De Beer is in charge of the park’s canine unit. He’s tall, burly, and gives orders like he’s used to having them followed. He’s been a police officer for 23 years, 21 of them as a dog handler. When asked if he’s ever been shot at, he pauses, and smiles, almost nostalgically, blushes, and says “ja”, as though savouring the memory.
He does not want the unit’s location revealed and suggests we say “somewhere in the south of the park”.
And in the park, the poachers fear the dogs, and the dogs fear the leopards. Some of the kennels are still under construction. They all need to have roofs otherwise the leopards will get in at night and kill them.
“If you have a few dogs and one leopard, then they’ve got a chance, but if there’s just one dog, no,” he shakes his head.
“We buy them, already trained, from the suppliers,” he says. They cost R60 000 and their upkeep is about another R1 000 a month.
Killer, a purebred Malinois (Belgian Shepherd), is one of the park’s “target assets”.
He arrests about 80% of poachers in the park. His handler Amos has been placed on leave “because he’s been under a lot of strain”, De Beer says.
Killer is so vicious he recently snuck up behind a SANParks spokesperson and bit him in the back of the thigh, just because he could. And he earned a special mention in the Skukuza Periodical Court during prosecutor Ansie Venter’s arguments in aggravation of sentencing of Elliot Manzini, a Mozambican caught in the park with a hunting rifle in May.
“Women and children, he doesn’t like them,” De Beer warns.
De Beer estimates that so far this year about 80 poachers have been caught in the park, between 15 and 20 of those with the help of the dogs.
Gladys, who does her duties at the park gates, gets hardly any attention compared to Killer. Johan takes her in his arm, where she wriggles with joy. The 4-year-old black and white Springer Spaniel is small enough to get into and under cars where she can sniff out ammunition and firearms. She was easy to train, but keeping the long hair clean and free of knots is not easy.
The facility’s buildings were sponsored by the US embassy, and the kennels and “other stuff” by the Howard Buffet foundation. There are sleeping facilities for 12 people, kennels, and dog runs.
The dogs have to be trained to follow human, and not animal scent, and to get into and out of helicopters, otherwise they’ll be distracted for the rest of the day. Factors like rain and temperature affect how long a poacher’s smell remains behind.
“On a hot day the scent evaporates much easier. On a grassy trail the scent sticks much easier. At night it’s cooler, so the scent stays longer.”
The dogs can follow poachers for up to 32km.
“We work some tracks up to 28km, and insert new dogs every 5 to 8km. We can go up to 32km.”
De Beer recalls one case, in December 2013, involving Badger, a German Shepherd Shorthaired Pointer. He got out of the helicopter and began following the spoor of a group of poachers.
“He went straight up to them. They were sleeping. He got a fright. He jumped back and went up to them again. He’s not a biting dog. He’s a tracking dog.
“They were quite surprised,” he recalls of the poachers.
They had shot two rhino and were caught with four horns, a rifle, axes, and food.