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Anthony Woodhouse visited iMfolozi Game Reserve on Friday the 18th of April 2014 where he spent some time at the the Bhejane hide. He was sitting observing the animals coming down to drink when he heard a dog bark. Then all of a sudden he saw a wildebeest been chased by five feral dogs who ran past the hide, around the water hole, back past the hide and back into the bush – he did not see them again.

© Anthony Woodhouse
© Anthony Woodhouse

Jed Bird, rhino capture officer for Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, says that the group of feral dogs come from a community outside the reserve, “Since the proclamation of the park in 1895, local people have been hunting with dogs in and around iMfolozi. We are fortunate in an odd way that these communities choose to poach in this manner rather than setting snares as is very common in communities further north.”

He continued to explain this specific event stating that, “Over full moon periods we do have the odd poaching gang coming into the reserve with their dogs to hunt game. They mainly focus on warthogs due to their nocturnal habits of going into their holes at night and are thus easy to find and corner. Poachers the world over are opportunistic so obviously they will also catch other game as well. All though this happens quite often during moonlit periods it’s not often that the public bear witness to it.”

“This is something we do not take lightly as we often say a warthog poacher today is a potential rhino poacher tomorrow,” Jed continued, “These particular poachers were intercepted in an ambush the night before this photograph was taken. Unfortunately, due to the fact that it was night, only one poacher, the owner of the dogs,was apprehended. The other poachers scattered and fled the scene leaving the dogs behind. A follow up was done the next day at this very hide and a single dog was shot before the rest all scattered once again. The dogs you see in the photo just proceeded to carry on doing what they were trained to do; hunt. During arrests these dogs often do get left behind in the reserve and it is a huge concern for us. 90% of these dogs do find their way back home the very next day but there are others that do get lost and then all efforts are put in to destroy these dogs.” Jed says that since the incident two dogs have been put down and there have been no more reported sightings of the rest of the dogs.

Jed explains, “It is a sad reality but these dogs are bred for this purpose and can be sold for up to R6000. They are also involved in bets where poachers put money on specific dogs based on their hunting ability. The biggest problem is that these dogs almost always carry diseases that if passed on to African wild dogs and black-backed jackals can have catastrophic results.”

Jed continued to say that this situation is not unique to this reserve and many protected areas throughout Africa are under threat from the growing populations outside their borders. “This is just a reality we need to deal with and reality which we take very seriously. Our field rangers work very long hours over these moonlit periods not only to protect our rhino but also to put a curb to this subsistence poaching,” he says.

Dave Robertson, former conservation manager of iMfolozi Game Reserve says that while yes the photo is shocking and disturbing, scenes like this are a fact of life in virtually any big reserve with an impoverished community surrounding it – they just aren’t often witnessed by tourists or photographed. “In this case, staff had been working all night over the full moon period because of the threat of rhino poaching. Unfortunately communities surrounding the reserve will take advantage of this by anticipating rangers working at night over full moon so they come in during the day. iMfolozi is a big reserve and rangers can’t be everywhere at once, and they are facing a much, much greater threat of rhino poaching than their predecessors ever had to! Anybody who thinks that catching and arresting poachers with dogs is easy has obviously never done it,” he says.

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