Good boy! Dogs sniffing out tortoises for conservation in the Western Cape

2019-03-11 15:00 - Gabi Zietsman
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Dogs are humans' best friends - but can they be a tortoise's?

Working dogs have been used in the fight against animal poaching for decades, protecting our wildlife from the more unscrupulous segments of humanity, but not all canines show their dedication to wildlife conservation by taking down big bad poachers.

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In CapeNature's Elandsberg Nature Reserve, these conservation detection dogs are helping scientists out by sniffing out one of the rarest tortoises in the world - the geometric tortoise, locally known as 'suurpootjie'.

Categorised as 'critically endangered', the beautiful yellow-and-black patterned tortoise was at one point thought to be extinct in the 1950s. Studies and surveys conducted annually are important to keep track of the populations in the Western Cape, but finding them can be quite difficult. 

ALSO SEE: #ShockWildlifeTruths: Massive illegal tortoise trade in Indonesia rears its ugly head

Two geometric tortoises in the field

The geometric tortoise (Psammobates Geomtricus). (Photo: CapeNature)

What is a Conservation Detection Dog?

This is where Brin enters - the first dog to be assigned to the Conservation Detection Dog programme trained to find these critters - alive - in their natural habitats of lowland fynbos and renosterveld.

The project was launched in 2012 by CapeNature, alongside various conservation partners, and was the first live target detection work of its kind in South Africa. The dogs are trained for six months before going into the field.

Conservation detection dogs can also sniff out certain flora and other live fauna that are specific to certain studies, making them an important part in scientific field research studies and used all over the world.

These dogs don't have to be breed specific, but they do need to have a high drive for play and hunt, as well as being suitable to work in a South African climate. 

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How the drought is endangering Brin's job and a whole tortoise population

While the usual habitat degradation for the suurpootjie has always been an ever-present threat, the 2018 drought has brought on more stress to the survival of the species, according to CapeNature's ecological coordinator Vicki Hudson, who also helped train Brin.

The drought, and the accompanying wildfires, is causing these endangered tortoises to become heat-stressed.

“When the urine coagulates it gets dark red. When you stress the tortoise or disturb it, it sets up a defence mechanism, so that’s the first thing it does. When this is done when it hasn’t had water, the urine gets dark blood red and gets congealed,” Hudson tells CapeNature after speaking about the success of the dog programme at an event.

The lack of water also meant vegetation coverage has taken a hit, making the tortoise even more vulnerable to predators and lack of food.

“The areas haven’t been able to develop because there is no water. Because the tortoises get heat stressed they can’t re-hydrate themselves, so we only started our research in September last year. We normally go from mid-April to October for normal research.”

This late start to research also means that dogs like Brin have less to do, and can't exactly go and try to find other work during the downtime.

MORE PICS: Specially trained free-running dogs from US to join the fight against poaching in Kruger

A dog posing next to a tortoise

Brin next to one of his tortoise friends. (Photo: CapeNature)

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