Dogs Save Elephants : Big Life's Tracker Dogs

  Mutinda, Big Life Kenya's Ace Dog Handler, with Jazz, on the wing of Richard's plane, Dec. 2011

by Richard Bonham

One of the most effective tools to an anti-poaching strategy is to deter poachers from even coming into an area. In this regard, there is no tool more effective than tracker dogs. Even if the poachers are not ambushed or stopped before the crime, they will almost definitely be caught with dogs after the crime. They cannot get away.

Dogs can track this trail from where poachers have killed up to one day past the event, and lead the team to the door of the poacher’s house. This is a significant deterrent : the poacher knows that nothing he can do will be able to change this. The Maasai in particular are terrified of trackers dogs, regarding them as somehow supernatural in their ability to track them down.

The Big Life tracker dogs reputation has spread and we are often called out into National Parks to support Kenya Wildlife Service operations and into other private conservancies…. They are worth their weight in gold as this story illustrates.

Probably the most outstanding follow-up we had was when a patrol team found a rhino trail littered with cable snares, set the day before. The ground in the area was mainly lava rock, and so impossible for conventional tracking that the dogs were bought in. Four hours later, the dogs led the rangers out of the park to a small hut on a farm. On searching the hut, the rangers found more snares, poisoned arrows and a gin trap. How many animals this single operation saved is impossible to determine.

We at Big Life are particularly proud of the fact that our tracker dogs are the first to ever be used in Tanzania for Wildlife Conservation.



by Damian Bell

Jerry & Rocky, Big Life Tanzania's tracking dogs, with their handlers, Shinini, Lempris and Kalasinga July 2012

The Kilimanjaro Dog tracking unit started in October 2011 with two dogs and a team of  four handlers. The dogs were purchased and trained by Canine Specialist Services International (CSSI) in Arusha, Tanzania to track poachers in the Big Life Amboseli Kilimanjaro project areas. The handlers were selected from a group of local community rangers and also trained by CSSI. 



Rocky is a friendly and very social dog. He is very communicative and loves to play. He is the joker of the team always jumping up and down and expressing his enthusiasm for his job and his team and begging his handlers to play his favorite game ‘track that person’.   At his kennels, he barks at anyone or anything that passes, trying to encourage anyone to play a game with him. He is generally great with people and even children. 

Aside from play, he is ready to work when he puts his nose down to the ground, is focused and keen, and has shown he has a great nose even when splashing and tracking across swamps and marshes. 


Jerry is the serious one in the team. The ‘big brother’ of the pair, he remains mostly silent and responsible. 

Jerry is a big dog with great stamina and strength. He takes his work very seriously and is an excellent tracker. Even though Jerry is very quiet, he looks his handlers in the eye, trusts them explicitly and has an enthusiastic team spirit. 


The above  map  shows where the Big Life tracking dogs have been called up and been active in supporting anti-poaching units in both community- based conservation areas, national parks, and key protected areas in Northern Tanzania. 

Kennels are strategically placed so they have easy and fast access to the conservation areas in the regions:  Enduimet Wildlife Management Area, Kilimanjaro Conservancy and Kilimanjaro National Park. The dog unit has been very active tracking in the area responding to calls from the anti-poaching scouts as well as local police and local communities.

Due to the general successes in the area, the dog team has established a reputation in the region and has been called out by various organizations for support.

Dogs' Health

The dogs are looked after by a very dedicated and well-trained team. The team lives with the dogs in a clean and well designed kennel, secured from any outsiders entering. 

The team is trained to manage the dogs’ health including their temperatures which are recorded regularly; they are groomed daily and washed once a week. The unit has a well-stocked first aid kit and when they are on any call and they always carry a backpack with their first aid kit to support the dogs, as well as themselves. They exercise daily with various training regimes. 

A reliable and experienced veterinary surgery is only  two hours away from the dog station and the dogs have regular checkups and professional emergency support if needed.  


Training is a daily task for the unit. Dogs are trained every day at the dog kennels and once a week out in the field. Daily training includes focused tasks designed to keep the dogs’ attention on the scent and designed to distinguish one track from another. 

