One brilliant Wednesday morning in March almost exactly a year ago now, I buckled myself into the window seat of a Nairobi-bound bush plane idling on a dirt airstrip in the heart of Kenya’s Mara Triangle. The engines revved and the plane rattled down the runway, rotated, then roared into a cloudless azure sky. As the Great Rift Valley fell away beneath us, I watched herds of galloping zebra and lumbering elephants and loping giraffe dissolve into indistinguishable points that soon became lost in a horizon-to-horizon carpet of undulating amber, and I knew even then I was leaving the Mara forever changed. How could one not be transfixed if not transformed by that landscape, after spending a week immersed in it, driving and walking and sometimes sprinting, legs and lungs burning, in the company of a half-dozen bloodhounds, eight Kenyan warriors, and two of the most experienced scent-detection dog trainers and human trackers in all of Africa, mzungu (whites) from Colorado: Linda Porter and John Lutenberg.
I first met Linda Porter and John Lutenberg two years ago when I flew from Portland to Colorado with Gus, a year-old gentle giant of a labradoodle with chocolate dreadlocks. I had raised Gus from a pup, socialized him and schooled him in basic obedience, and now I would hand him over to the scent-detection trainer who would turn him into an Allergy Alert dog, teaching him to recognize the smell of peanuts, how to search a room for the odor, and alert (by sitting) whenever he detected it. I had timed my Gus delivery trip to coincide with the certification of the latest crop of Angel Service Dogs, six labradoodles who would earn their blue-green Angel Service Dogs capes by searching an Episcopal church in Colorado Springs for “hides,” peanut-contaminated objects that had been hidden throughout the sanctuary. In addition to myself and Gus, another observer happened upon the scene that day: Linda Porter, an athletic fiftysomething veteran canine officer from the Canon City Police Department who was wearing bluejeans, sneakers and a gray fleece jacket and introduced herself as a local scent-dog trainer who ran a bloodhound training and tracking school with her husband, John Lutenberg, a bloodhound handler who had spent more than three decades tracking escaped convicts for the Colorado Department of Corrections. I got to talking with Linda, mentioned that I had raised two pups for scent-detection work and would soon begin anew with a third, and was curious about the breed that had set the scent-detection gold standard. So after the trials ended I loaded Gus into my rental car and followed Linda to the Canine Training Academy, a ranch house on 35 acres in the Rocky Mountain foothills, flanked by outbuildings echoing with the spine-tingling deep-throated ba-roos of purebred bloodhounds. John Lutenberg, a rangy 60-something outdoorsman wearing bluejeans and a black hoodie and a baseball cap jammed over his ears, moseyed out of the house and watched with a bemused smirk on his weathered face as I leashed Gus, a gregarious lamb-sized Muppet of a dog, and trotted him out of the backseat of the car.
“What is it?” he asked, as Linda kicked a stick in the direction of Gus and smiled when the dog took her cue and immediately pounced on it.
As we walked Gus out to the kennels, I told John about the puppy-raising I did for Angel Service Dogs, that Gus was an Australian labradoodle, a non-shedding breed that had been pioneered in the 1980s at the Royal Guide Dog Associations of Australia as an allergy-friendly service dog, and that Gus, a direct descendant of that original cross, would be trained to detect nut odor and work as a guardian for a medically fragile child diagnosed with a life-threatening peanut allergy. At the kennel’s chain-link gate, Katie, a female bloodhound with a honey-colored flat coat, pranced and barked a welcome to Gus, her tail whipping with anticipation. As Gus cautiously approached the gate, wondering what to make of Katie, the contrast between the two breeds couldn’t have been more stark. On one side of the fence stood the proud and noble Katie, the product of untold generations of selective breeding that stretched all the way back to ancient Babylon: those long ears sweep the ground and stir up scent; those droopy folds on her snout channel scent into a nose that contains a quarter-billion olfactory cells. And mirroring Katie, a canine Mr. Snuffleupagus. Although I knew Gus had a fine nose (I once scolded him for digging a hole in my backyard, only to be chagrined when I discovered that he had unearthed a squirrel-buried peanut), as he faced off with Katie, a hound genetically optimized for tracking, I couldn’t help but feel that the designer dog at the end of my leash, whose lineage could be traced no further back than the dawn of the Talking Heads, was seriously out of his league. Yet as playmates, Katie and Gus proved to be a perfect match. Watch this short video, and you’ll see what I mean:
Leaving Gus to bond with his new friend, Linda and John invited me into their home, where I noticed this pair of photos hanging on a living room wall, conspicuous among the portraits of all the hounds and police dogs they’ve worked with over the years:
Linda explained that these were rangers from the Tracker Dog Unit they had established in Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve. They had just returned from the Mara a few weeks earlier, having delivered a third hound to Africa, and had served as tactical advisors, leading the rangers and their hounds on harrowing nighttime raids of poaching camps along the Tanzanian border.
