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The province of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), South Africa, has lost more
than 1,200 rhino in the last decade and remains under sustained
attack from poaching syndicates linked to well-funded international
criminal organisations. The largest rhino populations are located in
the greater Zululand area of northern KZN, spread out across a
number of state, private and community-owned game reserves.
However, their proximity to Mozambique, where the greatest rhino
poaching threats originate from, makes these conservation areas
Founded in 2017, the Project Rhino K9-Unit works alongside landowners,
ecotourism businesses, community based institutions and
the South African Police Service. It has proven to be an essential tool
in fighting wildlife crime by tracking down poachers, detecting
wildlife products and recovering illegal weapons and ammunition. The team consists of trained and
certified tracking and detection dogs that help to locate poaching suspects and gather important real-time
intelligence. It is strategically located in the heart of rhino country and minutes away from the Hluhluwe
airfield in order to provide rapid support to where poaching threats are greatest.
Within the northern KZN region is a patchwork of protected areas that are home to iconic wildlife species,
notably the critically endangered black rhino and near threatened white rhino. The fact that these wildlife
areas are interspersed with human settlements and are easily accessed by a network of public roads is a
threat to the security of priority species and their habitats.
Anti-poaching costs have surged in the last decade and the conservation industry is currently spending
about R1,2 billion a year on security. The situation has worsened under the COVID-19 context. With
diminished conservation levies, reserves have less money for conservation and protection, and are also
unable to contribute to their neighbouring communities’ livelihoods. As the triple crisis of climate change
(both drought and flood periods), unemployment (the highest in the world) and COVID-19 significantly
impacts these wildlife communities, they are turning to wildlife poaching for protein, and are vulnerable to
The Project Rhino K9-Unit is a relevant response. It provides immediate response to criminal threats, and
serves as a visible deterrent. The crime inhibiting function of the K9-Unit has a positive knock on effect:
what is good for rhino is good for all wildlife.
The Bloodhound and Malinois (Belgian Shepherd) breeds are effective at tracking poachers in the field and
detecting firearms, ammunition and wildlife products that enter and exit through park gates. Their noses
contain 50 times more scent receptors than humans, allowing them to follow and detect specific scents.
This is crucial in combating constantly-evolving poaching elements, which have become more sophisticated
and can easily hide their tracks once they are inside game reserves.
History and Role of the Project Rhino K9-Unit
The K9-Unit was piloted with one handler and detection dog in September 2017 – at that stage there was
only one other contracted K9 team operating in the area, restricted to the Mpila section of Hluhluwe-
Imfolozi Park. Protected areas had to rely on the availability of the South African Police Services’ single dog
unit (one SAPS officer with 2 dogs) based an hour away in Empangeni, which was often not able to assist
due to other crimes. Furthermore, the SAPS dogs were not trained for wildlife crime needs. The pilot
project immediately showed results and since then, the K9-Unit has grown to include six certified tracking
and detection dogs (two of which are helicopter trained) and provides a diverse range of services. In the
last four years, the team has had major successes in significant criminal and wildlife-crime related cases,
whilst still providing daily support to rangers in the field.
Wildlife crime is often linked to the same criminal syndicates that commit other serious crimes such as
narcotics, contraband and human trafficking. The team is often contacted by local authorities to assist in
crimes such as these, as well as hi-jacking, weapons or counterfeit item detection and armed robbery. They
have played a key role in numerous successes, including the recovery of heroin and counterfeit items worth
in excess of USD 4 million.
Broadly, their roles can be categorized under three activities:
Detection: The thorough search of a crime scene, building, vehicle, outdoor location, open or other space,
as expeditiously as possible, whilst reducing the impact of the search on the owner or occupiers.
Tracking: Providing an immediate response in the event of an incursion or contact in a Protected Area,
with the aim of successfully and safely locating suspects in the shortest possible time to aid in the arrest
and successful prosecution of those responsible for the illegal activities. The tracking ability of these
canines is so remarkable that they may follow a single scent for many kilometres over tough and varied
Deterrence and habitat protection: Dogs have a pronounced crime deterrent effect. They are noticed by
many people and often feared by criminals. The K9-Unit makes their presence known through active
vehicle and foot patrols; daily fence patrols and snare removal also prevent incursions and the loss of
wildlife and other biodiversity.
By way of example, monthly activities for the K9-Unit would include:
Daily training exercises between handler and their dedicated K9.
