The Fearless Safari Dogs of South Africa

THE WOUNDS from his fight with a baboon weren’t fully healed when Bismark charged the Cape buffalo.

We had spent the day trying to split two satellite bulls from the herd. I had been hired to photograph a plains- and dangerous-game safari in South Africa’s northernmost province of Limpopo, and I was shooting through my telephoto lens as one of the bulls broke from cover and charged.

The hunter shot the buff at 40 yards, then again. Bismark, a wire-haired Jack Russell, stood at heel beside his handler, professional hunter Divan Human. I don’t know how many shots were fired—both by the hunter and the PH—as the buffalo thundered to 15 yards, but it wasn’t dying. That’s when Bismark broke heel and tried to ride it.

A cape buffalo charging a hunter in the foreground.
The charging cape buffalo. Tyler Sladen

As a lifelong hunter, I’ve seen bayed bears and treed mountain lions. As a nuisance wildlife professional, I’ve pulled badgers out of holes and I’ve been face to face with rattlesnakes under houses. Nothing compares to that Cape buffalo charge. They’re called “black death” in South Africa, and I get that now. But the heart of a terrier is unmatched, and Bismark was ready to die for us. 

Bismark is unshakable, but he’s no one-hit wonder. I saw a dozen blood-tracking dogs while on safari this spring; every one was a Jack Russell. The breed was first developed in Britain for fox hunting, and its prevalence in South Africa today is a byproduct of British colonialism. Although I didn’t see any on my trip, Jagd terriers (“jagd” is German for “hunt”) are also popular among South African outfitters.

The cool thing about terriers is they can do a little bit of everything. I’ve owned Jagds for nearly a decade and they’re integral to my nuisance wildlife business in the Southwest. Although it’s no longer commonplace in the U.S., terriers were originally bred for this work. They excel at finding dead animals, locating live ones, and catching critters. Because of all that tenacity packed into a small body, they also have a tendency to get hurt on the job. (As the Jack Russell Terrier Club of South Africa puts it, the “real Jack Russell terrier does not sit on the sidelines of life.”) While PHs here release their dogs on most game tracks, they don’t allow them to trail warthogs, which are notorious for killing dogs. 

tiny but heroic looking jack russell terrier stands in front of downed cape buffalo
Hunter stands beside a blue wildebeest that he tracked through the brush. Jack Russell terriers can have three types of coats: smooth, wiry, or broken, which is a mix of the first two. While Jack Russells in the U.S. are all over the map when it comes to physical and personality traits, the South African dogs are very true to their breed type. And as someone who appreciates working dogs—I own 15, both terriers and bird dogs—this was especially fun to see. Tyler Sladen
long-haired jack russell terrier rests behind truck with gun propped up behind him
Bismark takes a break by the truck. While Jack Russells in the U.S. are all over the map when it comes to physical and personality characteristics, the South African dogs were very true to their breed type. As someone who appreciates dogs—I own nearly a dozen, both working terriers and bird dogs—it was impressive to see such good-looking dogs here. Jack Russell terriers can have three types of coats: smooth, wiry, or broken, which is a mix of the first two. Tyler Sladen

When Bismark was younger, one of Human’s clients shot a big Nile crocodile and Bismark broke at the shot. That’s scary because you’re relying on a client to not shoot your dog, but you also don’t want the animal alive enough to kill your dog. Fortunately it was a good hit, but that’s just how it goes with terriers sometimes: You can’t proof a dog until you put him in situations like that. I saw lots of animals harvested in the three weeks I was there, and only now and then would a dog slip up and break at heel. 

A standard track looked like this: As soon as the shot went off and the PH released his dog, the trackers would run in and try to keep up. Because we were hunting in such thick cover—50-yard shots were far in some cases—you couldn’t see the dog 100 yards away, let alone the kudu that was just shot. It was helpful to hear barking so you could locate him.

jack russell terrier peers out from bed of pickup truck
Whenever you go to the gas station in town or run to the corner store in the Limpopo province, there are PHs from other ranches and outfitters there. And whenever you look in the bed of a parked or idling truck, you’ll find a little Jack Russell. Tyler Sladen
three hunters talk at sunset while dog rests at the feet of one
Bismark rests beside his handler, Divan Human, who discusses plans with Johan Swart (middle) and Divon Retief, co-owners of Thaba-Tala Safaris. South Africa is like the Texas of Africa—and I mean that as a compliment. The men I hunted with aren’t afraid to get dirty or get stuff done. They manage their game just like Texans do (there’s a lot of high fence in South Africa). They all love the outdoors. They love hunting. They love their trucks. And they love their dogs. Tyler Sladen
jack russell terrier, ears flopping with the activity, carries a big stick down a dirt road
The terriers in South Africa are almost exclusively used as blood-tracking dogs. Bismark, however, retrieved a few birds for me and loved it. And like any good dogs, he’s also fond of sticks. Once Bismark got back to camp each day, he would pull bones out of the gut piles and chew on them. The dogs were incredibly well behaved. They never ran off and never really barked unless we were hunting and there was an animal down. They also ate like kings. Tyler Sladen

After a shot the dog was off to the races, and the human tracker was not far behind. And the trackers were incredible. I was skeptical at first. I’ve heard stories of how great they are, but I couldn’t help thinking: I’ve hunted my whole life. How good can these guys really be? What you don’t realize is those trackers hunt year-round except for the rainy season and they track lots of animals every day.

Better yet, the dogs don’t take away from the tracker’s job because often the tracker’s job isn’t just finding downed game—it’s finding live game. South Africans only use their blood dogs for locating animals that have been hit well. 

Fortunately, the Cape buffalo was well hit—several times. In the end, the bull slid to a stop just yards from our feet, with Bismark barking on its back. 

rough-coated jack russell terrier sits atop dead cape buffalo
Bismark sits atop the Cape buffalo that charged us. South Africa has 11 official languages; the most common are Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans, and English (in that order). The dogs I hunted alongside obeyed commands given in Afrikaans. Tyler Sladen
smooth-coated jack russell terrier licks blood from dead impala while hunter holds horn and another looks on
Hunter licks blood off an impala he tracked as his owner, Retief, crouches beside him. Resource guarding isn’t uncommon among tracking dogs, and these Jack Russells would growl if you got too close to an animal they had recovered. These were just typical terrier vocalizations and a typical terrier attitude. They never bit anyone, of course, and they would defer to their handlers. South Africa has 11 official languages. The most common are Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans, and English (in that order). The dogs I hunted alongside obeyed commands given in Afrikaans. Tyler Sladen
hunter and dog walk down dirt road as sunset creates rosy sky
Bismark and Human return to camp after a long day in the field. Most hard-worked terriers are one-person dogs. Don’t get me wrong: They make great family dogs, but if you’re out and about, everyone kind of ceases to exist to your terrier except you. Tyler Sladen

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