At a computer monitor in her home office, Linda, an accomplished amateur photographer, queued a voluminous image gallery, a complete pictorial record of their work in the Mara. It all started in November, 2008, with an unsolicited e-mail inquiry from Asuka Takita, a veterinarian at The Mara Conservancy.
The nonprofit Mara Conservancy manages a Chicago-sized, cheese-wedge-shaped chunk of the Maasai Mara National Reserve, the Mara Triangle, as a safari park on behalf of the Maasai, a tribe of pastoralist cattle herders who hold the deed to the land and collect gate receipts and a share of the revenues from tourist activities at a luxury bush hotel and permanent tented camps. The Mara Triangle shares a border with Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, and when the annual summertime Great Migration of wildebeest crosses the border to graze on savannah grass in the Mara, roving bands of wa-Kuria, Tanzanian bushmeat eaters who illegally hunt in the Serengeti, follow the hungry herds into Kenya.
Under the cover of darkness, the wa-Kuria set thousands of wire snares, gill nets of the savannah that indiscriminately kill whatever unlucky beast wanders into them, then the poachers slaughter the animals for meat that’s dried, bundled and spirited back over the border.
Bushmeat harvested in the Mara feeds a thriving black market in villages just outside the Serengeti, where the contraband, known as nyama misingisi (meat from Tanzania’s Singisi District), is sold as a delicacy at a handsome profit by a network of middlemen that equip and pay the poachers for their work and control an elaborate distribution system that’s not unlike the illegal drug trade in the United States.
The Mara Conservancy’s veterinarian was interested in building kennels and establishing a Tracker Dog Unit at Ngiro-are, the non-profit’s anti-poaching outpost on the Tanzanian border, and wanted to know if Porter and Lutenberg could send bloodhounds and travel to the Mara to train eight rangers from local villages to use the dogs to track and apprehend wa-Kuria poachers that slipped through the dragnet of the Mara Conservancy’s paramilitary anti-poaching patrols. The couple agreed to donate their services, and in 2009, they shipped two trained hounds to the Mara, and made two trips to Africa, and another in 2010. In this four-minute video, Linda Porter and John Lutenberg, via Linda’s graphic photographs that illustrate the problem of bushmeat poaching in East Africa, tell the story of how and why they imported bloodhounds to the Mara:
Anna (pictured above), a third Colorado hound that Linda had delivered to Africa in June, 2010, to replace Memusi, an American bloodhound that had succumbed to the parasitic brain-wasting disease, tryps, was pregnant. The Mara Conservancy had asked the couple to return to the Mara in early 2011 for several weeks, this time to oversee the schooling of Anna’s pups, the first litter of bloodhounds born in the Mara.
As a magazine journalist with a professional interest in working dogs, I requested and received permission from the Mara Conservancy to shadow John and Linda for a week as they worked with the hounds and handlers of the Tracker Dog Unit.
Five months later, in March, 2011, I found myself bouncing in the back seat of a pawprint-festooned white Land Rover with Porter and Lutenberg on the road to Ngiro-are. Just before 8 every morning, we left Mara Conservancy headquarters, a solar-powered cinderblock office ringed by a bush camp of safari tents pitched in a thicket near the Mara River that’s visited nightly by hippos and giraffe and orangutans and the occasional black mamba.
