Taking a lead in the war on poaching
The dry and dusty landscapes of southern Africa might seem a million miles from the green, green grass of West Wales, but two Carmarthenshire dog trainers are playing a key role in protecting the animals that live on the veldt.
Across Africa, poaching is a massive problem. According to recent reports, more than 100,000 African elephants were killed between 2014 and 2017 for ivory while around 1,000 rhinos are killed each year for their horns.
The wholesale slaughter of elephants, rhinos, giraffes, lions, and all the rest is a problem which will ultimately impact us all, but with limited numbers of antipoaching rangers working across thousands of miles of open grasslands – and even more limited funds – the job of protecting these beautiful creatures might seem all but impossible.
But while most of us simply shake our heads in dismay, Darren Priddle and Jacqui Law of Extremus Dog Training decided to take the poachers on in the best way they could.
“Our mission is to supply operational antipoaching dogs to conservancies, reserves and national parks that do not have the funding or capacity to provide or purchase the dogs for themselves,” explained Darren.
As goals go, providing specially-trained antipoaching dogs to African reserves and national parks – and providing ongoing support and training to rangers – seems an unlikely dream, but that is exactly what Darren and Jacqui are doing.
What’s more, they do it completely free of charge; their dogs and the support and training needed to look after them does not cost the reserves a penny.
“The difficulty is that a lot of the reserves in Africa are completely cash-strapped,” said Darren. “They have no funding to pay for these dogs or for the training and ongoing care that’s required. That’s where we come in.
Darren and Jacqui set up Dogs 4 Wildlife, a not-for-profit organisation that breeds and provides specialist antipoaching dogs to the wildlife reserves and national parks of Africa, at the end of 2018 and has already delivered – or deployed in Darren’s words – ten dogs to rangers in four African countries.
Their journey from training dogs at their base in St Clears, Carmarthenshire, to the forefront of the global fight against poaching was – in turn – both inevitable and down to pure chance.
“My background is mainly in producing operational dogs for the police and military,” said Darren, “so I suppose it was a natural transition for us because producing operational antipoaching dogs is the higher echelon of what you can achieve with a working dog.
“There is no better format for a working dog than to use its skills and abilities to protect other wildlife. It’s a perfect match.”
But while the destination might seem obvious, the beginning was far from it.
Around six years ago Darren happened to be scrolling through Facebook when he saw a post by a dog trainer working on an African reserve who was trying to train an antipoaching dog.
“I thought it sounded like an amazing thing to do,” said Darren, “so I contacted him and offered him one of our puppies.”
From little acorns, the saying goes, and soon that puppy became six dogs that Darren and Jacqui had bred, raised, trained and deployed.
“We were training dogs for him through Extremus Dog Training and then sending them over to Africa,” said Darren.
“It was an amazing privilege for us to be involved with him, but eventually he had to stop doing it.”
With their African connection severed, the pair spent a year considering their options.
“We realised that we were really missing our dogs doing this amazing work in Africa so we asked ourselves, why don’t we just do it ourselves? That’s where and how we set up Dogs 4 Wildlife.”
Specialising in Belgian Malinois, Dogs 4 Wildlife currently has ten dogs operational across different reserves in four countries, with another three trained and nearing deployment.
“We use Malinois mainly because of the adaptability of the dog, the intelligence level of the dog, the capability of the dog,” said Darren.
“From an operational standpoint, Malinois tick every box that we need to be ticked.
“They can track long distances, they can apprehend, their obedience and control is very good, and their environmental agility is also excellent.
“From our point of view, they are perfect. They exceed every expectation that we have of them.
“We have them from the moment they are born, we literally open the sack they are born in and from that day forward we spend pretty much every waking hour with them until they are deployed.
“Shinga is our main star at the moment – she’s nine months old, and we also have brother and sister Kal and Kitapo, who are both 12 months.
“Kal is almost ready to deploy and Kitapo isn’t too far behind.”
But while the passion needed to get the dogs to the point when they are able to play an active role in the fight against poaching is inspiring, the reality is that breeding, training and deploying highly-trained specialist dogs does not come cheap.
“Each dog costs us between £9,000 and £11,000,” Darren explained.
“That’s just to get each dog from birth to deployment at between 12 and 15 months old.
“The shipping alone – just to get the dogs from sunny West Wales to Africa is about £3,000 per dog.
“On top of that, you’ve obviously got food costs, kennelling costs, training costs, plus veterinary costs, administration costs, dog equipment, handler equipment costs, it goes on and on.”
