Strapped into a black nylon harness, Venom abseils from a helicopter 100 feet to a bush clearing below.
The two-year-old Belgian Shepherd’s master Marius slides down in tandem and unclips his ward. Then the dog races across the grass and tears down a man wearing a felt-stuffed bite suit.
Venom is part of an army of dogs being trained as South African defense company Paramount Group’s contribution to fighting the poachers in South Africa, home to most of the world’s rhinos. Prized for their horns, which are used in Asian traditional medicine, a record 1,020 rhinos have been slaughtered in the country this year, triple the number three years ago.
The Malinois, as the breed is also known, “can work in extreme conditions,” Henry Holsthyzen, who runs Paramount’s K9 Solutions dog academy, said at a presentation of the year-old school yesterday. “It’s been proven useful in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s high energy, highly intelligent and very fast. It’s an awesome package.”
Rhino horns are made of the same material as human hair or finger nails, yet is more valuable than gold by weight. Prices for a kilogram range from $65,000 to as much as $95,000 in China and Vietnam, where consumers buy them in a powdered form to ingest as a supposed cure for cancer and to try improve their libido.
South Africa is trying a number of measures to end the poaching, including setting up a protection zone within the Israel-sized Kruger National Park, moving rhinos to private ranches and deploying soldiers to fight poachers.
Johannesburg-based Paramount, controlled by the Ichikowitz family, last year contributed a helicopter to help catch poachers in Kruger.
The K9 academy lies about two hours’ drive from Johannesburg beside the Magaliesburg ridge that stretches out to the west of South Africa’s biggest city. About 60 adult dogs, some Malinois, some bred with German Shepherds, which are bigger and slower, and 60 puppies, the youngest only born this week, are preparing for deployment in South Africa’s war on rhino poaching.
The game farm was once the personal hunting ground of Paul Kruger, who led the Afrikaans resistance to the British in the Anglo-Boer war of 1899 to 1902.
Venom’s snout is long and black. The rest of the 66-pound dog is covered in a short fawn coat. He pants to keep cool in the more than 30-degree Celsius heat. A Malinois can sell for as much as 100,000 rand ($9,122). From the age of about six weeks, the dogs start being trained in the art of hunting, tracking and detecting. The breed has about 60 times as many sensory receptors in its nose than humans.
“With all of the technology in the world, one of the most successful solutions is one of the simplest: man and dog,” foundation director Eric Ichikowitz told reporters.
With a few sharp commands in Afrikaans from Marius, it takes Venom seconds to sniff out a small capsule of rhino horn shavings tucked into the wheel arch of a black Toyota Prado SUV. Marius rewards him by throwing a tennis ball that the dog chases down. Then he sniffs out a rifle from another SUV.
“For the dog this is a game,” Holsthyzen said. “He does not know how important his contribution is. His reward is play.”
In another training exercise Marius and Venom leap out of a helicopter into a muddy lake to apprehend a fleeing suspect.
Holsthyzen, a dog trainer for more than 20 years, has arms that are criss-crossed with inch-long scars from training sessions with attack dogs . Baggy camouflage fatigues hang off his bulky frame while a thin goatee and a flat-top crew cut frame his face.
He deployed the first dog he trained for anti-poaching activities, Ngwenya, in the Kruger Park in 2010. Weeks later it tracked down poachers who had sawed off a rhino’s horn in the dead of night.
Getting the right breed is imperative. When Holsthyzen tried using Blueticks, a hunting dog first bred in Louisiana, he found the dogs were so fast while tracking that their handlers couldn’t keep up. The foundation is now exploring whether they can fit them with signal-emitting collars and track them with drones.
National parks from South Africa and other countries send their rangers to be trained alongside the dogs, before they return to their reserves as a unit. It costs the Ichikowitz foundation about 130,000 rand to groom one dog for action and then roughly 50,000 rand per year in upkeep. In the bush they are deployed with mobile ranger units for three days before being airlifted home.
As rangers lie in the dust firing R1 rifles at boards from 100 yards out, the dogs start barking in the distance.
“When the shots are fired,” Holsthyzen explains, “for the dogs it’s time to get aggressive.”