Joe Braman stood before a magnificent gray creature. Where two horns should have protruded from its snout, there was a gaping wound. The animal lay barely breathing. This almost prehistoric-looking beast was a rhinoceros, butchered for its horns and left to die by poachers.
“There’s not a day that I don’t wake up thinking about [that rhino],” Braman says.
A Texas rancher and businessman, Braman now partners with a South African conservation alliance. He’s working to end rhino poaching—with a little help from man’s best friend.
ON THE BRINK
In March, the world’s last male northern white rhino died. Other rhino subspecies, including the black rhino of South Africa, remain on the brink of extinction. “The way it’s going now, in a couple of generations, people will not be able to see a real rhino. If there’s something I can—or anyone else—can do, we should do it,” Braman says.
Scientists have saved genetic material from white rhinos. Someday, researchers may be able to implant it into other healthy female rhinos and restore the subspecies. But until researchers are sure the process works, they’ll preserve the precious genetic material. And they’ll work to stop rhino killings before more become extinct.
WHY HUNT RHINOS?
God gave the rhino thick skin, a small brain, and either one or two horns jutting from its nose. Rhino horns are made mainly of keratin. That’s the same protein found in human nails and hair. The horns are valued in Asian countries, where they are ground up for use in folk medicine.
A white rhino horn can sell for up to $3,000 per pound. Because it’s made of keratin, if it is simply shaved down, the horn will grow back. But some poachers extract the entire horn from the animal’s skull. In that case, the horn can’t grow back.
Braman had an idea to deter rhino poaching: dogs. He trains coonhounds to hunt bobcats, mountain lions, and coyotes. He enlisted the help of retired K-9 trainer Esequiel “Zeke” Ortiz. Ortiz spent years training dogs to find criminals. Now Braman and Ortiz have trained 50 dogs to hunt poachers.
Braman and Ortiz’s dogs can catch a human scent several hours old and miles away. The dogs track in groups of up to 10 and wear GPS devices. That way, South African law enforcement can find the pack—and arrest the poacher.
Braman hopes to see rhino poaching decrease—and the number of rhinos rise.
How confident is he in the dogs’ tracking abilities? “These hounds mean business,” he says. “They will find you. Guaranteed.”