Here’s John after breakfast one morning in the outdoor dining room of “The Hippo Slums,” Linda’s nickname for their bush camp:
The commute, an overland ramble through one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet, ended an hour later at Ngiro-are (Swahili for “muddy water”), a thick-walled fortress literally a stone’s throw from the Tanzanian border that’s home to the Mara Conservancy’s primary anti-poaching garrison, and the leopard-proof kennels (designed by Porter and Lutenberg) of the Tracker Dog Unit. Here’s a photo of Siele, one of the Tracker Dog Unit’s bloodhound handlers, standing outside Ngiro-are’s bullet-riddled steel gate, compliments of wa-Kuria bandits a few years back who sprayed the fortress with AK-47s while they herded rustled Maasai cattle into Tanzania; that’s the Serengeti in the distance beyond the wall; the Cape buffalo ambling toward Siele is Hannah, a mascot the Unit adopted as an orphaned calf, who sometimes serves as a couch for the rangers:
At the fortress there’d be a raucous greeting from the Tracker Dog Unit’s eight rangers, led by a 29-year-old Maasai moran (warrior) named Shadrack Olongui Sabaya, a fluent English-speaker with a literature and English degree from Uganda’s Kampala International University who’d been tending cattle at his family’s boma (Maasai family ranch) in Kilae Village and teaching high school in Lolgorien before Porter and Lutenberg brought their hounds to Africa in 2009. On my first morning at Ngiro-are, I asked Sabaya why he left a comfortable teaching job to become a Mara Conservancy dog handler, and this was his answer:
“Special dogs for tracking? It sounded like an adventure so I came over and I started all over again. I like the job, it’s not bad, it has headaches, difficulties, but it’s about being stronger, persevering. … I feel it is bad, the killing of animals, so it is good to help to come in and assist in the fight against poaching.”
Here’s a shot of Linda photographing Sabaya marching on the savannah one morning during tracker dog training:
Each morning, we’d load a dog crate into the wayback of a rover and into the crate would go two of the four Africa-born puppies, each with Maasai names–Karua (for Martha Wangari Karua, the Iron Lady of Kenyan politics); Sero (the Maasai word for “black”); Gbagbo (after the deposed Ivory Coast dictator); and Naeku (Maasai for “born in the morning”), and one of the American hounds (either Anna or Morani, the “little warrior”).
Then with the Rover packed like an all-terrain clown car with rangers wedged against the crate, quadrupled in the back seat and clinging to the roof rack, we’d drive out onto the savannah, weaving around elephants and giraffe and zebra, off-roading over miles and miles of open terrain.
Linda would shout “Simama!” (“Stop!”) and we’d park and unload and spend hours under the hot sun working the hounds and testing their handlers on scent trail after scent trail. A pair of rangers–with lions and cheetah and Cape buffalo and bull elephants wandering about, nobody walks anywhere without an armed escort–would lay down a scent trail, also known as a track line (all humans leave an invisible trail of scent–a mist of sweat and breath and skin cells–that a hound can detect and follow) by walking through the knee-high grass, sometimes for miles, then hide in the grass or behind a termite mound or giant fig tree, and wait.
Once the trail-setter radioed that he was ready, a handler would set a hound or pup on the hidden ranger’s scent, and follow the track line to its conclusion, with Linda or John trotting a few steps behind, critiquing and shouting encouragement in a mishmash of English and Swahili. The terrain, crisscrossed with predators and herds of wild animals, makes tracking a challenge for experienced hounds like Morani and Anna, even more so for a puppy.
One morning, a herd of zebra thundered over a track line one of the rangers had set for Morani, a hound with more than 40 captures to his credit. Having only encountered zebras in a zoo, seeing a herd of punda milia (Swahili for “striped donkeys”) thundering over the savannah was stunning, as you’ll see in this 10-second clip:
But just as stunningly beautiful was watching canine Morani working for his handler, ranger Mohamed Moguche. In this video, as we’re following Moha and Morani through the savannah grass, watch the hound searching for then locking onto the hidden ranger’s scent as John talks about the challenges a bloodhound faces when following a human track that’s been contaminated by hundreds of wild animals.
After four hours or more of setting, walking and running track lines, we’d drive back to Ngiro-are, return the pups and hounds to their kennels, then relax in the mess hall, a cinderblock hut with a thatched roof, and sip hot chai from tin mugs and play checkers.
One afternoon, Linda presented the rangers with a gift: Yahtzee. As I sat down to play a round with Sabaya, he picked up a dice, put in the palm of his hand, and studied it. Linda had to show him how to roll. Sometimes after tracking, we played with the puppies.
The chief warden knew that I wanted to see the hounds in action on an actual poaching camp raid, and that I was interested in interviewing a poacher. So while we were out training on the savannah, or sitting in the mess hall, we’d be listening to the radio, hoping the Mara Conservancy rangers on foot patrol along the Tanzanian border would find poachers and call for the dogs, but for the entire week I was in the Mara, the radio only crackled with static. On Monday morning, my second-to-last day in the Mara, a hot-air balloonist flying over the Mara River radioed that he had spotted smoke curling from a thicket, a possible sign of poaching activity. So that morning, instead of training with Linda and John and the Tracker Dog Unit, I hitched a ride with Sabaya and Mohamed and Morani and some twenty armed rangers jammed shoulder-shoulder and on top of the canvas roof of an all-terrain troop transport, and we drove at breakneck speed, flying over the savannah, the truck sometimes diving into and climbing out of watering holes, spraying great rooster-tails of mud.
