Sergeant Tracy Basarokwe beams at the mention of Katana, the two year old Belgian Malinois tracker dog that helps our rangers catch poachers in the Zambezi Valley in northern Zimbabwe.
Tracy, along with fellow dog handler Future Sibanda and Katana make up the canine unit based at our Phundundu camp. The close bond between the team is unmissable.
The trio have been together since 2019 when the handlers completed three months training at K9 Conservation in South Africa where Katana, (sponsored by Vianna von Weyhausen, Founder and CEO of Canines for Africa) was also trained. They receive ongoing training from Take Action Zimbabwe.
“The job of the canine unit is to help the rangers when they go to patrol and they find the tracks of poachers. They call us and we react, and we go to that point and we start to track,” Tracy says. “Katana is good at tracking and she tracks fast.”
Before the 23 year old married mother of one joined the all-female anti-poaching unit Akashinga nearly four years ago, Tracy was farming with her parents in the nearby village of Nyamakate.
She jokes that Katana is her first born, while her last born is her one year old daughter, Miguel. Miguel is cared for by her mother in Nyamakate when Tracy is on duty.
Since Katana joined the IAPF 18 months ago she has caught a number of poachers by following their tracks and allowing rangers to make an arrest.
Resembling German shepherds, Belgian Malinois, named after the area the breed originated from, are exceptionally intelligent, trainable dogs. They are known to be loving with their families and owners, and need lots of exercise.
Belgian Malinois were originally bred to be shepherds and guard dogs in Belgium in the 1800s, but today their strong tracking skills makes them a popular choice for the police. The US Secret Service also use this intelligent canine to guard the White House.
The deployment of elite, highly trained, specialised working dog units is increasingly being used in conservation. They act as both a deterrent to poachers, and as another tool for detecting and catching them. Their function is not limited to tracking human suspects – they can also detect animals, contraband, firearms, bullet casings and even snares.
IAPF CEO and Founder Damien Mander says canine units are an extremely useful part of the organisation’s operations. The use of specialised canines allows the limited resources to be put in the most effective places.
“A key part of a ranger’s job is to be out patrolling areas, which are sometimes the size of small countries,” Damien says. “When the rangers come across tracks of poachers – sometimes those tracks may be an hour old, sometimes they may be a day old – the use of canines such as Katana allow us to be able to follow those tracks a lot faster."
“Her work can hopefully close the distance between our ranger teams and the people that have made incursions into our areas which, until we know otherwise, are always presumed to be poachers.”
Katana has a schedule, which changes, rotating between tracking training, basic obedience training and going out on patrols, while Sunday is a rest day, Tracy says. Katana also joins the rangers for a 5km morning road run twice a week, which she enjoys.
Generally, in a week she will go out patrolling on two days, do three tracking training sessions where the rangers lay a track and Katana and her handlers follow them, as well as two basic obedience sessions.
Grooming, which includes cleaning her teeth, is part of her daily regimen, and at first and last light she receives a full examination to make sure she is healthy, ensuring she has no ticks or injuries.
“Her favourite food is dog biscuits, she is intelligent, a hard worker, friendly and very protective over her handlers.” Tracy says.
“Katana, who turns three in October, is also very playful, she likes to play with her ball with us, and we give her a tennis ball as a reward. She likes to swim, but mostly Katana is very, very good at tracking,” she says.
“I like that when we teach Katana new things she will start to do it and she’ll do it perfectly. She learns things quickly.”
Tracy and Future, a mother-of-two from the nearby town of Karoi, sleep with Katana in their tent every night, only taking her out to her kennel in the morning, as they feel she is safer with them.
“We protect our dog because we love our dog, so we sleep with her. We are very close to each other.” Tracy says.