From drones and choppers to toxic rhino horn infusions and mass relocations, Africa's war against poachers is being fought on many fronts and with any means available. But one of the most effective weapons in the anti-poaching arsenal comes in canine form.

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Venom, a two-year-old Malinois, poses next to a Gazelle helicopter. Image: Paramount Group

Meet Venom. The two-year-old Belgian shepherd is naturally suited to the job of nabbing poachers: aside from his superior senses and impressive bite force, he's fast, hardy, intelligent and highly energetic. He's also picked up a few other, more unusual, skills (like rappelling from helicopters) during his time in training at South Africa's new K9 Anti-Poaching Training Academy.

The facility, situated in Rustenberg in the country's North West Province, was unveiled last week by defence and aerospace manufacturer Paramount Group, in conjunction with the Ichikowitz Family Foundation. Venom is one of dozens of dogs being trained here to work alongside anti-poaching teams on the ground. "The last few years of involvement in the war against poaching has taught us that there is no better solution than well-trained boots" – and paws! – "on the ground to effectively combat the wave of poachers that continue to flood into national parks across the continent," says the foundation's director, Eric Ichikowitz. 

The academy specialises in breeding working Belgian shepherds (also known as Malinois) and German shepherds for use by anti-poaching teams, the military and the police. The Malinois breed in particular has become well known all over the world for producing some distinguished canine combatants, including Cairo, the dog that helped a team of Navy SEALs bring down Bin Laden. 

About 40 adult dogs and over 50 puppies are currently housed at the facility. "At any one stage we have a large number of K9s at various stages of development, enabling us to develop [each dog's] unique capabilities as identified and tracked from infancy through adolescence. The large pool enables us to select optimal pairings between handlers and dogs, and to experiment with combinations,” explains Ichikowitz.

Training sessions are designed to teach dogs to work side by side with their handlers to track down and apprehend poaching suspects, often across rough terrain and in challenging weather conditions – and pursuits do occasionally involve some helicopter rappelling. 

The academy's K9 operatives also learn skills like sniffing out firearms and smuggled wildlife contraband such as rhino horn. “We are seeing great results in placing detection dogs at strategic access points where smugglers are moving contraband across borders,” said Ichikowitz.

Training courses are also on offer for rangers and the academy has already worked with a number of leading game reserves in South Africa and the rest of the continent. With elephant and rhino poaching figures reaching alarming levels across Africa, deploying more anti-poaching teams and equipping them with highly trained K9 sidekicks is becoming increasingly necessary.

"All the technology in the world is ineffective if you don’t have well-trained anti-poaching units on the ground to back it up," says Ichikowitz. "These units ... have proven to support existing efforts and are highly effective in tracking down poachers and ultimately leading to effective apprehensions."

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A 'poacher' is apprehended during a mock demonstration by the handlers and their K9s. Image: Paramount Group.
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The academy's two-year-old German shepherds get ready to pursue a 'poacher' during a mock demonstration. Image: Paramount Group.
Sniffer Dog Poaching Contraband 2014 11 28
Two-year-old Venom demonstrates his contraband detection skills during a training exercise. Image: Paramount Group
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The academy is the first in South Africa to train its dogs to rappel from helicopters. Image: Paramount Group.
Dog Jumping Out Of Chopper 2014 11 28
Image: Paramount Group
Dog In The Water Chopper Jump 2014 11 28
Image: Paramount Group
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