher success rate in arrests.

“Our original bloodhound [named Morani, now retired] had between 150 and 200 people arrested by bringing the ranger teams to the poachers,” Takita said.

Cattle theft and general robberies were rampant before the dogs arrived and brought a measure of security to the surrounding communities. “We track the robberies, the carjacks, and murders,” Takita said. “We usually work with local authorities—they call us. We had a camp robbery inside the park where a guy shot three campers and killed one. We tracked him for 43 miles with two dogs and tracked him down. And a few months ago, they caught a guy who stole 100,000 Kenyan shillings [$1,000] from a local hospital.”

Takita said that working in communities was difficult because dogs need a clean scent to start tracking. “You have to control the site because people walk all over and mask the original scent,” she said.

Nevertheless, the team aims to make poaching and cattle rustling a less reliable source of income for local communities and improve security in and around the reserve.

A Dog’s Life

The rangers train and reward the dogs with chances to play with each animal’s favorite toy. The dogs are play fanatics, so detecting and tracking down specific scents are made part of the game.

Experienced handlers from the United States donated their time to train both dogs and handlers in how to integrate the dogs into their existing operations. Since then, Takita and her team have kept the dogs well-trained and healthy, a continuous challenge.

“The dogs suffer from endemic diseases,” Takita said. “The majority of dogs in African parks get trypanosomiasis”—African sleeping sickness, which Takita calls “trips,” transmitted by tsetse flies—”so they need to use prophylaxis.” She said they try to be diligent about administering the preventative medication, but still lost one of the dogs to the disease.

The huge numbers of wildebeest that spend several months each year in the Mara Triangle do not help. “They carry crazy loads of intestinal parasites, and they all poop, so the whole area is covered.” Takita deworms her dogs every two months before the parasite load begins affecting them.

Another risk is predation. Rangers on patrol keep their tracker dogs on a lead for their own protection, from both wild carnivores and humans.

“Bushmeat poachers are bush craftsmen who will also kill the dogs,” Takita said. “The handlers know from the dog’s body language when they are about to reach a poacher in the bush.”