Canine Conservation: Using Dogs In War Against Poachers in Kenya

At Kenya’s Ol Pejeta wildlife sanctuary, home to some of the world’s most critically endangered rhinoceros species, Belgian Malinois tracking and attack dogs are being deployed in the battle against rhino poachers. 

In Kenya’s sprawling Ol Pejeta Conservancy, an innovative new K-9 unit now stands between two of the world’s most critically endangered rhino subspecies and the poachers who have decimated their ranks.

An Ol Pejeta Conservancy ranger trains Belgian Malinois dogs to track and apprehend poachers.

An Ol Pejeta Conservancy ranger trains Belgian Malinois dogs to track and apprehend poachers. Robert Thornett

A half-dozen Malinois attack dogs deployed in early 2015 now work with Ol Pejeta’s rangers and Kenyan police to protect rhinos and other wildlife across 90,000 acres of savanna and woodlands in central Kenya. Ol Pejeta’s rhino sanctuary holds three of the five remaining northern white rhinos on earth and 105 eastern black rhinos, 90 percent of the world’s remaining population. Poachers have hunted both species to near-extinction, driven by the $60,000-per-kilogram Asian market for rhino horn powder for its supposed health benefits. 

Ol Pejeta’s new K-9 unit is the creation of volunteer Daryll Pleasants, a former lead military dog instructor with the U.K. Royal Army Veterinary Corps and head of the British company White Paw Training. Pleasants’ approach is innovative in several key ways. He says that while most K-9 units lose valuable time deploying one type of dog for locating crime scenes and another for apprehending criminals, the Malinois are trained from pups to be “triple role” dogs: sniffing out a carcass, tracking poachers, and running silently at speeds up to 30 miles-per-hour to chase down, ambush, and apprehend. The Malinois launch like a missile, lock their bite on the gun-holding arm with 1,400 pounds-per-square-inch of pressure, and hold on, immobilizing a poacher and preventing him from shooting while rangers follow up to make the arrest. 

Yet “it’s a fully approachable dog,” says Pleasants, “and this is where a lot of K-9 trainers go wrong — they encourage the aggression. Our dogs just apprehend and leave on command.” This easiness around people is especially important for dogs patrolling an area visited by tourists daily and bordering eighteen tribal communities. 

Pleasants says one patrol dog can do the work of seven rangers because of the Malinois’ extraordinary scenting, tracking, and attack capabilities. Malinois resemble a slightly leaner and more agile version of the German Shepherd. Historically herding dogs, they are known for their sky-high energy levels, love of pursuing prey, and friendliness. They are used by the Secret Service to guard the White House grounds and trained in the military to parachute with a handler from airplanes. One accompanied Seal Team Six in the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden. 

Known for high energy and attack capability, Malinois dogs form the core of Ol Pejeta's K9 unit.

Known for high energy and attack capability, Malinois dogs form the core of Ol Pejeta's K9 unit. Robert Thornett

Ol Pejeta’s CEO, Richard Vigne, says the conservancy’s new K-9 unit has already been “very effective” in apprehending poachers and other criminals in the conservancy. But neither he nor Pleasants would release details of K-9 unit arrests as they might be useful to poachers. 

Ol Pejeta’s long-term plan is to create a first-of-its-kind “mechanized dog unit” in wildlife protection. Mechanized dogs would wear super-lightweight headgear housing a miniature infrared night vision camera, microphone, and GPS transmitter allowing rangers to see, hear, and map whatever the dog sees. The dogs would also wear body armor featuring plates that are stab-proof, kick- and punch-proof, as well as bulletproof to an AK-47 rifle — the poachers’ weapon of choice. 

In the future, Ol Pejeta’s mechanized dogs could potentially work in tandem with “Aerial Ranger” drones, another innovation the conservancy pioneered in conjunction with California-based firm Airware. After successful trials, its drone program was put on hold when Kenya’s government imposed a controversial ban on private drones last year. 

Pleasants is now leading an effort to train and deploy new K-9 anti-poaching units in other African parks. He established a regional Canine Center of Excellence at Ol Pejeta that donated two Malinois to Mkomazi National Park in Tanzania. Pleasants is currently training rangers there. 

Pleasants and Vigne say the deployment of K-9 units is changing the poaching game in Kenya. Dogs are widely feared in Africa, and the greatest benefit of Ol Pejeta’s new dog unit may be in dissuading poachers from showing up in the first place. 

“The presence of the dogs has created an enormous deterrence effect around us,” said Vigne. “Poachers now think twice about coming to Ol Pejeta because of the dogs and the publicity that has surrounded them.”