This Tiny Stray Dog Is Helping Save Endangered African Elephants
Written By: Monica Mark 07.27.16 07:56 AM
Found On: buzzfeed.com
Three-month-old Fury is a tiny puppy destined for great things after being plucked from the streets of a Zambian village.
She’s the first Canis africanis — better known as your average African village mutt — to be trained for a canine anti-poaching unit.
Fury will join the park’s first ever canine unit, working alongside two German shepherds in tracking down poachers and traffickers.
Among other smells, the dogs are being trained to sniff out ivory, weapons, pangolin— one of the most trafficked mammals on Earth — and human tracks so they can follow illegal hunters.
Such elite jobs are typically entrusted to pedigree breeds like German shepherds and Belgian Malinois, so Fury was battling the odds from the start.
“One hundred percent of the professional trainers I’ve met in Africa pretty much agreed that [Canis africanis] can’t be trained,” Jay Crafter, co-founder of Invictus K9, which is setting up the canine special ops unit, told BuzzFeed News. “If I take a 12-month-old dog from the village, I’d agree that it would be… not untrainable, but it wouldn’t want to train the way I’d want it to,” he told BuzzFeed News.
But the Zimbabwean-born Crafter also knew local dogs had long been used informally. “My argument is if a poacher can use a dog like this for 30 miles in the bush without feeding it, giving it water, or any vaccinations, why can’t we do it as professionals?”
Crafter literally went around villages in the area scouting for puppies for the job. “I’m not going to lie, people thought we were crazy,” he said.
Village dogs are common everywhere in Africa, and while some are informal guard dogs, they’re rarely seen as pets and usually lead miserable lives as scavengers.
Crafter narrowed hundreds down to 33 potentials, who were put through a series of tests to see if they were temperamentally suited to the job. It eventually came down to Fury and another fuzzball, who they nicknamed Blue Eyes. Fury won out – just barely. “It came down to just a little edge of boldness,” Crafter said.
“For a 14-week-old puppy, she’s exceptional. We’re very proud and very surprised at how much she’s learning and wants to learn,” Crafter said.
On one particularly impressive day, the tiny trooper was totally unfazed as an elephant rummaged nearby during tracking training.
That’s important considering their goal: Save Africa’s barely 450,000 remaining elephants.
Driven by demand from the US and East Asia, 80% of Africa’s elephant population has been wiped out since the 1970s, leaving the species on the path to extinction in our lifetimes.
There were initially other concerns in a region where canine units are still relatively rare. For one, the local handlers are all green and have never had to care for an animal before. But the bond between the dogs and their handlers is growing by the day.
“There’s definitely a connection when we finish. The guys see how intelligent and competent the dogs are and the empathy and respect comes naturally. They would take a bullet for their dog.”
That’s not just a figure of speech, but a real risk for those in the field. Backed by big money, armed poachers have been known to kill rangers.
On top of all this, there are blistering temperatures and hostile terrain to contend with — another reason local dogs, with proper training, might have an advantage.
Crafter pointed out it’s very expensive to import dogs and then maintain their health. “These [local] puppies are probably more tolerant to heat. They’re definitely more tolerant of [local] disease. Their bodies are designed to work in this environment.”
The success with Fury has ignited a hope in Crafter to one day set up a “Bush Dog Academy,” run by locals and served by dogs like Fury to protect babies like this one and their families.
In the meantime, Crafter says it’s impossible to predict whether Fury will succeed but “I’d say she’ll be ready in 9–12 months going by gut instinct.”