/ 22 October 2023

Dog detectives bust plant poachers in Northern Cape


Three “pioneering pooches” from the succulent detection canine team at the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) have made their first official bust, outwitting plant poachers in the Northern Cape.

The team consists of three scent detection dogs: Ike, a German shepherd; Reaper, a Belgian malinois; and Delta, a border collie, who have been specifically trained to sniff out succulent plants. Their professional handlers are Esther Matthew and Shadi Henrico.

The unit has been working in the Western Cape and Northern Cape to help law enforcement officials screen vehicles at roadblocks. At midnight on 13 October in Springbok, they outsmarted two suspects who had dumped a box containing about 1 760 poached succulent plants – Conophytum subterraneum – just before the roadblock. 

A single blueberry-sized plant remained in their vehicle, a gold VW Polo, but it was enough. “Delta, our detection dog, found it almost instantly, providing a vital link to the discarded box of succulents,” the EWT said.

The two suspects were arrested and charged under the Northern Cape Nature Conservation Act for illegal possession of endangered plants and will appear in court soon, according to Northern Cape police. 

It said the arrest was the result of a multi-disciplinary operation involving the Springbok Stock Theft and Endangered Species Unit, Springbok Public Order Policing and the EWT team. 

Conophytum subterraneum is a highly range-restricted species from the Richtersveld, which occurs in an area of less than 1 km², and is only known from a single population occurring at one location, according to the South African National Biodiversity Institute (Sanbi).

In a statement, the Namakwa district commissioner, Brigadier Schalk Andrews, lauded  the multi-disciplinary team, and thanked SA Hunters and Game Conservation for their consistent assistance and efforts to eradicate succulent poaching in the Namakwa District and surrounding areas.

The EWT described the bust as a “major milestone in our continuous efforts to protect our endangered fauna and flora”. 

“This incident, along with previous detections of poached succulents hidden inside luggage boxes and courier parcels, showcases the “effectiveness and potential of our canine team in this mission,” it said.

It is working together with CapeNature, Sanbi and provincial law enforcement agencies and is “proud to be at the forefront of this innovative and impactful use of dogs to safeguard trafficked plants.

“All the successful detection events over the last two months showcased the incredible ability of our dogs to find even the smallest traces of evidence and how it can save a great deal of time by quickly and accurately scanning vehicles and parcels for endangered succulents, without having to open them,” it said, adding it hopes to roll out a much bigger intervention in future.

The EWT’s succulent detection dog project is funded by The Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, with operational support provided by CapeNature, Sanbi and the police.