This Women’s Month, we’re celebrating EWT Specialist Conservation Officer, Esther Matthew’s recent achievements!

Esther Matthew is a highly dedicated and motivated conservationist, who aims to become a leader in conservation canine research. She has an aptitude for the application of novel approaches in her work, and has successfully trained Jessie, a Border Collie, to indicate on Riverine Rabbit scent in controlled conditions, and to ignore the scent of other lagomorphs, including Red Rock Rabbits and hares.

Recently, Esther completed a Level 3 Canine Behaviour diploma through the British College of Canine Studies. She also received an Expand the Field women’s skills development grant from National Geographic Society. The grant allowed her the opportunity to successfully complete a five-day Tracking Instructor course, in March, and a Detection Dog Handler Accreditation course in April 2019. The courses were held at the UK College of Scent Dogs Ltd. in the United Kingdom. The grant was used to enhance her skill sets in the training and practical implementation of conservation scent detection dogs. The courses were hosted by the college’s head instructor Dr Robert Hewings. Dr Hewings has over 30 years’ experience in scent dog training, ranging from explosive detection dogs to training diabetic alert dogs, and many more. During both training courses she had the honour of training Rupert, a rescue Cockerpoo dog, from scratch. Using only positive reinforcement, she was able to train Rupert successfully to track human scent and to detect gun oil, providing a sit-indication for the target scent. Preceding the opportunity, Esther only had informal training from professional trainers, mostly South African. Much of her work has been self-taught and experimental. Receiving accreditation at the UK College of Scent Dogs, through the Open Network College,, helps her to be recognised as a legitimate trainer and handler. Esther says, “Obtaining training abroad at this particular college gave me exposure to international thinking and methodology, and created a unique opportunity to network with the international dog training community of experts. I am so grateful for the opportunity!”

When Esther returned from the UK, she started conducting fieldwork with Jessie, both in areas where Riverine Rabbits are currently known to occur, and in areas where historical sightings were reported, to determine the current distribution of the species. On 20 July 2019, Jessie the Border Collie, Esther, and volunteers Hannah Edwards and Frik-Jan de Lange, conducted fieldwork at a site where Riverine Rabbits are known to be found. Jessie picked up the scent of the Riverine Rabbit and directed Esther to the bush under which the rabbit was hiding. Jessie moved around behind the bush and lay down, which is how she indicates that she has located a Riverine Rabbit. The Riverine Rabbit then ran out of the bush, past Esther, and disappeared. Jessie did not pursue the rabbit, instead returning to the bush where she had found the rabbit, and again indicating the location in which the rabbit had been hiding. During this session, Esther and Hannah managed to obtain video footage of Jessie locating the Riverine Rabbit, the first footage of its kind. This exciting footage is evidence that Esther’s training techniques are successful, and that it is possible to train a scent detection dog to locate an endangered species using scent from only roadkill specimens.