I’m early for my appointment at Green Dogs Conservation, a South Africa-based non-profit organisation that focuses on wildlife conservation by making use of domestic dogs.
Our dogs help to minimise these kinds of conflicts between humans and wildlife because they are trained to assist in predator research and in the protection of livestock
A small, black dachshund welcomes me with a sniff at my feet and a wag of her tail. We eye each other out as a Weimaraner wanders by. It’s hot and the dachshund’s small, pink tongue makes an appearance as I sip a glass of water, her head tilted inquisitively to her right.
I don’t know it at the time, but I have just met Minky and Snoopy, the smallest and the oldest members of the Green Dogs Conservation team, respectively. They are part of an extraordinary group of animals that are trained for use in livestock farming, conservation and wildlife research on the Corea Game Ranch just north of Alldays in Limpopo province.
Carline van Vliet and Rox Brummer, the human members of the team, make the introductions. Minky is a sniffer dog, specialising in leopard work and riverine rabbits. Snoopy is, in fact, 3-quarters Weimaraner and 1-quarter Irish terrier.
'In southern Africa, a lot of species are threatened due to poaching or by being shot because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time and come into conflict with farmers or communities,' says Rox. 'Our dogs help to minimise these kinds of conflicts between humans and wildlife because they are trained to assist in predator research and in the protection of livestock.'
Using dogs in these ways is not a new concept, but it is one that Carline, Rox and their dogs have tested, refined and perfected for conditions in southern Africa. All the dogs are individually trained as either sniffer dogs or livestock guardian dogs, the 2 areas that Green Dogs currently focuses on.
Rox’s work with sniffer dogs, specifically, began when she was doing carnivore research on private game reserves. Initially she used dogs to find cheetah kills before the hyenas did. Then she realised dogs could track carnivores using their scats (droppings) more quickly and efficiently than she could do it alone. She’d stumbled upon an effective, non-invasive survey technique for researchers in the field. 'Studying scats can give us information about the distribution and estimated numbers of various species, and we can learn about diet, individual DNA, habitat use and even population estimates, with almost no impact on the animals we’re studying,' she explains.
To be a good sniffer dog, the animal needs to be energetic and focused. Each sniffer dog receives intensive individual training, often for specific conditions or projects. With such dogs, a strong bond with their handler is important. They also need to be exposed to many people, conditions and animals and still able to carry out their work.
'This is the kind of work that Snoopy excelled in, so today it’s his role to help introduce the younger dogs to some of the things – including elephants and lions – that they may meet in the bush,' says Carline, giving the big dog’s head a scratch .
The role of the livestock guardian dogs is an older, more solitary one. They have been used for thousands of years to protect livestock from large carnivores. In South Africa, their role is particularly important as predation by carnivores like leopards, cheetahs, brown and spotted hyenas, lions and wild dogs often leads to the death of these animals, which may be shot or poisoned by affected farmers or communities. 'Our dogs can help prevent these deaths, as well as the death of livestock,' says Carline.
The dogs Carline and Rox use in the livestock guardian programme are pedigree Anatolian shepherd dogs. Scientific literature shows that Anatolian shepherd dogs are effective, efficient and non-lethal methods to protect goats, sheep and cattle from these large carnivores.
'These dogs you do not actually train,' says Carline. Instead they breed with the least playful dogs, and after 7 to 8 weeks, put the puppies in with their herd of goats or lambs and then leave them there without interfering. The dogs grow up knowing instinctively how to protect livestock, and when they begin their life in the field, with their herd of livestock, their mere presence is often enough to keep predators away.
They almost never come face to face with a predator, because these predators know there is a dog running around. 'But otherwise they sprint at the threat and that is usually enough to disturb the attack routine, even for something like a lion. In this way, the stock is protected, but so are the predators,' says Carline.
Whether as a sniffer dog or as a livestock guardian dog, the animals trained by Green Dogs Conservation enjoy a lifestyle that city dogs can only dream of. And while it sometimes takes a while to convince farmers to try the dogs, support for Green Dogs is increasing as farmers get more experience with the project and see its success.
The work that these canine conservationists do is really incredible, and Rox and Carline are constantly learning more about their dogs’ capabilities. A relatively new area for Green Dogs is training dogs to detect snares and traps. It is also working on training dogs to chase birds off the runways at airports to prevent them from getting caught in the engines of airplanes. Who knows what’s next?
To find out more about its work, visit www.greendogsconservation.com.