K9 unit members spring into action
Table Mountain National Park’s 18-person SEAM Sea, Air and Mountain team includes a restored K9 unit with six trained dogs. PHOTO: Provided
In a scene reminiscent of the popular 1980s action TV series aerial wolfa Sea, Air and Mountain (SEAM) Special Warfare Ranger and his dog jumped downhill from a helicopter and chased three suspected abalone poachers.
The video posted on the South African National Parks (SANParks) – Table Mountain National Park (TMNP) Facebook page on Sunday, December 19 last year, shows how members of Team SEAM, an elite group of recruits of Rangers trained with the strategic aim of countering poaching and criminal threats, apprehending three poachers during an anti-poaching operation that morning in the Cape of Good Hope section of the TMNP.
The arrest came just over two weeks after the team passed out parade at Newlands Fire Base on Friday December 3 last year. Tasked with enhancing safety and security at TMNP, the 18-person SEAM team includes a reestablished K9 unit with six trained dogs.
In an interview last week, message from the people caught up with some of the team’s handlers to find out a bit more about them and their canine colleagues.
*Collin is the Special Operations Ranger who jumped out of the helicopter.
“It was my first time on a helicopter. It was my job to comfort my dog and then we got in the helicopter and made the arrest after that.
Colin describes the arrest as adrenaline-filled.
“When we were close to their camp, they started running. We hovered low above them so they couldn’t run away. When it was time for me to take the plunge, it occurred to me that work is work and work has to be done,” he says.
The Ranger adds that he was paired with the most energetic dog, which means he has to be quick and fit to keep up with his partner. “Every morning we have to do physical training for almost an hour. Running, stretching, pull-ups; mostly focused on bodyweight exercises,” he says.
But it’s not just humans who need to keep their skills sharp. The team of six dual-purpose dogs (composed of two breeds: Belgian Malinois and Dutch Shepherd) are trained in detection and attack. They are also tested regularly.
*Ninette explains that there are three different aspects to the ongoing training of dogs: detection, tracking and apprehension.
“You will hide contraband, mostly abalone, in different places and the dogs will smell it. We can develop this, for example, teaching dogs to detect lobsters”, explains Ninette.
*Janet shares that they rely heavily on dog senses when it comes to confirming if a crime has been committed.
“They can detect other types of things, like weapons or gunpowder. They can sniff out weapons on a person or in a vehicle,” she says.
Part of the focus of the SEAM team is area integrity management throughout the park for visitor safety. Janet says that since the team’s launch in early December, there have been a number of joint operations with the police. She says they are looking specifically at high-intensity recreation areas where crime against park visitors is prevalent. Patrols are carried out around the time of day when people are vulnerable.
“We have ongoing relationships that we need to nurture with local law enforcement. We need support to improve our response to reduce repeat offenders,” says Janet.
Among these relationships to be maintained is the bond that exists between handlers and their dogs. According to Ninette, the first two weeks of the training were focused on building this relationship.
“We started by walking them every day, grooming them, cleaning their kennels, washing their food bowls, until they felt comfortable with us. Gradually, we progressed with real training.
She says it’s important to know that they’re not just dogs but rather staff members, and like any other team member, it’s important to understand their personality, their way of working.
“You have to learn to understand your dog’s signals. Although there is general training, each dog reacts differently. You need to understand how your dog reacts to a threat,” says Ninette.
Janet says it’s this difference in personalities that compels them to discourage visitors from touching the dogs.
“There have been incidents where a child has wanted to pet the dogs or people who love the breed, but we will thank them for the positive vibes, but let them know that petting is not allowed. Every dog is different. Some prefer only to be touched by their master.
, The names of the dog handlers have been changed to protect their identities as they perform a risky task.