They’re fast, protective and have one heck of a sense of smell. They love rewards and tickles behind the ears, and belly rubs too, I’m sure. But would I want to be on the receiving end of one of these beauties? Absolutely not. And that’s why the anti-poaching professionals of Tango K9 are such a formidable team – at detection, apprehension, and tracking.

Tango K9 Xipoko

On a recent visit to the Thornybush Nature Reserve I had the privilege of meeting a few these anti-poaching professionals… Justice, Duke and Xipoko and their ‘well trained’ handlers, who for security reasons shall remain nameless.

There are squeals of delight from Xipoko as she is released from her crate on the rear of the vehicle – she’s dead-keen to get to work and show us how accomplished she is. She’s a Dutch shepherd x Belgian malinois, and her mottled colouring enables her to live up to her name, which means ‘ghost’ in the local Shangaan language.

One of the resident nyala heard her barking and came closer to investigate, and needless to say Xipoko was just as intrigued and had she not been restrained I’m sure she would have leapt at the chance of a closer look too. She is in training as a tracking, detection, and protection dog and with the contraband hidden she was excited to track and detect.  Even at the young age of just 11 months old her abilities were astounding with the first ‘test’ hidden in the vehicle found within 30 seconds, the next was a little more difficult as it was hidden within an area abundant with animal smells. Besides the slight distraction of the curious nyala, it didn’t take more than a couple of minutes, and with task accomplished she relished the kong and the associated hugs and love.

Xipoko being rewarded with a kong by Tango K9 handler

The kong is the reward toy that the conservation dogs work exceptionally hard for – in training they learn that if they do a certain behaviour, they are given a reward, which in this case is playtime with the kong. Xipoko’s trainer tells us that “it’s all rewards-based training and the dogs are really, really keen to get that kong so they put in the effort to get it.”

We are told that a decision was made to train their K9’s to be able to do multiple tasks, such as detecting various forms of contraband, be it wildlife products or ammunition, rather than being scent specific, which would then require specific K9’s depending on the task at hand. The benefit of this is that they can search vehicles, buildings, bags as well as do in-the-field searches for whatever contraband is deemed necessary. In addition to this they are also well-accomplished at tracking people, and not just the scent of a specific person, but multiple people, which comes in useful when tracking several suspects at one time.

Next up is Duke, a Dutch shepherd who at just under two years old  is still relatively young – young in age, but fearless and ferocious, and aptly nicknamed, ‘the Beast’. Tracking and apprehension are his forte, and with the tracking demo quickly and efficiently taken care of he was eager to show us his apprehension skills.

Duke in detection mode

With bite sleeve in place and one of the handlers posing as the foe, the command is given and Duke rushes in to apprehend, sinking his teeth into the sleeve and giving it really good shake – I would not want to be on the receiving end of that bite, especially without the protection of a bite sleeve! Task accomplished, with the reward of being able to tug playfully at the sleeve, and eventually retrieve it.  Duke was now a very happy boy.

Tango K9 Duke

The intention is not to create blood-thirsty killers, as depicted in Hollywood movies, but rather well-trained, obedient and focused K9’s that will protect their handler at all costs and launch out to apprehend on command. Obedience is a key factor here, without which things could go awry, fast. As is trust. Something that is built over time as the bond between handler and K9 grows to a point that the relationship is that of absolute best buddies. With the loves, hugs and cuddles from their Tango K9 handlers this bond was clearly evident.

By this point Justice was doing his nut, and super-keen to ‘join the party’. His handler tells us that he is the ‘crazy one’ of the unit with the nickname of Tazz, the Tasmanian Devil, and as he leaps out of his kennel with purpose and determination I can see why. He is a five-year-old Belgian malinois and came to the unit previously trained as a multipurpose K9 just over two years ago. But the bond between handler and K9 is already evident as Justice lavishes his love for his handler with a big hug. His drive is obvious as he finds the contraband in seconds and tears into the bite sleeve eager to earn his reward of the kong thrown his way, and a game of tug of war with the bite sleeve.

