Meet Brin. She's a two-year-old Belgian shepherd (also known as a malinois) with buckets of energy and a serious obsession with her toy ball. But aside from such regular canine pursuits, Brin also happens to have another, much more important, role: she's helping to save a critically endangered South African tortoise. 

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After six months of training, Brin is now an expert at tracking South Africa's critically endangered geometric tortoise. Image: Cape Nature

Brin is part of a new breed of canines working on the frontlines of conservation. Elsewhere in the world, the impressive skills of dogs have been harnessed on all sorts of species-saving assignments, from sniffing out wildlife contraband to rooting out invasive plants. Dogs are an obvious choice for the job – their natural sniffing skills are thousands of times more powerful than our own, thanks to an olfactory army of scent receptors. And Brin is putting those same skills to work to help researchers track the geometric tortoise (Psammobates geometricus) in South Africa's Western Cape province.

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Found only in a small part of South Africa's Western Cape, the geometric tortoise is listed as one of the world's Top 100 most threatened species. Image: Cape Nature

Classified as critically endangered by the IUCN, the species is now considered the third most endangered land tortoise in the world, and it's facing massive pressure mostly due to habitat loss. In order to protect it, conservationists desperately need data about the size of the population and its presence (or absence) in suitable habitat – and that task requires long, long hours out in the field, where the tortoise's cryptic colouration and sedentary habits make it a tough target to track.

Enter Brin. After six months of training, she's become a tortoise-tracking expert, helping researchers conduct crucial fieldwork. The project, spearheaded by conservation organisation CapeNature and its partners, became fully operational late last year, and the human-and-canine team has already successfully carried out a variety of surveys and search-and-rescues. 

Putting dogs to work to help wildlife is still a new strategy in South Africa, and the tortoise project is the first of its kind ever carried out in the country. In the US, however, conservation detection dogs have already proved their worth for tortoise research. Using canines has been shown to be a safe, effective and cost-efficient way to track the Mojave Desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii), which is listed as threatened under the US Endangered Species Act. 

Of course, not all dogs are made for conservation work, and Brin was carefully selected to ensure she would be up to the task. "A suitable conservation detection dog is not breed specific, but needs high play and hunt drives, along with physical suitability to working in the South African veld and climate. These dogs have a very high energy level, making them unsuitable as pets," says CapeNature's ecological coordinator Vicki Hudson.

"The malinois is a working breed that is part of one of the four varieties of Belgian shepherds. They are recognised internationally as excellent working dogs and their short, brown coat is very suitable to working in shrubby, thorny veld," she adds. 

And Brin's high energy levels and ball obsession are also a bonus. "Brin loves her ball more than anything else in the world – even food!" says Hudson. "This is her reward for sniffing out tortoises and she is happy to do this over and over again at any time or place."