After 30 minutes we reached our destination: River Camp, scene of one of the bloodiest crimes in the Mara Triangle’s recent history. Just before 8 p.m. on July 26, 2010, days before Linda was to arrive from Colorado with Anna, six wa-Kuria bandits and their Maasai guide, armed with AK-47s and a shotgun, ambushed a group of white Kenyans from Nairobi that had gathered at River Camp to celebrate the 60th birthday of John D’Olier, a close friend of the Mara Conservancy’s CEO. The bandits held the campers, including women and children, at gunpoint, then executed the guest of honor and critically wounded two others before fleeing into the night with binoculars and cameras and laptop computers. Morani picked up their trail and ran for six hours until he was exhausted and could run no more and the criminals escaped into the night; when later apprehended, the killer who led the raid would tell police that the hound had been at his heels, and they had barely eluded capture
When we arrived at River Camp, it was an altogether different scene, a flawless bright morning, and rangers mustering from all corners of the park were greeting each other in Swahili and Maasai and laughing and hugging and shaking hands and clapping each other on the back. I was paired with a guide, a 31-year-old Maasai ranger named Patrick Gilai who told me to stick close by, and not to worry because in addition to his World War II-era bolt action rifle, he also was carrying a well-honed combat knife. But more importantly, he had a radio to call for help.
The commander pointed his baton at the forest, and we marched in a single column into the woods along the banks of the Mara River and followed a hippo trail, searching for signs of poachers. In the dense forest, silence closed around us, the Maasai, expert trackers, somehow silenced even their footsteps. It only amplified the sounds of birds and insects buzzing and loudest of all, great splashes and snorts and crashes and grunts from hippos and crocs and buffalo crowding the river below us. As I struggled to keep up with Patrick and the rangers, who were quick-marching through the forest, I looked down and saw this Cape buffalo and Nile crocodile:
A few paces later, through the trees I spied dozens of hippos submarining through the water.
Then it dawned on me that the half-pipes of perfectly smooth mud I’d noticed leading down to the riverbank were chutes made by hippos sliding into the water from the very footpath we were walking. It reminded me of that scene from Jurassic Park, when the puddles on the ground shudder with the ominous footfalls and a T-Rex emerges from the forest canopy and swallows the lawyer in one gulp; to an American running after a Maasai ranger through a forest on the Mara River, a hippo sounds an awful lot like a tyrannosaur. A few minutes later, one of the beasts emerged from the water and charged up a chute.
The animal emerged on the trail just ahead of us, crashed through the bushes, and stood there, looking at us, huffing. Patrick raised a hand in warning, motioned for me to be silent. Then slowly, he picked up a branch, hefted it at the hippo, and bolted down the chute. I ran/slid after him, sprinted along the croc-infested riverbank, splashed across the river, then crossed back again and met up with a group of rangers who had regrouped, and were all facing the same direction, standing perfectly still. Through the trees, an agitated bull elephant the size of a cement mixer was staring down the rangers. “If he charges,” whispered Patrick. “Be prepared to run.” But the animal turned and disappeared into the forest. And so it went for more than an hour, until we finally located the source of the smoke the balloonist had spotted from above. It was a snag that had been struck in half by lightning and it was still smoldering. The rangers gathered around the base of the tree gazing upward, watching smoke curling into the sky.