And there lies the problem faced by the reserves and conservancies in Africa.
“They simply cannot afford to raise and train these dogs,” said Darren. “They just do not have the money, which is why we provide them free of charge.
“We raise, train and develop the dogs to a certain point and age before deploying them to their relevant conservancies.
“We also provide an intensive ongoing ‘for life’ training and development programme for the ranging teams and the rangers themselves, which includes all the operational aspects of dog training and handling, dog management, kennel management, animal welfare and husbandry.”
That support sees Darren accompany each dog on its deployment to Africa and provide rangers with an in-depth, advanced training programme over a 14-day period.
He then returns six months later to ensure that each dog has settled and bedded in effectively.
“We give them the complete package,” he said.
“At the beginning, Dogs 4 Wildlife was subsidised by our income from Extremus Dog Training because it was our passion – it was something we believed in and something we really want to do.
“Fortunately, we are now getting to the point where we have had a couple of sponsors come on board.”
One such sponsor is Pro Dog Raw, a national raw food company, which has covered the costs of raising and training Shinga, but she is the only one so far who has had full funding.
“The rest we have had to do on an ad hoc basis. We do a car boot sale here and there, and we have a bit of merchandise that people can buy – t-shirts, hoodies, dog collars, dog bandanas etc, and we make a little bit of money on those which goes into the pot.”
Dogs 4 Wildlife has also created a dog adoption scheme where supporters can pay £30 to adopt a specific dog for a year.
As well as an adoption pack, which includes a certificate, information sheets, a cuddly antipoaching toy puppy, adopters receive updates about their dog so they can see the work it is doing.
“Adopters get to know if their dog has caught a poacher, been involved in tracking or received any additional training,” explained Darren.
However, while Darren and Jacqui provide their dogs with the perfect upbringing and training, there are some limitations to operating from Carmarthenshire.
No matter how hard they try, they simply cannot turn West Wales into Africa and no matter how much obedience and agility training a dog undergoes, coming face to face with an actual lion or rhinoceros is the ultimate test.
“Obviously, what we cannot do here in Wales is acclimatise the dogs to the sights, sounds and smells of Africa,” explained Darren.
But thanks to some very special help and a wonderful stroke of luck, they can get pretty close.
Not too far from Dogs 4 Wildlife’s base many of the animals the dogs are likely to encounter following deployment have already made a home – at Pembrokeshire’s Folly Farm.
“It really is an incredible coincidence that we have rhinos, giraffes and lions just down the road,” said Darren. “Folly Farm gives us incredible access to their animals.
“Folly Farm enables us to get the dogs used to the sights, sounds and smells they might face in the bush - the rhino, giraffe, zebra, that they will see when they have been deployed.
“It helps us to train the dogs to be as cool, calm and collected as they possibly can be in the presence of other animals.
“We get some very close encounters with the rhinos and it’s also good to get them used to the smell of lions, which can be quite a challenge.
“It would be much more difficult for our dogs to adapt without their exposure to the animals at Folly Farm and for that we are incredibly grateful.
“We owe Folly Farm massively for their support, openness and willingness to help us.”
Although the logistics, administration and hard work that makes Dogs 4 Life such a success is both breath-taking and awe-inspiring, the desire to help and pride Darren and Jacqui have for their dogs is what makes it all so special.
“We do not have a team of trainers, we do it all ourselves,” explains Darren. “We develop a real bond with each dog.
“Seeing the dog out working with the rangers as a fully operational antipoaching dog, protecting wildlife, succeeding, and actually catching poachers is a feeling that I will never get used to.
“We keep in close contact with the reserves and the individual rangers, and they let us know when our dogs have caught a poacher or successfully tracked something.
“It’s a wonderful feeling to be told that our dogs have successfully tracked poachers more than 10km. That’s an incredible feeling for us.
“We know that the dogs are a huge asset out there - a really, really huge asset and that they are starting to develop a reputation out in the bush.
“Once the poacher sees the dog coming after him along with the armed ranger unit, they usually give up straight away.
“We are so proud of our dogs. We want to show people – especially those who have supported us in some way - what they are achieving out in Africa and the difference they are making.
“It’s a privilege and an honour to be involved in the fight against poaching and to work with these incredible dogs.
“And to think that a little dog training company in southwest Wales is training dogs to help defend and conserve wildlife in Africa, well…it does sound good, doesn’t it?”
You can follow the work of Dogs 4 Wildlife across social media on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.
You can also make a donation or adopt a dog by visiting dogs4wildlife.org