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Adam spends an afternoon with Nanyuki and Sopia, the newest recruits in the Mara canine unit and comes away with a newfound respect for what happens behind the scenes keeping our Reserve free from the scourge of poaching
When I was offered the opportunity to attend a sniffer dog puppy training class I grabbed it. I had seen the canine unit driving around the Mara Conservancy, but as yet hadn’t had the opportunity of finding out what exactly they do.
The team arrived with two puppies – 75% Bloodhound, 25% coonhound. Nanyuki and Sopia were just five and a half months old and already in school. The focus of today’s class was to expose them to the sights, sounds and smells of the communities bordering the Maasai Mara. They chose an area not far from Angama Mara to play this advanced game of hide and seek.
One park ranger would run off into the field in between huts and bomas, attaching coloured clothes pegs to various branches as he went. He would then hide behind a tree pretending to be a poacher. The puppies, under the guidance of their handlers, took it in turns to sniff out the exact path the ‘poacher’ had used. Asuka, the head trainer, ran behind ensuring that all clothes pegs were visited and collected and the route was correct. If the dog went off on a tangent lured away by a myriad of smells, then the handler would take it back to the clothes peg and start again. Eventually the puppy would find the hidden park ranger and be rewarded with treats for it’s sniffing prowess.
Having seen sniffer dogs at work in Rwanda I was expecting this, but what happened afterwards was unexpected and totally wonderful. The handlers had intentionally not fed the dogs that morning and they were getting ravenous. Children from the village were invited to come and play with the dogs and feed them their breakfast. Asuka shared with me that this was their method of relaxing the dogs to the smells and sounds of the people in the area and letting the dogs gain confidence around foreign scents. “It is one thing to track down a person in the park where people don’t often walk, but it is much more difficult to track someone in a village with so many unusual and often scary sounds and smells” Asuka explained.
It was heartwarming to watch as the children played with the dogs, stroking them and loving them. “This interaction of the children with the dogs also helps to educate them about what happens in the Reserve, and, as a result, many of the children want to be park rangers when they finish school”.
As I watched I couldn’t help but feel admiration and gratitude towards the handlers and park rangers who were putting huge time and effort into training these puppies. Selflessly they were helping to reduce poaching in the Maasai Mara, protecting the wildlife and keeping travellers safe – and all done with no desire for external recognition.
These men stand tall as heroes of the Mara.