In the black heart of raging war on poachers

Conraad de Rosner with Landa, one of the nine puppies sired by Zingela. | ANKE DE ROSNER

Conraad de Rosner with Landa, one of the nine puppies sired by Zingela. | ANKE DE ROSNER

Published Mar 24, 2024


We wasted no time in making our presence felt, running dog patrols day and night, tracking the rhino herds around Singita like the San hunters of yesteryear as they had followed the antelope migrations. If we weren’t patrolling, we were lying low in the bush, silently watching from the shadows. It was hard going in those early days, covering large areas in the middle of a raging poaching war with such a small team and only three dogs. Landa, Makhulu and Manzi were magnificent and soon afterwards I got another puppy that I named Anubis after the half-man, half-jackal deity in ancient Egyptian mythology. He was a pitch-black German shepherd that Cat had sourced from a highly reputable breeder and he showed his pedigree right away; tough, fast, tenacious and loyal. I knew I had a winner and Landa immediately took him under his wing, teaching by example tricks of the bush that we humans could not.

We worked long, exceptionally hard hours, as we were such a small team. I always made sure that the dogs were rested during scorching sunshine, but as the poachers mainly operated in darkness, increasingly so did we. We became creatures of the night, catching quick naps during the day and venturing deep into the bush as the sun went down.

Night patrolling in the wilderness is like being on another planet. It’s tantamount to putting on Scuba gear and plunging into the ocean where you’re instantly immersed in an alien environment. At night birds, bugs, insects, reptiles and rodents come to life that most people have never seen before. It’s a dark, vibrant world you wouldn’t know existed without experiencing it. It became my world.

Ideally, patrolling at night should be done in pairs, but with our small team I often had no option but to go out alone with my dogs. I would select a listening or observation post close to where most of our rhino had gathered and hide in nearby bushes with either Landa or Anubis – or increasingly both as Anubis matured. Landa was my conservation dog that I used to detect animals killed or injured by poachers, whereas Anubis, who was learning fast, was my mantracker. Much of the time was spent as still as a gecko, scanning the bush through night vision goggles and thermal camera imagery. At times I hastily cocked my rifle seeing a poacher a mere twenty yards away, only to find it was a termite mound with the same height and thermal temperature as a man.

But most of all, I listened to my dogs. Dangerous game poses an even more lethal threat in the dark than it does in daylight, and Landa and Anubis were my frontline alarm systems – particularly as they too were vulnerable.

I have lost count of how often I have been warned in the nick of time by Landa and Anubis. Without them, I’m not sure that I would be around to tell this story.

When a dog lifts its muzzle or cocks its head, you had better pay attention or else have a good life insurance policy.

Equally, dogs rely on us to save their lives. It works both ways. They tell me if a hyena is nearby with full confidence that I will handle the situation. When a pride of lions is around the corner, they stick with me. It’s a symbiotic relationship in the purest form.

Called by the Wild: The Dogs Trained to Protect Wildlife by Conraad de Rosner with Graham Spence and Elaine Bell.

As we started recruiting more rangers and handlers, we expanded our dog units to become a wider rapid reaction force, hitting poachers wherever they were. Each unit has a minimum of two people and although patrols operate around the clock every day of the year, the most active poaching periods are between half-moon waxing and waning. In other words, four days either side of a full moon, which is still called a poacher’s moon in bush circles. However, most syndicates now avoid a full moon as although they can see their target animals almost as clearly as in the day, they know we can spot them just as easily.

The worst night of all is New Year’s Eve as every Tom, Dick and Harry in the surrounding villages seems to think it’s their solemn duty to let off as many firecrackers as possible. The result is that even the dimmest poacher knows any gunshot is likely to be drowned out by chaotic pyrotechnic displays, so this is the ideal time to let rip at any nearby rhino. No ranger anywhere in the Lowveld celebrates New Year’s Eve. We’re all out in the bush.

There is no doubt that spending every night in the wild honed our anti-poaching skills like nothing else. We lived in a world without sun, becoming true nocturnal beings. Our senses adapted to this unlit cosmos; our eyes focused on the changing shades of twilight and dawn, the tar blackness of storms or megawatt full moons, and our ears tuned to the whispers and echoes of sounds in the murk. The darkness became a friend. It was no longer alien. The cover and protection and stillness it provided for poachers was equally available to us. And we were just as expert, if not better, at using it.

It also elevated our dogs to new skill levels as this was repetitive training at its best. Every night would see them doing the same thing the same way, responding and reacting to hazardous situations just as we showed them again and again. Our dogs quickly learnt what to do no matter what happened and one of the highlights of this was the effective way Landa trained Anubis, which paved the way for the next generation.

Even with the nocturnal proliferation of hyenas and other predators – including gunmen – I always kept Landa and Anubis off lead. But even so, we were in constant communication and they obeyed my every command. A mere sucking in of my lips, sounding like a rat’s squeak, would have them instantly by my side no matter what the danger was. I dared not whistle in the bush as the enemy would hear that like a siren.

We became better and better at outwitting the horn gangs. After all, we were in the bush every night and they weren’t. One trick was to drive our vehicles into a specified spot and then switch off engines and headlights. As soon as the night became still, we would quietly drive off, this time without lights. The poachers would believe we were where they had last seen us, so avoided that area. Meanwhile, we were waiting for them elsewhere.

De Rosner walking his pack. | JOHAN ‘VOSSIE’ VORSTER

They also soon found out that their silenced weapons were ineffective, as our listening posts were so strategically placed that we could hear almost all gunshots. They tried to modify their suppressors, but it’s impossible to totally silence the distinctive ‘crack’ of a .458 or a .375 and, of course, our dogs were all trained to detect – ‘imprint’ as we call it – the acrid smell of gunpowder. We knew whenever a rifle had been fired, suppressed or not.

We also used Sirenco strobe lights to confuse them. These were strapped magnetically onto the roofs of our vehicles like a police light, but as we had more lights than vehicles, we sometimes would leave three or four flashing in the bush. These could be seen from miles away, and although the poachers knew some were decoys, they weren’t sure which, so it was safer for them to go somewhere else. It was a cunning plan, as Blackadder’s sidekick Baldrick would say.

All this eventually started to pay dividends. Singita was now locked down. Rhino were no longer targeted or poached in our area, as the gangs increasingly avoided us and our dogs. They continued hitting other sections of the reserve but left us alone. That is true to this day.

The biggest irony is that when K9 Conservation arrived at Singita, all private reserves in the Greater Kruger National Park system were referred to as ‘buffer zones’. Today the situation is reversed. There are so few rhinos left on Kruger that the main congregations are now in the private reserves with poachers increasingly focused on areas where meta populations still exist. Kruger is still being infiltrated on a regular basis, as are provincial reserves such as KwaZulu-Natal’s Hluhluwe–iMfolozi Park, but the poachers are finding it more difficult to locate rhino due to diminished numbers.

Those years that I spent in the bush at night affected me profoundly. I love nights in the wilderness with a passion: the vibrancy that defies the stillness, the tranquillity that can mask extreme danger, the buzz of the cicadas, the sky alive with meteorites and shooting stars so bright that it’s almost daylight. However, it has seriously messed up my internal clock. Even today, for me to get to sleep before midnight is almost impossible.

Once we controlled the night, the primary battle for our contracted area of the Sabi Sand Wildtuin was won. But it was a mere skirmish. Rhino poaching was not over by any stretch of the imagination.

Independent on Saturday