The Sniffer Dogs of Lewa

In August 2014, I was running an EcoTraining safari guide course on the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. Spending nearly a month on this world famous reserve allowed us to go well beyond the typical course material and activities. And it’s one of those behind-the-scenes aspects of the Lewa conservation effort that I want to talk about.

Lewa employs an expert response team that helps secure the conservancy and, in particular, the invaluable rhino population that is under constant threat from poachers. These Lewa guys have undergone special military force training, and they have Kenya Police Reservist status, facilitating their vital role. However, arguably their biggest asset is their special relationship with their canine colleagues.

We were camping on the periphery of the Lewa headquarters and, occasionally, we heard the distinctive howl of these dogs when they were not in field. It took three weeks, but we eventually got to meet the team and these wonderful animals. They require daily exercise and training if not on deployment, and guests on Lewa have the opportunity to be part of these experiences. Not only do you get to learn about their role, but it helps by keeping their noses sharp!

We reported to the Lewa Airstrip at 8am to find a neat line of camo-clad rangers, standing to attention. In the back of a nearby Landcruiser sat the two bloodhounds. A handler went over and let the dogs jump out. Their expert training focuses on their incredible scent-following abilities – they are not attack dogs. This immediately became clear as ‘Tipper’ and ‘Tony’, the then three year old littermates, came right up to greet us with their floppy ears and slobbering jowls.

The rangers gave us a thorough breakdown of the dogs’ roles and how they are proving invaluable in their law enforcement efforts. To set the dog on the correct trail, a suspect’s scent is gathered on fresh gauze, be it from a footprint, a piece of clothing, or even an object that has been handled. The handler takes care not to contaminate the gauze with their own scent by reading the wind direction and using a plastic glove. After holding the gauze to the dog’s nose for a few seconds, he signals that the hunt is on. These dogs love nothing more than following a trail.

As part of the training, and to demonstrate their prowess, I was asked to accompany two rangers and disappear into the surrounding grasslands. One of the dogs was going to try and find me by following my scent, gleaned from one of my footprints. We hid in a shallow valley a few hundred metres away from the airstrip. On my way there I tried my best to leave a confusing trail by walking in circles, climbing and jumping off a termite mound, and even relieving myself in bushes well away from our final location. As the handlers prepared the hounds and onlookers, I had the chance to ask my two accompanying rangers some questions about their work. Without going into specifics, I can report that they take great pride in their role as wildlife defenders and love having the dogs and cutting edge technology, such as night-vision, at their disposal. They emphasised the impact of tourism and donations to Lewa as key funding for their operations.

Back to the hunt, and yes, the distance that the dogs had to track me was nothing compared to a typical trail (these dogs have followed scent all the way to Isiolo, working in relay), but the dog found us within minutes of starting. He gave the two rangers and me a good sniff – before indicating that I was indeed the suspect. Fortunately, he did this by only playfully jumping on me. As a reward, I got my hand covered in slobber as I fed him some treats. Their efficiency was staggering.

These dogs are famous across the region and, as a result of their successes, crime has dropped in the surrounding communities. Despite their ultimate anti-poaching role, the dogs are scrambled to assist with various crime investigations in the surrounding areas. The unit also works closely with the Northern Rangelands Trust that facilitates community conservancies well into Northern Kenya. With poaching and cattle rustling common problems blighting these areas, these bloodhounds have been used to track down suspects and stolen cattle. The unit commander told me that the dogs have also been flown across the country to assist with other cases, including trailing suspected al-Shabab militants.

In the end, these incredible dogs, their specialist human handlers, and the Lewa security team fulfil numerous roles, be it anti-poaching, general law enforcement, community-supported conservation, and even as a tourist attraction. They are a national asset. May they keep up the great work.

You can find out more about these various organizations at www.lewa.org, www.nrt-kenya.org and ecotraining