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Tracker Dogs Are an Elephant’s Best Friend

By Ami Vitale, National Geographic photographer

Growing up, I always thought I would be a veterinarian. Being surrounded by dozens of furry critters was the dream career for an introverted, gawky young girl. Then I found photography. As soon as I had a camera in my hands, it transformed my life. It gave me courage to engage with the world around me.  Later, I realized I wasn’t just empowering myself, but I was also empowering the people and animals I was photographing. I never lost that love for animals, but I don’t exactly have the lifestyle of a proper animal owner. Having only spent two weeks at home in nine months, I can barely keep my houseplants alive.

So last summer, when I visited Loisaba Conservancy, 56,000 pristine acres in northern Kenya that had been protected by The Nature Conservancy and others, I became smitten with two fellows named Warrior and Machine. These bloodhounds are 200+ total pounds of loving, slobbery goodness. Not only are they adorable, but they are true heroes. These big lads are protecting a better-known group of gentle giants: elephants, in one of the most enchanting landscapes on earth.

A herd of elephant cross a river at Loisaba Wilderness in Laikipia, Northern Kenya, May 17, 2015. More than 800 elephants spend significant time at Loisaba and the Nature Conservancy is working to conserve this important elephant migratory pathway. Elephants are excellent swimmers and if faced with a strong current, they will use their trunk as a snorkel and then march right across rivers 12 feet deep. Long ago people thought that ancestral elephants may have come out of the seas. A popular myth was that their trunk evolved as a sort of snorkel in more aquatic settings. (Photo by Ami Vitale)
A herd of elephant cross a river at Loisaba Wilderness in Laikipia, Northern Kenya, May 17, 2015. More than 800 elephants spend significant time at Loisaba and the Nature Conservancy is working to conserve this important elephant migratory pathway. Elephants are excellent swimmers and if faced with a strong current, they will use their trunk as a snorkel and then march right across rivers 12 feet deep. Long ago people thought that ancestral elephants may have come out of the seas. A popular myth was that their trunk evolved as a sort of snorkel in more aquatic settings. (Photo by Ami Vitale)

The Beauty of Northern Kenya

Northern Kenya is special because a 10-million-acre mosaic of community, government and private lands conserve wildlife habitat and movement corridors in a way that creates meaningful benefits for people.

Elephants are an integral part of the landscape here, and their disappearance would have ramifications much bigger than the gap it would leave in the scenery. Elephants help keep forests and grasslands healthy for other species and are a cornerstone of the tourism industry, which provides jobs and income for thousands of Kenyans.

Elephants in northern Kenya. (Photo by Ami Vitale)
Elephants in northern Kenya. (Photo by Ami Vitale)

We have become accustomed to reading the depressing news about the poaching crisis: More than 25,000 elephants are killed each year for their ivory. But in northern Kenya, there is reason for hope. People in community conservancies, such as those supported by Northern Rangelands Trust, understand that these animals are worth more alive than dead. Tribes that once fought each other to the death over land and resources, the Samburu, Rendillie, Borana, Somali, and others, are cooperating to extraordinary lengths, working together to build community, find peace, and protect the creatures that have been a part of their lives and culture for millennia.

Healthy adult elephants generally have no natural predators and have thrived on Earth for millions of years. It is heartbreaking to think that these hulking, gentle creatures could be wiped off the planet by humans. I am committed to joining the millions of people around the world who refuse to let this magnificent species disappear in our lifetime.

Elephants in northern Kenya. (Photo by Ami Vitale)
Elephants in northern Kenya. (Photo by Ami Vitale)

Keeping Elephants Safe

As poachers become more sophisticated, tracker dogs like Warrior and Machine are increasingly becoming an important component of anti-poaching security forces. When poachers know that they are likely to get caught and potentially face a harsh penalty, they stay away.

Research is now showing that in areas where investments in security are being made — especially when they involve local communities committing to conservation efforts — poaching rates are beginning to decrease.

At Loisaba Conservancy, Warrior and Machine are helping protect the more than 800 elephants that spend significant time there, and are also providing benefits to local communities. They use their powerful sense of smell — up 1,000 times stronger than a human’s — for good, helping communities with incidents of theft and even locating missing children. At NRT, a Belgian Malanois named Zack has just joined their anti-poaching unit to track suspected elephant and rhino poachers and provide support to the community conservancies.

These dogs and their human handlers — Ekaran, Christopher, Ryan, Lawrence, Joseph, and others — are helping us fulfill our dream that the next generation can grow up in a world where elephants and a whole host of species still roam the African savanna.

This World Elephant Day (#WorldElephantDay), please join me in supporting these dogs and their brave human handlers who are giving elephants in Kenya a peaceful place to live. Learn more at nature.org/RangerDogs.

Alfred Langat washes Warrior a bloodhound who patrols Loisaba in Laikipia North in Northern Kenya, June 4, 2015. (Photo by Ami Vitale)
Alfred Langat washes Warrior a bloodhound who patrols Loisaba in Laikipia North in Northern Kenya, June 4, 2015. (Photo by Ami Vitale)
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends. To learn about the Conservancy’s work in Africa, visit www.nature.org/Africa
1914003_286593960412_8175066_n[1]-2Nikon Ambassador and National Geographic magazine photographer Ami Vitale has lived in mud huts and war zones, contracted malaria, and donned a panda suit—all in keeping with her philosophy of “living the story.” She has traveled to more than 90 countries, bearing witness not only to violence and conflict, but also to surreal beauty and to the enduring power of the human spirit. Recently, she has turned her lens to compelling wildlife stories, such as returning critically endangered captive born species, like the giant pandas back to the wild and attempts to save the last living northern white rhinos from extinction. Based in Montana, Vitale is a contract photographer with National Geographic magazine and frequently gives workshops throughout the Americas, Europe and Asia.