Support game reserves by conducting visible foot patrols of six to eight kilometres approximately
20 days per month.
Remove an average of 20 – 30 snares per month.
Monthly training exercises with game reserve Anti-Poaching Units (APUs) and security teams in the
Reactions to game reserves may include: immediate support at a poaching scene or suspected
poacher incursions. Assistance with tracking of missing wildlife, lodge robberies or stolen
Reactions with local law enforcement may include: crimes ranging from road blocks, contraband
and counterfeit goods detection, to armed robbery or hi-jacking.
The team is on standby 24 hours a day.
The team supports all formal protected areas, private and community owned game reserves in the
northern KwaZulu-Natal region. This area of approximately 800,000 HA supports close to 25% of the
world’s black and white rhino populations, as well as other priority species.
Monthly costs for the K9-Unit amount to around R91,000 ($5,940) per month. This is inclusive of all costs of
four handlers and a team leader, fuel, insurance, uniforms, indemnity, dog food, vet supplies, telecomms
and accommodation. Please refer to the accompanying Excel Sheet for a full budget breakdown.
For a large part of the current COVID crisis, the team have been operating on a month-to-month basis
which is damaging to team morale. The Unit is Project Rhino’s priority concern as it cannot be stopped and
started due to the intrinsic trust relationship that is built between a K9 and his/her handler over months
and years of working together. Alongside Project Rhino’s aerial patrol project, the K9-Unit was also voted as
Project Rhino’s most valuable project by game reserves and conservation NGO members. Funding for this
project will ensure that the K9-Unit is able to provide its essential service.
Further Information on the K9-Unit
For further information on the K9-Unit’s daily activities, you can consult the following sources:
Reports on the K9-Unit’s activities are written every four months for GlobalGiving donors, these are
available at https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/project-rhino-k9-unit-defending-africanwildlife/reports/
The team was recently featured on South Africa’s leading investigative journalism programme,
Carte Blanche. The clip can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B8KzrN2t_sw&t=30s
Project Rhino’s social media pages often feature updates on the K9-Unit:
The team’s insurance cover is sponsored by One Plan Pet Insurance, who also writes occasional
blog posts on their activities: https://blog.oneplan.co.za/Blog/2021/2/8/oneplan-and-projectrhino-touching-base-with-the-team-in-2021
Photographs of the team in action are also available on request (firstname.lastname@example.org).
About Project Rhino
Project Rhino is an association of 36 like-minded organisations, facilitating rhino conservation interventions
aimed at eliminating rhino poaching and securing the white and black rhino populations of KwaZulu-
Natal. The members of Project Rhino recognise that the work in conserving and protecting rhinos from the
threat of poaching is symbolic of the broader threat faced by all wildlife and that all wildlife will benefit
from actions taken by Project Rhino. The association is also aware that the poaching of rhino is
symptomatic of the overall, bigger environmental crises facing South Africa and its neighbours.
There are numerous fundamental projects that fall under the Project Rhino umbrella and all are essential to
combat wildlife crime, a complex problem that must be approached in a holistic manner. Our initiatives are
seen as tools in a bigger toolbox that work hand in hand to stop rhino poaching.
The Project Rhino Response:
To combat poaching threats, Project Rhino takes a four pillar approach:
1. Coordination Unit: The team that keeps the engines running by 1) mobilizing stakeholders; 2) gathering
and synthesizing information; 3) prioritising needs; and 4) sourcing funds and donations. Without
effective coordination, we would see a disjointed and dysfunctional response to wildlife crime –
resulting in higher poaching numbers.
2. Ranger and Technical Support: 1) Direct training and material support to rangers; 2) providing and
operationalizing K9 and equine patrols units; and 3) ZAP-Wing aerial surveillance including lease and
support costs of Hluhluwe airfield.
3. Education and Engagement: Activating youth and communities through 1) Rhino ART (Art, Recreation
and Theatre); 2) Youth camps; 3) Leadership forums; and 4) the World Youth Wildlife Summit.
4. Wild Economy and Enterprise: Building and supporting a network of responsible use landscapes and
identifying business opportunities within them. For example, ecological agriculture, agro processing
Now in its 10th year, Project Rhino continues to bring together organizations with a common vision and
goal, identifying synergies through an integrated, common approach. Project Rhino has pioneered an ethos
of collaboration and tackles macro-level issues that affect all KZN rhino stakeholders. Initiatives benefit all
rhino, regardless of whether they are to be found in provincial, private or community-owned game