Joe Braman was living a regular family life with his wife and two daughters on his remote ranch in southern Texas just two years ago. As a part-time cop, businessman, and cowboy, he was not concerned about the rhino poaching crisis in South Africa. But by May 2018, Braman and his free-running hounds were busy sprinting across the acacia plains adjacent to Kruger National Park chasing armed rhino poachers.
According to authorities, since then his hounds have assisted law enforcement teams in the greater Kruger region to catch an extraordinary 145 poachers and confiscate 53 guns, increasing the overall rate of successful arrests and providing a new approach to fight poaching in Africa.
Braman says, “Just think about it. If you spun a globe and threw a dart and it stuck, what’s the odds you’ll find a low-key guy in southern Texas’s coastal bend gettin’ picked to stop the extinction of a species?”
Approximately 8,000 rhinos, whose horns are trafficked to Asia for unsubstantiated medicinal uses, were poached in South Africa from 2008 to 2018, with over half killed in Kruger, the country’s signature national park, and the neighboring private reserves. There are around 20,000 white rhinos and just over 5,000 critically endangered black rhinos in the wild across Africa. South Africa currently houses 80 percent of the world’s last remaining rhinos.
The Texan connection began early in 2017, when Theresa Sowry, CEO of the Southern African Wildlife College, a wildlife management and training facility based adjoining Kruger, visited Braman in Refugio, Texas, to talk about his experience with hounds and watch them in action. She’d heard about an exclusive bloodline of aggressive free-running pack dogs comprising black-and-tan hounds that were used in Texas law enforcement to track down escaping prison inmates. Earlier, South African National Parks, the agency that manages Kruger, had requested the wildlife college to test a pack dog program as a new tool for rangers through a time of dire rhino losses.
The anti-poaching teams employed individual dogs viz. bloodhounds and Malinois on leads to track humans. But frequently the man-dog pairs were unable to keep up with bolting poachers. Gunfights between rangers and poachers were a common occurrence but rhino deaths continue while arrests were few.
Sowry says, adding that the college had been tasked with proving the concept of the pack dog program, but with barely any money or resources, “Kruger was very keen to test free-running dogs. Building a pack dog team is a massive undertaking. You need the right genetics, the right training, and, most importantly, the right mindset to bring it all together. Nobody was up to it before the Texans got involved”.
As the recipient of a lucrative working ranch, Joe Braman might have considered it unnecessary to become a cop but he had a calling to law enforcement and was always drawn to the chase.
He says, “I grew up runnin’ pack hounds with my father. We would chase bobcats and raccoons, training 15 or 18 dogs at time to follow the scent of animals.”
On Braman’s Texan ranch, Sowry and her colleagues were impressed by a demonstration by 10 of his hounds trailing a human decoy in the brush. The excited hounds split up to compete, yipping and howling, to be the first to pick up the trail. They would then move as a team to stay on scent while deputies on horses followed right behind. On finding the decoy, the hounds would surround him, baying and barking.
Ivan Carter, whose conservation foundation, the Ivan Carter Wildlife Conservation Alliance, put Braman in contact with Sowry and helped finance the project, says, “We had no idea if free-running dogs would work for anti-poaching purposes in Africa. The team from the college was excited by what they saw in Texas. We hoped Joe would be able to help.”
Shortly after the impressive demonstration, Braman accepted their invitation to visit Kruger to assess its K9 unit. “I was just gonna go over and do an evaluation and help them train a few dogs,” he recalls. But things didn’t go as expected.
Braman grew frustrated after a few weeks in South Africa with the slow progress they were making with the local dogs.
He says, “They were pushin’ water up a hill. Their hearts were in the right spot, but they just don’t do things the way we do in Texas.”
Then one day during training, Van Straaten showed Braman video footage of a paralyzed rhino whose horn had been axed off that day by poachers.
Braman remembers, “He was aspirating on his own blood! I don’t think I have ever seen anything as horrific.”
He watched the video over and over again and became angrier every time.
He says, “I believe in reaction. You do something—that means I’m gonna do something twice as bad to get you back. Some of these people are recklessly killing two or three rhino a night. That’s a war. And all is fair in war”.
He told the South Africans: “‘I need to go home and train y’all some dogs!’”
Aggressive by nature
Zeke Ortiz had spent 30 years as a dog trainer for the Texan prison system, employed with free-running hounds to track felons all over the state. He was about to retire in Refugio county when Braman arrived back from Africa and asked him about partnering on a program to train free-running hounds for Africa.
A willing Ortiz brought a hundred dogs, many donated by the state, to Braman’s property.
Ortiz explains, “The genetics go back over a century of prison training. They’ve been bred to have an aggressive nature.”
The two men dedicated months to training the hounds that were a blend of black-and-tans, blue ticks, and red ticks, focusing on developing the three key traits that make a good, free-running pack hound: scent-tracking ability, baying ability, and aggressiveness.
Poachers on the run
Braman had just arrived back at the Southern African Wildlife College when the first call came from the field reporting poachers had just killed a rhino and were on the run.
The Texan dogs were immediately rushed into helicopters. Braman confesses to being a little nervous, “My dogs had never seen an elephant before—never seen a lion. Never been in a helicopter.”
In the field, the excited hounds, fitted with GPS collars, immediately picked up the scent trail and bolted across the golden plains past herds of impala and wildebeest, darting through thickets and over termite mounds. After covering just 10 miles, Braman got the call that the pack had made contact with four poachers.
Braman says, “The poachers were striking them with sticks! In my mind, I’m still in Texas. And I’m thinkin’, I hope they bite ’em! But the dogs didn’t. They just surrounded them: bark bark bark! We arrived, and my dogs had a guy under a tree. And we took [the poachers] into custody. Everyone was in disbelief.”
The very next day, the team caught another three poachers, and the day after that, another two. This success led to more and more on multiple deployments.
“To have the hounds catch numerous groups of poachers right out of the gate—it was such a massive affirmation of us being on the right track,” Ivan Carter shares.
According to the college, without the dogs, on average enforcement teams were nabbing only 3 to 5 percent of known poachers but the new K9 unit had increased the rate to 54 percent—a 10-fold improvement.
Sowry is quick to share credit for this stupendous success, “From intelligence provided by local people to individual lead dogs, from helicopter operators to law enforcement rangers on the ground—everything plays a role, nothing can stand alone. It’s a massive team work.”
The human support teams provide the necessary safety for the dogs and helicopters are quick to drive off dangerous predators and armed men are available should there be a gunfight.
Van Staaten says, “It’s a high-risk job for human and dog. But with training and with standard operating procedures, we try to minimize the risk.”
Joe Braman is now back in Texas with a framed certificate from the U.S. House of Representatives acclaiming his efforts in Kruger. Enthused by their success in Africa, he continues the hound program with Ortiz in Texas, training pack dogs for law enforcement and to counter human trafficking across the state. And they’re successful running down suspects with dogs that don’t bite.
Braman surmises, “I learned a lot in Africa. When I got there, I just wanted control. I had to learn patience. I had to collaborate. And it made me a better person.”