John Tekeles has lived with dogs his entire life. Growing up in a Laikipian Maasai community, he vividly remembers traversing the landscape with his family, cattle on the horizon and dogs faithfully following close by to provide the security they needed against wildlife and other dangers. John now heads the K9 Dog Unit at the renowned Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Laikipia.
LWF recently caught up with John after a Puppy Security Dog Training to find out more about his work, how his fascination with canines has grown and how his job impacts wildlife conservation in the country. The dog training is part of the USAID/Department of Interior Grant provided through LWF to the three rhino conservancies of Laikipia – Borana, Ol Pejeta, and Ol Jogi.
LWF: How different are the dogs you grew up with from the ones you are working with now?
JT: We usually didn’t know the origins of the dogs we grew up with. Sometimes we would wake up and a new dog has found its way into the pack. As long as it got along with the rest and it was able to contribute, we would usually let it stay. But I now work with Bloodhounds and Belgian Malinois and we know exactly where they came from. The care we give them is exactly what they need in order to be happy and to do their job. We pay very close attention to what they eat, their daily exercise regimen, and even how much rest they get. This is very different from how our dogs back home were treated (he laughs)
LWF: So where did your career as a dog handler begin?
JT: I began my career in conservation over 18 years ago working as a Ranger in Kajiado. When the organisation I worked for brought in two new puppies to be trained in support of the anti-poaching unit, I moved departments and have been working with dogs ever since.
LWF: How many dogs do you work with now at OPC (Ol Pejeta Conservancy)?
JT: We have a good number of dogs at the moment. Each is trained to carry out specific tasks. The three areas we focus on are tracking, assault and search. They all have different personalities, but are extremely efficient at what they do.
LWF: Do you work as part of a team or are you a lone ranger?
JT: I could definitely not do this job on my own. I work with a team responsible for looking after the kennels, as well handling the dogs. Even though I am the general supervisor, each member of the team contributes to ensure that everything is working, as it should be.
LWF: How has the recent training helped your team?
JT: The training we went through was extremely helpful. It brought out key issues that we needed to address and strengthen For example, I know I needed to strengthen my skills in handling dogs when on a search mission. Now I am confident in this area, and as a direct result, so are the rest of the team including the dogs. We have also learnt to sharpen our reporting skills, which are not only important for our own records, but for accountability as we work with so many other stakeholders.
LWF: So, you do work with other people outside Ol Pejeta Conservancy?
JT: Oh yes! The surrounding community is very important to us and the dogs also support them greatly. We provide a free service when the local community calls us to assist with issues such as petty theft. We work with the police and KWS in all matters. There are times we have been requested to go outside Laikipia to help with cases too! Right now we have over 10 cases in court as a result of our dogs tracking those who have committed crimes.
LWF: Guests visiting OPC must love meeting the dogs…
JT: Yes, especially the children. We allow students on conservation education excursions to go tracking and see first hand how the dogs carry out their work. But I always remind them that these animals are trained to carry out certain duties; they are cute but they take their work very seriously.
LWF: And when you’re back home, what does your community think about the work you do?
JT: Some people really do not understand the work until I explain it to them and then they are really interested. I tell them that the dogs are a part of our team, not just animals that follow us around. Without them, our work would be very difficult! Protecting our wildlife would be extremely difficult too.
LWF: What are some of the challenges you would like people to know?
JT: Some of the associated costs of training and maintaining our dogs are immense and we always have to make sure the funds are available. We work very closely with the police on the certification of our dogs, another cost that is big. But we overcome these challenges through the support of our stakeholders. Conservation is very important not only for Laikipia but for Kenya and we do our very best in making sure that we protect our wildlife. Special thanks to LWF for helping OPC get the resources we needed to help our dog training.