Project Rhino K9 Unit: Defending African Wildlife

by African Conservation Trust
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Project Rhino K9 Unit: Defending African Wildlife
Project Rhino K9 Unit: Defending African Wildlife
Project Rhino K9 Unit: Defending African Wildlife
Project Rhino K9 Unit: Defending African Wildlife
Project Rhino K9 Unit: Defending African Wildlife
Project Rhino K9 Unit: Defending African Wildlife
Project Rhino K9 Unit: Defending African Wildlife
Project Rhino K9 Unit: Defending African Wildlife
Project Rhino K9 Unit: Defending African Wildlife
Project Rhino K9 Unit: Defending African Wildlife
Project Rhino K9 Unit: Defending African Wildlife
Project Rhino K9 Unit: Defending African Wildlife
Project Rhino K9 Unit: Defending African Wildlife
Project Rhino K9 Unit: Defending African Wildlife
Project Rhino K9 Unit: Defending African Wildlife
Project Rhino K9 Unit: Defending African Wildlife
Project Rhino K9 Unit: Defending African Wildlife

As usual, it has been a busy few months for the Project Rhino K9-Unit, who have been hard at work fighting wildlife crime, working alongside local police and response teams in the Zululand landscape. The team is on standby 24-hours a day and, although it was the festive season, responded to a number of crime-related call-outs over the period.

Incidents included responding to the threat of confirmed and suspected poachers entering nearby reserves, the tracking of stolen reserve equipment and the location of missing wildlife. They were called to the scene of three poached Nyala, conducted vehicle checks, and removed between 20 - 30 snares, on average per month, during training and routine patrols.

In October, the team provided an escort to two rehabilitated rhino from the Rhino Orphanage to their new home in Somkhanda Game Reserve. The rhino orphans are four-year-old Makhosi, who arrived severely malnourished in 2016, and three-year-old Mpilo, whose mother was killed by poachers when she was just nine months old. If you would like to read more about their rehabilitation, a link to this story is available on our Facebook page.

The K9-Unit was also instrumental in the apprehension of four suspects involved in the armed robbery of a nearby post office. On arrival at the scene, the K9 team and Tactical Response Team (TRT) took up the task of tracking the perpetrators’ scent. Within a few kilometres, the tracking team managed to locate two of the perpetrators who were apprehended, and an undisclosed amount of money recovered. The following day, the Unit received a call-out to assist in finding the two outstanding suspects. In an intelligence-driven operation with TRT and Alpha Security, a taxi transporting the suspects was surprised, stopped and searched. The Project Rhino detection dog was utilized to search the vehicle and bags and located a firearm. The two perpetrators were positively identified and taken into custody by South African Police Services (SAPS) and an undisclosed amount of money was also recovered by the detection dog.

Huge congratulations to the K9-Unit for placing an incredible fourth overall in the Wildlife Ranger Challenge and first in South Africa. The grand finale of the Challenge was a 21 km marathon in full field uniform and boots, each ranger running with a 22 kg backpack that excluded the weight of their water and their weapons and also carrying their normal patrol equipment. The team really put their hearts and souls into this challenge and their great result is testament to just how fit and dedicated the K9-Unit is!

We would like to wish all of our donors, partners and team members a very Happy and Healthy New Year. A huge thank you for your continued and generous support, especially through such a difficult year. We look forward to achieving many more great things together in 2021!

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Image (c) Angie Raab
Image (c) Angie Raab

It has been another demanding few months for the Project Rhino K9 team, who have been tested physically and emotionally – but always rise to the challenge.

Tragically, the K9-Unit was called out to a rhino poaching incident in June when a white rhino cow was shot and both horns removed. The K9 team responded immediately and arrived on scene at approximately 22h40 in the evening. There were no visible tracks, however, the team took the lead and started following a scent cone. The scent was followed right through the night, covering a massive 20+ kilometres, through three neighbouring reserves, covering mountainous areas and bushveld terrain. A baseball cap was recovered, but unfortunately, the K9 team lost the scent as they reached the N2 highway at 04h50. The team returned to the crime scene and our detection dog located 2 x empty cartridges which provided vital evidence and assistance to the South African Police Services (SAPS) on shot placement.

Despite this, there have also been a number of success stories:

  • In June, a crime intelligence-driven operation was conducted during which two suspects were arrested for being in possession of counterfeit goods worth R1,000,000. Two vehicles were also confiscated by the SAPS. One suspect tried to bribe the team members with cash and this resulted in additional charges.
  • Three African Rock Pythons were discovered and confiscated (on two separate occasions) and seven individuals handed over to SAPS for investigation.
  • The K9 team assisted the Pongola SAPS & Alfa Security with a roadblock in Pongola town. The detection K9’s searched approximately 40 vehicles, but all vehicles were clear of illegal substances, animal parts, weapons and ammunition.
  • Returning from patrol in July, the K9 unit came across a motor vehicle accident that had just happened. First on scene, the unit activated emergency services and started first aid until medical staff arrived. They then assisted with traffic and crowd control for the duration of the incident.
  • More than 50 snares were removed from reserves during patrols and training exercises.

