As poaching becomes more high-tech in Africa, anti-poaching methods have had to become more creative. Think skydiving dogs.
Specially trained German shepherds and Belgian Malinois have learned to rappel out of helicopters and skydive so they can quickly start tracking when poachers are reported.
Paramount Group's Anti-Poaching and Canine Training Academy teaches dogs to track poachers and search for snares and firearms. The dogs can work at night when human trackers are handicapped due to a lack of visibility. One remarkable dog named Killer caught 115 groups of poachers in just 18 months.
The dogs and their handlers spend three months at a secret training camp about two hours from Johannesburg, reports the African Independent. At the camp, called Battle Creek, the teams are taught to hide in the bush wearing military ghillie camouflage suits and go on foot patrols that last as long as three days. During those treks they carry all their own food and water, and dog and handler share sleeping bags at night.
The dogs are taught to track, as well as attack, poachers. They are trained using Special Forces methods.
In December 2016, Paramount German shepherd Arrow was recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's first skydiving, anti-poaching dog. Arrow made his first jump with handler Henry Holsthyzen on Sept. 17, 2016, at the Waterkloof Airforce Base on the outskirts of Pretoria.
Holsthyzen said Arrow's prep for his big day started when he was a puppy and the two began bonding.
“With my knowledge of Arrow - knowing him, and knowing his personality - it gave me a very good idea of what to expect and he acted accordingly. He’s a natural born skydiver and an adrenaline junkie - I was more scared than he was!" Holsthyzen said.
“I jumped out of the helicopter and it was just natural for him to follow me. I rely on him and in turn he relies on me. I’m willing to go into battle with him because I trust him. Trust forms the basis of our relationship and that enables the handler and the K9 relationship to excel."
Protecting game reserves
It's estimated that about 400 canine teams are needed just for South Africa's game reserves. Currently, Paramount Group has about 50 adult dogs and 40 to 50 puppies. The dogs have names like Alpha, Delta and Venom.
African poaching statistics are startling. As many as 35,000 African elephants were killed in one year. The black rhino population has dropped nearly 98 percent since 1960. Fewer than 900 mountain gorilla remain.
"The last few years of involvement in the war against poaching have taught us that there is not a better solution than well-trained boots on the ground, to effectively combat the wave of poachers that continue to flood into national parks across the continent," Eric Ichikowitz, director of the Ichikowitz Family Foundation, told African Pilot magazine. The camp is an initiative of the foundation.
"Conservation officers have to be up-skilled and provided with the necessary training and support in order to effectively combat the increased levels of poaching that are taking place. All the technology in the world is ineffective if one does not have well-trained anti-poaching units on the ground to back it up."
Here's a video of the canine daredevils at work (warning: this video contains a brief clip of poaching):
Editor's note: This story was originally written in October 2016 and has been updated.