Written by: Landia Davies
In a high-tech world where electronic devices infiltrate every sphere of our lives, one often hears about advanced technology being used in conservation efforts – from satellite tracking and GPS mapping to drone surveillance. In the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Virunga National Park conservationists have taken a different approach in the fight against poaching – they got themselves some good old-fashioned bloodhounds.
It all started when chief warden at Virunga, Dr Emmanuel de Merode, heard about the success of bloodhound man-trailing in other parts of the world and decided to try using bloodhounds within the park to help protect its wildlife. De Merode contacted a world-renowned expert in bloodhound man-trailing, Dr. Marlene Zahner, with over 20 years of experience in training bloodhounds for search and rescue as well as crime scene investigation.
Marlene was at first skeptical about the prospect of using bloodhounds to track poachers in such an extreme tropical environment, but agreed to explore the concept and in 2011 arrived at Virunga National Park with six bloodhound puppies.
Bloodhounds, also referred to as man-trailers or people-search dogs, have been bred to track people for centuries. Their highly developed sense of smell enables them to pick up a single scent from clothing, vehicles, tools or poachers’ traps and follow the scent for miles, even when it is days old.
This unique sense of smell, combined with their independent yet loving natures, makes bloodhounds ideal for working alongside rangers to track down poachers and assist with search and rescue operations.
Dr. Marlene Zahner has owned bloodhounds for over 37 years and has been training them for almost 20 years, so bloodhounds are, not surprisingly, her favourite dog. She says, in terms of the training “the dogs are bred to do this, so it’s easier for them. Humans take much longer to learn”.
Back in March 2011 when Marlene arrived at the Rumangabo headquarters in Virunga with six bloodhound puppies, the Congohound Canine Unit was established and the training program began. The unit now consists of 12 people, five of which are dog handlers and seven security members. The head of Section Canine is Christian Shamavu, the oldest and most experienced of the handlers. The dogs include Dodie (the star), Sabrina and Lila (the sisters) and Furaha (joy).
The entire canine unit is involved in training the dogs and members of the defence unit are active participants too. The team of bloodhounds has grown with the addition of two English springer spaniels to help search for contraband. Headed by Londoner David Claridge, the spaniels (Molly and Tumaini) arrived at Virunga in 2013. These spaniels were trained as sniffer dogs in Switzerland and can detect CITES listed items like ivory and bush meat, when inspecting vehicles.
The dedicated and heavily armed rangers of Section Canine work together like a family, committed to their cause. Virunga is still a volatile place with militants and poachers posing a constant threat in certain areas, which means that the rangers are risking their lives daily. There are about 250 rangers working in Virunga and in the last 15 years over 130 rangers have been killed. Dr Emmanuel de Merode himself was shot in April, but has subsequently returned to work. His return reaffirms his deep commitment to Virunga and its continued survival as a stabilising force in the region. Addressing the rangers on his return de Merode said, “no matter what happens, our work must not stop”.
Marlene and police dog trainers (Marzel and Uschi Maierhofer and Swen Busch) share this devotion and commitment, returning to Virunga regularly to work with the park’s man-trailing team. The belief that conservation efforts in Virunga can succeed is evident in the morale of the rangers and those involved with the park. Over the decades of war and unrest, Virunga has not as yet lost a single species to extinction and more recently Soco International, a British based oil company, was persuaded to halt its hunt for oil in Lake Edward.
Through the dedication of its rangers and people who believe in the park, Virunga is not only surviving, but is actually thriving. Marlene fully believes in the project and says, “If Congohounds continues like this, we will succeed. The handlers are all very willing, really listening, strongly motivated, and have a talent with animals. In this place, there’s discipline, something you don’t always find in other places”.
The Congohounds project is a great example of the commitment to maintaining this world heritage site. The project not only improves the park’s ability to apprehend poachers by tracking them from the site of a kill, but also adds some valuable stress relief through engagement with these amazing dogs. It just goes to show that even with rapid technological advances, in a truly global operation, there remains room for man’s best friend to make a difference, even in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Virunga in context
Virunga National Park protects unique habitats and rare animals in the eastern part of the DRC and was thus designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1979. The oldest National Park in Africa, Virunga National Park is home to two of the most endangered animals in Africa – the Okapi (aka zebra giraffe) and the African Mountain Gorilla.
Virunga spans over 300km from north to south, averaging just 23km wide, and is located along the DRC border with Uganda and Rwanda. This over 7800 square kilometres of protected area is home to an abundance of wildlife spread over its diverse habitats. The park covers everything from snowcapped mountains and cloud forests to savannah, even boasting eight volcanoes!
This diverse area has always been linked to the political landscape of the Democratic Republic of Congo, placing it under severe stress since the 1994 Rwandan genocide. For the last 20 years the park has been caught between wars, becoming a zone of conflict itself. Only very recently has the national park’s future started looking up, with tourist numbers rising from zero in 2008 to over 3000 in 2011.
Through the efforts of the Virunga Alliance, the park is now contributing towards the stabilisation of the region. Virunga National Park is serving as a model for sustainable development, agro-industry, and eco-tourism that actively engages with the surrounding communities. “We have to show people that nature conservation can pay and has economic benefits, otherwise Virunga won’t survive,” says Emmanuel de Merode, the park’s director over the last five years.
Read more about dogs in conservation here.