On Tuesday morning’s commute, my final day, the Mara presented me with a gift. Not the poachers or the bushmeat camp I had traveled halfway around the world to witness, but something eminently more beautiful: a lioness. Linda braked the Rover and stopped beside a full-grown cat, belly swollen with a fresh kill, sitting in the dirt at the edge of the road. My back seat window was rolled down, and the lioness was so close, I could’ve reached out and patted her on the head. Not that I would have dared. Being in such close proximity to a predator initiates a visceral and deeply human instinct to flee; my mouth went dry, my hands were shaking and I found that I couldn’t even breathe, much less move a muscle to roll up the window, as Linda urges in the whispering you’ll hear in the background of this brief video I shot of the up-close encounter:
We spent that morning tracking along the Tanzanian border near a landmark known as the Salt Lick, a mineral deposit that draws animals–and poachers–from all across the savannah. After a final tracking session with Morani and the rangers, in which I was allowed to play the role of the poacher and lay a track line for the hound, Linda took this photograph, which now hangs on a wall in my office:
A week and a half after I returned to Portland, Linda sent this e-mail from her laptop in the Hippo Slums:
John is finally out on a poaching deployment … On the way back from training this afternoon John and I spotted a hyena with an odd-shaped object in its mouth. We decided to investigate and it turned out to be a huge piece of hippo hide that had been cut into a perfect square shape that had knife cuts in the skin. We took pictures and reported the sighting to [Mara Conservancy CEO Brian Heath] when we got back to the camp. He immediately dispatched Rangers to the Salt Lick area. They are out hunting for poachers now. If they get them I have your list of questions and so does Sabaya. Cross our fingers …
Twelve minutes later she sent another e-mail, this one with the subject line, “Poachers caught”:
John went with the rangers and they were able to catch 5 poachers. Sabaya had his recorder in his pocket and he is going to do the interview today. We can try to get the interview before we leave on Tuesday. It was a huge capture. Here are some photos. All this meat is from a hippo. The same one John and I spotted this afternoon. The rangers found the poacher camp not far from where we saw the hyena.
These are three of the eight images she attached:
Later I received this video footage of the raid; watch for Sabaya, the Tracker Dog Unit leader, struggling to free a butchered hippo leg that’s hanging from a tree, gore that’s counterbalanced by a gorgeous final scene, the panorama of a rainstorm descending over the Mara:
I had left Sabaya with a list of questions I had hoped to ask a poacher, and back at the holding cell at Ngiro-are, he interrogated the lead wa-Kuria hunter; Linda e-mailed me this translated transcript:
What is your name?
Mwita Marwa Chacha.
What is your age?
What is your tribe?
When did you come to the park?
Two days ago, 2011-03-31.
From where did you come?
How many animals have you killed?
For how long would you have stayed if you had not been caught?
Three more days.
Why do you hunt?
For food and to fetch money to educate children.
What else do you do besides hunting?
Farming, cultivating cassava, corn.
How many wives do you have?
How many children do you have?
Describe your living situation.
My living situation is very difficult with no oxen for plowing and no money to educate my children and they dropped out of school. My family too at times sleep hungry.
Do you receive any government assistance? Eg. education, food etc.
No government assistance that we receive.
What would you need in order to stop hunting?
Just need another option for income to provide for the family.
Do you think it`s appropriate for you and your clan to hunt?
Do you see any negative impact of hunting?
Risks from wild animals and arrests from rangers.
Will you hunt again after you are released from jail?
Describe the moments leading up to your arrest.
We suddenly heard vehicles and on checking out we learnt that we were already surrounded by the rangers. We really feared but had nothing much to do.
Had you heard about the Mara Conservancy`s Tracker Dog Unit?
What was it like for you to be pursued by the rangers and their dogs?
It was horrible with no room to escape.
Later, from my home office in Portland, I dialed Sabaya’s cell phone and asked him what he thought of the hunter’s answers to my questions, and this is what he told me, speaking from Ngiro-are:
I asked them why did they hunt and they said they hunted for food. The leader had one wife and nine children, the other team leader had two wives and two children. They claimed they need to hunt for food and feed their children. They say they are poor and don’t have food for their family. I don’t believe that. I asked them, ‘What else do you do beside hunting?’ They say they are farmers, they grow some crops, so they have food. These guys, the quantity of meat they had, they’re gonna sell the meat to those who aren’t able to come down [and hunt]. This was for commercial purposes. They were going to sell it.
Then I asked Sabaya to describe what had been going through his mind as he was wrestling with that hippo leg in the poacher camp, and he replied:
We try to conserve. We try to make it work. We are putting all these efforts, these resources, this time and energy to conserve, but the poachers are there only to destroy, to kill animals endlessly … It’s bad, it’s nauseating, it’s terrible.
But now because of the efforts of Linda Porter and John Lutenberg and the hounds and the handlers of the Mara Conservancy’s Tracker Dog Unit, the tables have been turned. In the Mara Triangle, the hunters have become the hunted. And perhaps a voracious predator long accustomed to commanding the top of the Mara ecosystem’s food chain will wake one fine morning and discover that it has toppled to the bottom, and that its name has been added to the long roster of endangered species: the bushmeat poacher.
On that day, the rangers will rejoice.