On the Tail of the Tortoise

Brin the Belgian Malinois has a nose like radar when it comes to the geometric tortoise. It’s how she’s helping to save them from extinction.

Words and Pictures: Dale Morris

All I can see of Brin is a wagging tail as she zigzags this way and that through the fynbos in a seemingly confused and random manner, but she doesn’t go far. Left and right she rushes. Round and round in little circles. Round and round in big ones too. Just the tail showing.

It’s like keeping track of a deranged snake. “She’s searching for the scent,” says Vicki Hudson, Brin’s owner. “It might look a little haphazard, but there’s method to this madness.”

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Vicki and Brin are not just owner and pet but full-time, professional, conservation team working for CapeNature, the official conservation organisation in charge of the Cederberg Wilderness Area and nature reserves such as De Hoop and Swartberg.

The pair of them scour the local countryside in and around the Breede River Valley in the Overberg, in the hope of establishing population numbers and distribution of the geometric tortoise (Psammobates geometricus). With about 1 000 left in the wild, the tortoise is critically endangered, primarily due to habitat loss and fragmentation of the species. But the illegal pet trade is also a threat, reason enough for Vicki not to want details of our destination to appear in the story.

She even asked me not to take photographs that would identify our specific whereabouts. “But why use a dog?” I ask as we walk through the scrub next to a thunderously busy highway. The dark Cape Fold Mountains loom above us, still in shade. Here in the valley we’re warming up as the sun commits to another day ahead.

The tip of Brin’s tail is still manically darting this way and that, and I can hear her snuffling like a badger. “We use detection dogs for this type of work because geometric tortoises are so well camouflaged,” says Vicki. “We’ve tried searching for them using humans but it’s way too labour-intensive and expensive.” She explains that Brin is specially trained to sniff out geometric tortoises and nothing else.

“Although detection dogs are commonly used for finding illegal drugs and even stashes of ivory and abalone, this is the first time they’ve been used in South Africa, and possibly the world, to find populations of endangered wildlife. We hope that, through our efforts, we will be able to pinpoint viable populations of these tortoises.”

ConservationDog4_12_cl (2)Vicki explains that tortoises favour habitats used by the agricultural sector. “Lowland areas are where they do best, but much of that has been converted into farm lands.” However, because they are so elusive it’s possible there just might be more of these illusive animals surviving out there than we assume. And that’s where Brin and other detection dogs like her come in. “We aim to locate areas where these animals have managed to survive and, when we do, CapeNature will take steps to assure their protection.”

Landowners who find geometric tortoises on their property are encouraged to contact CapeNature which, on invitation, pays a visit with Brin (or the project’s other trained dog, G’Amie) to ascertain the presence of these precious little reptiles. If tortoises are found, the landowner is advised on proper veld-management practices such as alien-vegetation removal and fire protocols.

After a series of regular surveys, CapeNature updates the landowner on the status of his or her tortoise population and, if the veld is in good condition (likely, as tortoises are most often found in healthy habitats), there is no need to remove or interfere with them. During emergencies such as bush fires, CapeNature assists in locating, rescuing and rehabilitating tortoises.

So far, in the two years since the project was launched, Vicki and Brin have located several hitherto unknown populations in areas where these little reptiles would have likely gone unnoticed. “Our main focus at present is to determine where they are in the landscape, and not to get accurate population figures,” she tells me. “When we know where they are, we can work towards protecting the area and then get the numbers.”

Geometric tortoises do not breed well in captivity, and that rules out the possibility of collecting scattered, small populations for a captive-management project. “It’s vitally important that we find as many as possible surviving in the wild and protect them there, where they will breed,” says Vicki.

ConservationDog4_12_cl (1)She describes how a dog is trained to sniff out something as non-smelly and as sedentary as a tortoise, a process that boils down to Brin’s obsessive personality. “We teach a dog to associate a particular odour with a reward; in this case, a captive tortoise or simply a tortoise shell. When the dog correctly identifies and goes to the origin of that smell she is given reward. It takes about six months to train just one dog.” I assume the reward comes in the shape of a chewy treat or a bit of biltong, but no. Brin is obsessed with a ball.

“She would play with her ball and never stop if I were to let her,” adds Vicki. “Not stop for water, for food, anything. She’s ball crazy, but that and her amazing sense of smell make her the perfect detection dog.”

We follow the wagging tail through thick grassy patches and shrubby areas, all the while keeping a close eye on the behaviour of the dog it’s attached to. “If she pauses and gives the correct body language, I’ll know she’s onto something,” Vicki tells me. As we walk, I learn the differences between tracker dogs and anti-poaching attack dogs (which have long been used in conservation). Vicki shows me how Brin will zigzag and spiral in search of a specific odour clue, while a tracker tries to follow a scent it’s given. “And detection dogs don’t attack. You wouldn’t want her to find a tortoise, only to chew it to death.”

Because Vicki and Brin’s geometric tortoise project is the first of its kind here, and the project is still quite young (it was officially launched in 2013), there’s much hanging on its success or failure. It’s not just the tortoise’s future that is tied in with Brin’s ability to do the job, but that of other detection-dog endeavours that could arise from this mission.

“Once we have established that this kind of project is an effective conservation tool, it will open the door for all sorts of related ventures,” says Vicki. For instance, a dog can be trained to sniff out a particular kind of rare and endangered plant (even in seed form) or to target invasive species so that they can be removed or eradicated. The possibilities are almost endless.

Just 20 minutes later Brin pops up her head for the first time and, with wagging tail, stares at Vicki. There, clasped gently in her mouth, covered in dog saliva, is a beautiful geometric tortoise the size of a tennis ball. “Good girl, Brin,” shrieks Vicki in that particular tone all dog owners are familiar with. “Well done, good girl. Who’s a good girl then? Who’s a good girl?” Much fuss, excitement and affection follows, and Vicki places the tortoise on a rock. But then she produces a pink, chewy ball attached to some rope, and Brin’s eyes almost pop out of her head and she starts leaping around like a kangaroo on tik. While she and Vicki play, the tortoise stays put like a clam.

Five minutes later, Vicki is back to take a GPS reading and some measurements of the tortoise. Its unique shell markings will go into a database and its location will add a data point to the overall project. But it doesn’t end there. Back at Vicki’s bakkie in the shade, is a pet carrier from which a little puppy named G’Amie is trying to escape. She’s been watching our escapade from beginning to end.

“She’s the next dog to be trained,” says Vicki, while extracting the excitable little creature from its box. A ball is produced and off they go for a walk and a play. Dogs have long been our companions. In the days of early cavemen, they were likely sharing our hearth and home. They have hunted with us, protected us from enemies and predators, worked for us, and befriended us in special ways only dog owners can appreciate.

Now, dogs like Brin, and trainers like Vicki, are taking the relationship to the next level. They have become partners, working together to help save species and make this planet a better place to live… Keeping their eye on the ball.

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