Once a week the dog unit goes for field training, providing the dogs and the team with good practice to pack and prepare the dogs for travel with real tracking conditions as well as providing a training exercise for the Big Life rangers in the area.  

The dogs and the handlers are assessed every six months in their tracking and handling skills by Will Powell from CSSI. A program was developed to assess the team using specific targets to measure their tracking skills improvement.


Expanding the Unit

With an increase of  call-outs to Lake Manyara and Tarangire National Parks, as well as the Ngorongoro Conservation Authority, we have been encouraged to expand the dog unit. 

A new dog post will be developed in the Manyara area that will allow for the dog unit to cover community conservation areas and national parks within this area. Tanzania’s Director of Wildlife visited the dog unit in March 2013 and indicated that the Serengeti National Park and other areas also needed the support of the dogs. Having  a dog post and kennels in the Manyara area will allow easy access to all these surrounding areas. 


Below are some of the cases that the Tanzanian Dog Unit has been involved with in the last six months :

Tarangire October 2012

After hearing about the Big Life dog unit, the Chief Park Warden of Tarangire National Park called for their support in October 2012.  An elephant had been shot in Tarangire and the poachers had taken off with the ivory. The park terrain made it difficult to follow the tracks and they needed dogs.

The dog team was based in West Kilimanjaro, so they did not get there until the late afternoon. The dog team set off on the trail, the tracks winding out and back into the park and then out again towards the villages. Finally, the dogs lost the scent due to large herds of cattle crossing the paths of the poacher’s tracks. It was getting dark and it was time to call for rest. 

Early the next morning the dogs set off again, but this time the strategy was to pass by every village, and, through a process of elimination, reduce the possible options.

In each village, the young men were lined up and by smelling their ‘scent’,  a dog checked to see if any of them were the poachers. This process is a gentle way of ‘interrogation’. With all the villages checked and nothing found, the dogs went to the town of Makuyuni and started to sweep through.

This is where they picked up the scent again and followed it to a certain place, where again, the tracks disappeared. However it provided information that the poachers had boarded a car at a certain place, and this helped narrow down the options. 

Within half an hour, a vehicle was picked up with three men who were not from the area and had been seen coming from the direction of the park. The dogs were called in on a line-up. Rocky picked both men out and then did not want to leave them. He knew that this was his prize for coming.

For a long track such as this one, taking place over a few days and using two dogs, the team uses a method to keep the scent.  In this case, a knife was found early on that had been dropped by the poachers, and so it was handled and stored carefully to retain the scent.  This knife was used repeatedly to remind the dogs of the scent that they were looking for. 


Lake Manyara National Park, January 2013

The Chief Park Warden for Lake Manyara Park called Big Life for help.  He needed the dogs to follow-up on a poached elephant. The dog team set off from their Kilimanjaro post to Manyara, arriving late at night. 

In the morning, they set off with the national park rangers and the Chief Park Warden to where the elephant had been found. Unfortunately, it had rained heavily after the elephant died, and the Big Life dog unit explained that because of this, they could not pick up a track and were unable to help in this particular incident. 

A radio message then came through with news that another park’s team had found a set of tracks, presumed to be that of a poacher, and the team decided this would be a good opportunity to give the Tanzania National parks some experience of how the dogs operated.  Several rangers gathered and set off following Rocky.

Rocky, who loves water, took them through marshes, pools of water and swamps, and after six hours of tracking, they finally ended up near a small village. 

Since they were now on a clear road, the team changed dogs and Jerry took over. Emmanuel, the dog handler,  placed a small piece of gauze on the footprint at the start of the track and then stored the gauze in a Ziploc bag. He gave Jerry a quick sniff of the bag with the gauze and then he was off pulling Emmanuel behind him.

Just around the corner he stopped outside a house. Lucky Jerry had taken over in the last 100m of the  six-hour track and arrived at the poacher’s house! 

The police arrived quickly and forced entry into the house to find a huge pile of illegal fishing nets. The police later arrested the man. Although this was only a fish poacher, the real success was the opportunity to show the Lake Manyara Park rangers the exceptional qualities of a good dog team. 

The following day, the  Chief Park Warden called all of the park patrol rangers and police in the area together where they held a training workshop on crime scene management and tracker dogs’ protocols.


