Two years on, the young bloodhounds are part of an elite ranger and canine unit known as Congohounds, tasked to help protect Virunga’s wild animals against the heavily armed poachers whose presence makes this one of the world’s most dangerous national parks. The initiative is the first of its kind in Central Africa.
Virunga National Park, on the eastern border of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), is a UNESCO World Heritage Site covering more than 7 800 square kilometres. Its varied habitats support lions, buffaloes, hippos and elephants and, uniquely among national parks everywhere, three great ape species – chimpanzees, eastern lowland gorillas and around 200 of the world’s 800 or so Critically Endangered mountain gorillas.
Over the past two decades, the poaching of nearly all these animals has increased dramatically. The effect on the park’s wildlife has been devastating, especially for hippos and elephants, whose numbers have been decimated. Of the original 29 000 hippos only 1 200 remain, and fewer than 400 elephants survive from the magnificent herds that once numbered 3 000-plus individuals.
It’s not just the wildlife that the poachers turn their weapons on; the rangers are targets too. Since 1996, more than 130 rangers have been killed protecting the animals that live within Virunga and those that pass through it. Others have been kidnapped and mutilated. Although the rangers were armed and had received military training, they clearly required further support to defend the wildlife and to track down the poachers and bring them to justice. It was decided that adding trained dogs to anti-poaching units could significantly reduce the number of wild animals killed and help locate critically injured rangers. Bloodhounds were the answer. And so came Dodi, Sabrina, Lila, Stella and Lilly.
Accompanying the canines was veterinarian Marlene Zähner, one of the world’s top bloodhound trainers. Supported by German volunteers Ursula and Marcel Maierhofer, both crime scene investigation detectives, and police officer Swen Busch, Zähner had started training the Congohounds in May 2011. They simulated criminal and poaching incidents where techniques for photographing and preserving the scene and securing and handling an item with the poacher’s smell on it (called a ‘scent article’) were necessary.
Scent articles stimulate the bloodhound’s amazing sense of smell. Once the dog has fixed the scent, it can isolate it – even if it is 300 hours old –from millions and follow it over very long distances for several days at a time. The process is called ‘man-trailing’.
On arrival in Virunga, Zähner and the dogs were faced with its numerous habitats, so tracking scenarios were recreated in villages, savanna areas, swamps, rainforests and mountains, and on water. Building in intensity, these ongoing sessions develop the unit’s skills further, as Congohounds handler David Nezehose explained. ‘The training exercises are always adapted to [suit the skills of] the team,’ he said. ‘We also change the scent article and the scenario to make sure that everyone is being challenged, including the ranger whose job it is to secure the working environment and protect the dogs and handlers at all times.’
Prospective handlers also spent time in the classroom studying veterinary care, debriefing, report writing, sketching skills and advanced crime scene investigation strategies and tactics. Zähner was impressed with Virunga’s rangers. ‘Handling a bloodhound is difficult and takes a long time to learn,’ she said. ‘The handlers here are all strongly motivated and among the most talented and empathetic I have ever worked with. If it continues like this, we will succeed.’
Little did Zähner know that events in Virunga and eastern DRC would test the skills of the Congohounds just a year into their two-year training programme. On 3 March 2012, Emmanuel de Merode, director of the park, was doing an aerial reconnais- sance when he spotted an elephant car- cass, a victim of ivory poachers. Alerting stand-by rangers, he also called out the Congohounds for what he described as ‘a big step, their first anti-poaching operation before completing full training’.
The dogs and their trainers arrived at the scene the next morning. The sight that faced them was brutal and horrific; the elephant’s face had been grotesquely hacked off to access its tusks. It had been dead for about five days and little was left by way of evidence: just a few broken branches and tracks trodden over by lions and hyaenas attracted to the rotting flesh.
The carcass was used as the scent item and the dogs picked up the by now cold trail. They followed it for seven kilo- metres, closing in on Nyakakoma, a fishing village where the poachers were hiding out. Rangers later made armed contact with the suspects, who fled, leaving a cache of illegal weapons.
The Congohounds’ success demonstrated the effectiveness of their training and also cemented their role in what De Merode described as ‘protecting Virunga’s vulnerable elephant popula- tion as demands for ivory increase glob- ally’. Indeed, an increasing number of elephants are being slaughtered for their tusks throughout Africa by well-armed criminal rings, which sell the ivory lucratively, especially to Asia. In Virunga alone, 500-plus elephants have been killed since 2008.
Unfortunately, the rise in elephant poaching isn’t the only challenge Virunga has had to face. In April 2012, just a month after the Congohounds’ first deployment, the M23 rebel movement started fighting government forces in the park, shattering the fragile peace that had been established in 2008 after the civil war in eastern DRC. No longer able to guarantee the safety of tourists, the authorities closed parts of the sanctuary.
By the next month, the violence had spread into the park and its gorilla sectors. Various militia groups, including Congolese anti-government rebels, Ugandan insurgents and displaced Rwandan forces implicated in the 1994 genocide in that country, established themselves in camps in the bush. They carried out sustained artillery offensives against ranger quarters and killed animals to fill their bellies and raise funds for new weapons.
It has also been reported that one rebel group, working with a very small number of rangers who have defected from the park, is boosting its insurgency income by offering unofficial gorilla treks to tourists. De Merode has condemned this development in the strongest terms as ‘putting the gorillas and the visitors at risk’. The situation in Virunga, which is still closed to visitors, has descended to a level of lawlessness that has seen yet more rangers killed or wounded as well as the temporary evacuation of villagers inside the park.
Despite this, and with bombs dropping around them, the training of the Congohounds continues. When it has been too dangerous to venture into the bush, further veterinary and tactical studies have been focused on in the classroom. Motivated and determined, the dog units are on permanent standby to protect the incredible wildlife of a unique national park that is Africa’s oldest World Heritage Site. And against myriad complicated and deadly threats, none of its own making, Virunga needs its Congohounds more than ever.
© Words: Sara Evans. First published in Africa Geographic September 2013
© Images: Sara Evans, LuAnne Cadd, Marlene Zähner and Virunga National Park.
Source: Sara Evans