The paws protecting rhinos in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi

Man in camo uniform giving a dog water.

In the heart of South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal Province lies Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park (HiP), a wilderness home to vital populations of black and white rhinos. But these incredible and globally important creatures face a harsh reality; they are ruthlessly targeted for their horns by organised criminal gangs.

Since early 2022, rhino poaching in HiP has escalated, which means that more rhinos have been – tragically – lost and that the people protecting them are under more pressure than ever. At the same time, rising costs are putting extra strain on HiP’s operational budgets, making it harder to pay for ordinary items that rangers need day to day. Thankfully, we’ve been able to help rangers at HiP to do as much as they can to safeguard the Park’s rhinos.

Meet the HiP K9 Unit, a team of dedicated handlers and dogs working tirelessly to protect the Park’s rhinos. Their mission: if possible, to stop poachers before they can harm a rhino, and to improve tracking and intelligence gathering if a rhino is found poached. Unfortunately, with increasing prices for simple items such as vehicle tyres and ranger uniforms, as well as more canine-unit-specific items, including vet bills, securing enough budget to ensure the smooth running of this unit is tough. Thanks to generous fundraisers and donors, we have provided funding to expand the Unit and offer more training and operational resources.

With this funding, the HiP K9 Unit brought in two new dogs, Chief and Captain. Both are Independent Tracking Dogs, trained to pick up a scent from one place (such as the smell of a poaching suspect from the scene of a crime) and follow their trail as far as possible. Often working on long leads with their handlers, Chief and Captain can follow a scent for miles, potentially catching up to a suspect to enable arrest before they leave the Park, or providing crucial intelligence about the routes being used. Without the dogs, such information would be much harder to gain. But Chief and Captain weren’t the only recruits last year: an extra handler and a dedicated K9 Unit Coordinator were also hired, bolstering capacity and support for day-to-day activities.

And 2023 wasn’t just about expanding the Unit. Funding from Save the Rhino’s amazing supporters also enabled regular training sessions for the entire team, the maintenance of the specialist canine unit vehicle, and repairs and upgrades of the Unit’s facilities to ensure that both the handlers and dogs have a suitable base for training and relaxing.

With this extra capacity, improved equipment and regular training, the team has become more effective. Despite the challenges faced in 2023, the K9 Unit was deployed more than ever before, playing a vital role in tracking suspects and deterring poaching attempts.

Already, the HiP K9 Unit has shown its importance as part of the anti-poaching strategy within the Park. With continued support, the team’s knowledge, skills and experience will grow, expanding their abilities and making a bigger difference for the rhinos that call HiP home.

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