Wildlife rangers at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy of central Kenya spend up to 24 hours in the field monitoring rhino and other animals.
Rhino poaching for the horn remains a critical problem for Africa’s wildlife. But for the past four years, no rhinos have been poached at Lewa Conservancy.
Gathering intelligence, modern technology and good community relations are used to curb poaching. Another important anti-poaching tool is the tracker dog unit. Since 2012, four tracker dogs have been part of Lewa’s security operations.
There are two bloodhounds, called Tipper and Tony, that were bred locally, and a pair of Belgian malinois, called Jack and Zack, that came from the UK.
Joseph Piroris is the head of the tracker dog unit and third in command of Lewa’s anti-poaching team.
“We patrol every day to make sure that our boundaries are safe, and that we have sighted at least 99.9 per cent of our rhinos,” says Piroris. The field scouts continuously report back to Lewa headquarters about their animal sightings and any unusual activities.
Originally from Europe, bloodhounds are trained to follow human scents.
Belgian malinois, which look like German shepherds, are favoured as working dogs because of their ability to detect different odours including weapons and animal products.
A specialist trainer from the UK worked with the Lewa dog unit of eight rangers, and Piroris also went to Wales for further training.
When suspects commit wildlife crimes, they hide in bushy areas or among crowds of people.
“The dogs follow the human scent not footmarks, and they lead us straight to where these people are,” Piroris said.
Some 150 rangers and anti-poaching specialists monitor Lewa and the adjacent Borana Conservancy, a total area of 93,000 acres.
“We are also working closely with the Northern Rangelands Trust and other community conservancies,” says Piroris.
The rangers undergo Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) training, weapons handling, and tactical training in the laws of Kenya and managing community relations.
Ranger life is no walk in the park. Patrolling day and night, long hours in the field and sometimes sleeping outdoors is not unusual.
“It takes passion and dedication for someone to do this kind of job,” Piroris said. He was drawn to the work because of his father, who was a Lewa ranger for 20 years before retiring in 2011.
Piroris grew up in Laikipia county and joined Lewa just after high school in 2012. The majority of Lewa’s staff are employed from nearby areas, enabling local communities to benefit from conservation.
Lewa is home to 83 black rhinos and 74 white rhinos, 15 per cent of Kenya’s total rhino population. Starting with 15 black rhinos in 1984, Lewa’s success in rhino conservation has enabled the translocation of rhinos to Borana and Sera Community Conservancy.
But poaching still remains an issue. In 2012, poachers killed seven rhinos in Lewa, and another six in 2013. The Conservancy is enclosed by a protective fence but much of the surrounding areas and community conservancies are unfenced.
The tracker dogs were introduced to grow Lewa’s capacity for security and fighting poaching. The dog unit has helped track down dozens of poachers and hundreds of livestock that are returned to the owners.
“Recovering the stolen livestock is something we do almost daily,” says Piroris.
The tracker dog unit often works with KWS and the police. Beyond Lewa, they have worked in the Maasai Mara, the Coast and other regions of Kenya.
“The bloodhounds track not just people suspected of wildlife crime but also livestock raiding, rogue banditry and petty crimes,” said Wanjiku Kinuthia, the communications officer at Lewa.
“Conflicts between pastoral communities flare up because of cattle raiding or access to grazing land and water resources,” she added. “There is no way we can keep wildlife safe if people aren’t living in safe areas.”