Tarangire, January 2013

Tarangire Parks called Big Life Dog Unit for help after a young elephant had been killed near the park. The dog team set off to the crime scene. Jerry was harnessed and set off at a fast pace with the tracks still relatively fresh. 

They followed the trail and found where the poachers had slept in the early hours of the morning. The trail led them to a busy village on market day, but the tracks were subsequently lost due to the mass of people and tracks on the ground.  

However, the dogs provided key information in tracking them to the village. By using information of the route the poachers had taken and some intelligence gathering, the Parks received information that the poachers were in Babati town. They know their names and are following up to find out their current whereabouts.


Ngorongoro Conservation Area, February 2013

Some local people in the NCA heard a gunshot in the forest and reported this to the rangers of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. The rangers set off to investigate, fearing it could be another ivory strike on the huge tuskers of the NCA.

After two days of searching, they finally found a young bull elephant of just five years old on the edge of the forest with the ivory hacked out and removed.

The NCA called Big Life's Dog Unit, which set of to Ngorongoro, arriving in the late evening, too late to start. Early the next day the team set off to find the elephant, which had been dead for at least four days.

Jerry’s incredible nose still picked up the scent after four days. The track led them past where the poachers had cleaned the tusks and packed them, but unfortunately took straight to the road where the poachers had used a vehicle to escape. The team packed up for the day and gave the dogs a well deserved rest. 

The next morning, the NCA security rangers received information that a known poacher was in the area and they decided to ask the poacher to join a line up to see if he was responsible. The dogs were taken to the line up to identify him as the one responsible from the scent, but this time it was not him, and the others had escaped.  




by Richard Bonham

He left a trail of butchered animal carcasses in his wake. He sometimes also left a note (heavily censored here) to the effect of “you wimps will never catch me”. 

One day, Mutinda’s cockiness got the better of him and his luck ran out. A spot of bush justice was dispensed, and he was handed over to the police for prosecution. But a sympathetic magistrate gave him a $10 fine and sent him home. It was not long before more carcasses with his stamp began appearing. 

Our next break come when the bush news network linked the information that he was trying to sell one rhino horn, two elephant tusks and six leopard skins. Together with the Kenya Wildlife Service, a sting was set up and bingo, we had him with all evidence needed to lock him up for a long term. But again he had the last laugh. After spending 65 nights in remand prison (not a very pleasant place), he was brought to court. But somehow the rhino and the ivory was no longer there as evidence… They had mysteriously been “misplaced” at the police station. So, with no case to answer he returned home to his small village on the edge of Chyulu Hills. 

Incensed, I thought if we can’t beat him, let’s get him to join us. I wrote a letter asking him to meet me on neutral ground. He didn’t turn up. I sent another, this time with some money enclosed suggesting we meet in a bar on the Nairobi-Mombasa highway.  I arrived at the appointed hour, waited an hour or so was getting up to leave, when a man with an open smiling face sat down at my table, held out his hand and said, “ I am Mutinda”.  

After a while, we were both well-oiled after a few beers, which helped break down the barriers, and in time we were talking about the wildlife and the hills that were our common bond. He lost no time in telling that he had never used a snare in his life. Snares, he said, were for young boys and the unskilled, and all his hunting was done with a bow and poisoned arrow. He told me he did not know what else to do and had little formal education. He had been taught to hunt by his father, starting as a seven year old learning to how to make the poison, the bow and the arrow, and moving up the apprentice ladder from there until the day, aged 17, when he killed his first rhino and became a fully-fledged hunter. 

The rest is history. The lure of a steady pay cheque at the end of every month, a game ranger’s uniform that brings with it status and honour, did the rest. Mutinda has become one of the most reliable and trustworthy game scouts I have met anywhere. 

He has also brought with him a mine of bush knowledge that has rubbed off on the other rangers, has shown us previously unknown trails used by poachers that have led to successful ambushes. So a win-win situation has come out of it. Mutinda is no longer moving through the bush leaving a trail of carcasses behind him, and he has been directly responsible for stopping others. 

However, the real long-term benefit may be the example he is showing to his community through the growing prosperity of his family. 

The challenge is to find work and employment for other in his old poaching fraternity, in order to get them to change.