Imagine this: Poachers have just shot an elephant. They’ve begun to saw off its tusks just as a helicopter takes off in the distance. On board is Arrow, a two-year-old Belgian Malinois, strapped to his handler, who’s wearing a parachute on his back. In minutes the pair float down near the crime scene so Arrow can chase down the poacher and stop him in his tracks.
Arrow has yet to carry out an actual takedown, but he and a six-year-old German shepherd, Giant, have jumped out of planes before. The idea is to get the dogs on the ground fast enough to sniff out and catch suspected poachers before they can vanish into the bush.
Arrow and Giant are among 200 enrollees in the Anti-Poaching and Canine Training Academy, run by Paramount Group, a defense contractor based in Johannesburg, South Africa. The academy’s canines, which are bred at the facility, are trained and often matched with rangers from national parks and game reserves across Africa.
The two star students have already mastered descending from a helicopter by rope, strapped to their handler, and both have moved on to the next level: skydiving.
Parachuting, rather than rappelling—which requires a helicopter to be stationary and low to the ground—would make these operations more covert. “In some cases we have to insert the canine in a difficult situation where you don’t want to scare the poachers with the helicopter,” explains Eric Ichikowitz, director of the Johannesburg-based Ichikowitz Family Foundation, which helped launch the training program. “The parachute helps engage them quietly.”
Arrow became a skydiving pioneer when he plunged from a chopper in September as part of an aerial display at the Africa Aerospace and Defence Show in Pretoria, South Africa. Giant followed.
The two dogs will remain at the training facility to demonstrate their skills, and because they’re so good at what they do, they're helping train new handlers and instructors. But Ichikowitz says the plan is to teach skydiving skills to some of the other dogs in the program.
When it comes to tackling wildlife crime, authorities need all the help they can get. Many African parks are huge—South Africa’s Kruger National Park, for instance, encompasses 7,500 square miles, roughly the area of Israel. Rarely are there enough rangers to patrol them, so it’s easy for poachers to operate with impunity. Every day some 100 elephants are killed for their ivory, and last year more than a thousand rhinos were gunned down for their horns. (See “The World Votes to Keep Rhino Horn Sales Illegal.”)
Some of the canine trainees specialize in detecting explosives, ammunition, or elephant ivory. Others become familiar with routine patrols so that they can immediately recognize signs of suspicious activity. Then there are the quick responders like Arrow and Giant that are temperamentally suited for rappelling and catching poachers.
Although this K-9 program is the first to pioneer canine skydiving, it’s not the only one teaching dogs to protect wildlife. Amy Yee reported for National Geographic about an effort in Kenya that trains dogs to sniff out ivory, and Paul Steyn wrote about a tracker dog program in Tanzania.
While we don’t know if skydiving gives Arrow and Giant an adrenaline-inducing thrill, Ichikowitz reports that the roar of a helicopter is enough to get their tails wagging. “The dogs are exceptionally comfortable with skydiving,” he says. “They know they’re going to work.”
It also helps that once they land safely on the ground, they receive the ultimate canine reward: a game of fetch.
This story was produced by National Geographic’s Special Investigations Unit, which focuses on wildlife crime and is made possible by grants from the BAND Foundation and the Woodtiger Fund. Read more stories from the SIU on Wildlife Watch. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.