Justice Tango K9

We learn that the rest of the K9 team consists of another two multipurpose K9’s, Murphy and Spots, as well as three trailing K9’s – the oldest of the three is Beara, a bloodhound x doberman pinscher who a dedicated trailing hound. Beara ‘works for the pleasure of following the track and his reward is a pat on the head for a job well done’ and is exceptionally skilled at back tracking which makes him an incredibly useful tool when it comes to confirming a suspect’s activities on the reserve once apprehended. Khala, a full-blooded bloodhound, and Storm, a bluetick coonhound make up the rest of the tracking team.

The innate sense of smell that dogs have increases the likelihood of success when tracking poachers as against the visual clues such as footprints, broken twigs, flattened grass etc. required by a human tracker. In the same way that your precious pooch perks up when you open a biltong packet, these working dogs use their sense of smell to follow the scent trail that poachers leave behind. 

With poaching being a real threat to the survival of several species, in particular rhino, elephant, and pangolin, protecting Africa’s wildlife is a team effort involving landowners, conservation teams, security teams, as well as specialised K9 units.

The team at Tango K9 are an extremely valuable asset to Thornybush Nature Reserve and the surrounding Greater Kruger area, through anti-poaching patrols, community education, snare sweeps and preventative maintenance of the reserve boundaries. Additionally, their K9 abilities are a deterrent to potential poachers, whether they be experienced rhino poachers or sustenance poachers looking to put food on the table – which unfortunately often escalates to the more hard-core poaching where money is the incentive. 

Personal message from the Tango K9 team:

Tango K9 is a team of passionate individuals and very hard working K9’s and Field Rangers whose mission it is to conserve and protect the wildlife in the 13,800 ha Thornybush Game Reserve NPC, part of the Greater Kruger National Park system, through anti-poaching patrols, community education, snare sweeps and preventative maintenance of the reserve boundaries. 

However, it has become increasingly difficult to fund necessities to do our job of protecting important species on our reserve.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks we have faced this year is the pandemic of Covid 19. The global pandemic has obliterated South Africa’s international tourism sector which largely funds a lot of what we do. The ban on travellers and tourism operations has created extreme stress on conservation efforts across South Africa as a high number of tourism facilities are located in, or connected to, a National Park or Game Reserve.  The conservation funding previously collected from tourists through entrance fees was greatly reduced and as the global market fell so did donations from our international audience.

Compounding the problem, the communities that surround our reserve and previously relied upon tourism for income are now facing a devastating increase in unemployment and related food insecurity.  This has resulted in a significant increase in sustenance poaching which has made the conservation of our environment all the more important.  As poverty in the local community is increasing it has become even more pertinent for our team to become more active as threats of snare and dog incursions increase.

Our initial goal is to raise R60 000.  We appreciate any donation big or small that will enable us to push ahead and keep the animals safe and alive. Our most urgent needs are funding for the K9s and for our vehicles.

Our K9s are our most valued team members, they require lots of care to be kept in prime shape. We need donations for:

  • Food and veterinary expenses for our K9s, they work hard and need lots of love and care.
  • Treats and training rewards (toys) for the K9s to keep them motivated.
  • Replacement leads and collars.
  • Additional blankets and bedding.
  • Repairs to the kennels.
  • Ongoing training for the current K9s.
  • Our APU patrol fleet is also in need of some TLC, most importantly the tyres and wheels.  The terrain we patrol in is unforgiving and the bush is thick with thorn bushes.  It is vital that we are able to respond quickly to attempted incursions. One vehicle currently has split rims making it unsafe to repair punctures in the bush. We need funding to replace the steel rims and purchase all-terrain tyres.

Thank you for your help, as we continue to Conserve and Protect, we appreciate your support!

Support through www.gofundme/tango-k9-walk-for-rhino

Click HERE to read this in the latest digital Responsible Traveller Mag