In addition to this, the team responded to numerous incidents of reserve incursions, fence theft, robberies and bushmeat poaching. In some instances, the team was supported by our Zululand Anti-Poaching Wing (ZAP-Wing) which provides additional aerial surveillance during tracking and detection.

Our K9s and handlers conduct training exercises on a daily basis. The team also joined Nyathi APU and facilitators from SA Wildlife College for an intensive week-long training programme in July. It was a highly successful programme as valuable training methods and advice were exchanged and the teams were led through real-life simulations to ensure they are fully prepared to deal with the dangers associated with wildlife crime. 

Keep an eye on our social media pages as our K9-Unit will be joining more than 200 African Wildlife Rangers from across the globe in the Wildlife Ranger Challenge. September is also rhino month and we celebrate Project Rhino’s ninth year of collaboration on World Rhino Day 22 September.

Thank you to all our GlobalGiving partners, friends and donors for your on-going support. A huge thank you to Rhino Recovery Fund (administered by the Wildlife Conservation Network) and TUSK who are generously contributing to our K9, ZAP-Wing and coordination efforts over the next few months, as our fundraising events have been severely impacted by the current COVID-19 crisis. Thank you also to Wessa Lowveld who donated 6 pairs of military army boots to the K9 handlers, as well as One Plan for sponsoring our K9 and health insurance.

New boots courtesy of WESSA Lowveld
New boots courtesy of WESSA Lowveld
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Image (c) Junior Blom
Image (c) Junior Blom

On the 27th of March 2020, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa placed the country on full lockdown as an urgent and immediate reaction to the COVID-19 crisis. For our game reserves, lodges and accompanying ecotourism industries this has devastated daily operations. No visitors mean no associated conservation levies for our game reserves, whilst the thousands of people living in impoverished rural communities adjacent to these game reserves have lost their jobs and income. Food insecurity is growing daily, as is the threat of poaching for bush meat as people become increasingly desperate.

At the same time, serious wildlife criminals are seeking to take advantage of the empty lodges and quiet roads, leaving our rangers and technical personnel stretched to the limit. Without the tourists, hunters and associated guides to deter poachers, our wildlife are left increasingly vulnerable and poaching attempts have increased in many reserves across southern Africa since the announcement of the lockdown.

Fortunately, Project Rhino applied for and successfully had approved an “essential services” permit to operate our K9 and aerial patrol units and our core support teams on the ground. Whilst movements have been a little more restricted during the lockdown, the K9-Unit has been incredibly busy with road blocks, call outs and patrols. All five of our handlers have been working with local police (SAPS) and security companies manning three road blocks. The teams work on shifts, meaning that each road block is monitored 24 hours a day.

The team has worked closely with local law enforcement over the lockdown period, assisting in the arrest of 17 people in April in the Hluhluwe region. Whilst in February and March, the K9-Unit conducted training and patrols in some of our member reserves, which included the successful location and removal of more than 60 bush snares.

The K9-Unit is on call 24/7 and responded to a number of incidents over the quarter, for example where gunshots were heard, camera traps were triggered, or a tip-off was made. One of these reactions was to Thula-Thula Private Game Reserve, where two groups of poachers entered the reserve on the same day. This was reported on in the local press and the story was also picked up by our local conservation programme, 50-50, who interviewed some of our K9-Unit members. We look forward to seeing them on TV shortly and hopefully gaining increased funding and awareness for the project.

Due to the pandemic, Project Rhino has had to cancel three major fundraising events in the April-June period, which has a significant impact on keeping Project Rhino operational. Last month, we launched our ‘HomeRun 4 Rhinos’ event, in which participants walked or ran a specified distance around their gardens. We had a phenomenal response, with participants from South Africa, Germany, USA and the UK. Elize Wethmar was our first place champion, running a spectacular 117.29 km during the challenge (on a treadmill) and raising a whopping R 3000 for the cause.

The African Conservation Trust / Project Rhino team is also working with Nkombe Rhino and a number of NGOs in the delivery of food parcels to help feed families, rangers and wildlife communities across South Africa. Together we have delivered almost 75,000 meals and are hoping to reach 100,000 by the end of the month.

We would like to extend our heartfelt thank you to our GlobalGiving donors, as well as One Plan, Sudie Rakusin, Duncan Paul, Jeremy Anderson and Wessa Lowveld, you have been lifelines for our K9 team and we would not be able to function without your support and generosity. Thank you also to Dr Ryan van Deventer from Wildlife Solutions Africa who sponsored all our K9’s Bravecto, deworming and 5 in 1 treatments this quarter.

Image (c) Junior Blom
Image (c) Junior Blom
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Vodka - our latest K9 recruit
Vodka - our latest K9 recruit

A massive thank you to all our GlobalGiving partners, friends and donors for your support over the last quarter.

Unfortunately, those involved in wildlife crime do not stick to business hours, or take time-off over the festive season, and our K9-Unit was called upon numerous times over the last few months. These included:

  • Working with the South African Police Services (SAPS) in tracking three suspects who hi-jacked a truck and fled into the bushes
  • Working with Alpha Security in the investigation of a vehicle potentially connected to a shooting (the K9 unit was able to identify gun shot residue)
  • Immediate response to rhino owners where (suspected) poachers were identified on the property, or alarms had been triggered
  • Tracking of suspects, e.g. where fences have been cut
  • Reserve patrols and vehicle check-points

We are pleased to report that that Phoenix, our Belgian Malinois tracking dog who was suffering from PTSD, is enjoying her retirement in a happy home. We have also welcomed Vodka, a fluffy German Shepherd, who joined the K9-Unit at just 12 weeks old. His training and development has already began and, because both parents are active working dogs with a great working record, we expect he will soon be a huge asset to the team. Vodka will be developing his skills as a dual purpose dog trained in tracking and detection. In the meantime, Bailey the detection dog has replaced Phoenix in tracking.

 Other highlights:

  • Our vehicle has been serviced and four new tyres fitted
  • Additional shade cloth is currently being installed over the dog runs to provide much needed relief from the fierce temperatures
  • A fabulous donation of Canine Cuisine dog food
  • Continued support from local APUs and security companies (Alpha & Nyathi) as well as strong communication with Project Rhino members and reserves.

Rhinos are a treasured part of our heritage. As one of the last bastions of black and southern white rhino populations, we remain committed to combatting wildlife crime and keeping KZN’s rhino safe. Thank you once again to all our donors for making our work possible. We look forward to reporting on a successful 2020!

Vodka & handler in action -Photo by Etienne Gerber
Vodka & handler in action -Photo by Etienne Gerber


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The Project Rhino K9-Unit, established in 2017
The Project Rhino K9-Unit, established in 2017

Although we cannot reveal all the details for security reasons, the Project Rhino K9-Unit has been kept incredibly busy, responding to a number of emergency incidents over the reporting period. These call-outs included day and night patrols, road blocks, the detection of contraband items, tracking of animals and suspected criminals, as well as assisting local law enforcement and anti-poaching unit (APU) teams in the apprehension of suspects. One of the team’s biggest successes was in assisting Alpha Security (a private security company) to seize R800,000 of counterfeit items.

When they are not in the field, the K9-Unit can be found assisting the South African Police Services (SAPS) in their criminal cases, or training with other APUs in the area. The dogs also conduct training exercises with our aerial patrol wing (ZAP-Wing) to ensure that they are fully ready to respond when an incident occurs.

The K9 team went beyond the call of duty and assisted us in our “Skydive for Rhino,” fundraising initiative, which took place at the Hluhluwe ZAP-Wing base in August. The four-day event was a great success as more than 90 people showed their support for Project Rhino by tandem-jumping out of a perfectly safe aeroplane. The funds raised by the campaign will be used to support the ZAP-Wing and K9-Units (covering two to three months’ operational costs). We are in urgent need of new tyres for our response vehicle, as well as shade cloth for the kennels to help keep our dogs cool. Our vehicle is also in need of a new bumper (fender) and we are actively trying to find funding for these items as soon as we can.

Sad news is that Phoenix, our Belgian Malinois tracking dog, is showing signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, after being witness to at least nine incidents involving gunfire. We are currently looking for a suitable home where Phoenix can enjoy being a “regular” dog in early retirement. Bailey is already showing great potential in replacing her, and young Spook (just eight months old) is also proving herself more than capable in both tracking and detection.

Thank you to all our GlobalGiving partners, friends and donors for your ongoing support. A special thank you to One Plan Insurance, who sponsors our insurance cover for both dogs and handlers. One Plan includes regular updates on our K9-Unit on their website and even joined us at a fancy dress and fundraiser organised by Riverleigh International Equestrian Centre in Gauteng. Thank you for making a difference.

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Organization Information

African Conservation Trust

Location: Hillcrest - South Africa
Facebook: Facebook Page
Twitter: @ACTsafrica
Project Leader:
Chris Galliers
Hillcrest, South Africa
$7,372 raised of $10,000 goal
29 donations
$2,628 to go
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